Quilts and coverlets have always been a feature in folk art museums, but increasingly they’re the subject of exhibitions in mainstream museums. This show looks at the stories these patchwork pieces tell, and the ways they reflect American history. Works in the show date back to the 1600s and come up to the present day. A special draw are the two surviving quilts made by Harriet Powers (1837–1910), displayed together for the very first time since they were made by the artist in the 1800s. Powers was born a slave in Georgia, was freed at the end of the Civil War, and began making quilts while raising nine children. In her hands the quilt became a site of poetic transport, possessing the negative space, the homespun surrealism, of verse by Emily Dickinson (a contemporary). The Smithsonian Museum holds Powers’s Bible quilt (1886); the Pictorial quilt (1898) lives here, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. In both, the storytelling that Powers pulls from patchwork and appliqué—captured in square chambers like the cinema to come—draws upon African and African-American influences. Her sense of silhouette rivals any cutout by Matisse. —L.J.
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