Wedding Ring. Sunburst. Pinecone. Lone Star. Honeycomb. Patchwork quilting is a craft based on patterns, a form of folk art that sees scraps of fabric worked into intricately-designed bed coverings—a meeting of thrift and vision. A traditional mother-daughter venture, this enduring version of “loving hands at home” has produced works of art through the centuries, as we see in our museums. The image of the honeycomb, with its suggestion of quilting bees and busy hands working in concert, captures the communal hive of many patchwork quilts. And then there are the lone stars, women like Harriet Powers, who was born a slave in Georgia, was freed at the end of the Civil War, and began making quilts while raising nine children. Two of these quilts survive and they are masterpieces.
Powers lived from 1837 to 1910 and was a contemporary of Harriet Tubman. In her hands the quilt became a site of poetic transport, possessing the negative space, the homespun surrealism, of verse by Emily Dickinson (another American contemporary). The Smithsonian Museum holds Powers’s Bible Quilt (1886); her Pictorial Quilt (1898) is at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. In both, the storytelling that Powers pulls from piecework 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.