The Bible Quilt as American Icon

Last week I blogged a bit about podcasts (btw, I’m still interested in any and all recommendations for quilting and/or arts & culture podcasts!) and mentioned that one of my favorites is Studio 360. I love plugging in my iPod on my drive home from work and listening to the exceptionally smart and entertaining Kurt Andersen explore culture, both high and pop, in fresh and enlightening ways.

Studio 360 is in the middle of its latest American Icons series, which examines “some of the fundamental works that define American culture,” ranging from Monticello to The House of Mirth (including its impact on “Sex and the City”) to “I Love Lucy” to an upcoming episode on Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” They’ve been soliciting suggestions from listeners for an additional episode, so earlier this week I went to their website and entered Harriet Powers’s Bible Quilt for consideration. As I wrote in my short description, “While quilting was brought to America by Europeans, ‘patchwork’ is now known the world over as an American art & craft with a rich history. The stories of thousands of women, their families, and their communities are only known to us via the quilts they created. If you have to pick just one, the story of Harriet Powers is a bridge between eras, continents, folk art and commerce, and even technology.”

bible quilt The Bible Quilt as American Icon

Bible Quilt by Harriet Powers

Do I expect that they’ll choose a quilt from the many suggestions they’ve already received, including Watts Towers, Walden Pond, Bugs Bunny, and Springsteen’s “Thunder Road?” Not really, although I think the quilt as an icon of American culture is as valid a suggestion as any other. But just in case the Studio 360 producers are reading this blog, here are some of my ideas.

  • Interview Kyra Hicks, author of This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (Black Threads Press, 2009), who was also the subject of an article in the Dec/Jan 2010 issue of QN.
  • Visit the Lyndon House Arts Center in Athens, Georgia,  currently hosting the exhibit “Hands That Can Do” in honor of the centenary of Powers’s death.
  • Because the Bible Quilt was both hand- and machine-stitched, not to mention bound by machine, I’d suggest a brief discussion of the availability and economics of the sewing machine in the 1880s, particularly among African-Americans in the South.
  • Up to a certain point, the Bible Quilt was an object of commerce among and scholarship by women—Jennie Smith purchased the quilt and obtained the story from Harriet Powers, and was in turn approached by another woman (Lorene Diver) who wanted to buy the quilt and had it professionally photographed. We know so little about women in business from that era, but this has got to be just one example of women creating opportunities for themselves in a society that actively discouraged them from doing so.
  • One fact that Kyra Hicks uncovered is that Harriet Powers was literate, disputing earlier unfounded assertions that she was illiterate. Why are we as a culture so quick to assume that a former slave couldn’t read? Does it lessen the Bible Quilt’s value as genuine folk art if we know that Harriet Powers promoted herself, and that she understood her value as an artist and seamstress?
  • Considering that there is credible scholarship supporting the theory that Harriet Powers was directly influenced by textile art from the Dahomey region of West Africa (The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts by John Michael Vlach, Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978), how about talking to a contemporary West African artist who’s well-versed in traditional art forms? Also, how would Harriet, who was born in the U.S., have been taught the African applique technique, and by whom? What influence, if any, has she had on contemporary American artists? (I had a fleeting notion that perhaps Keith Haring saw her work early in his art education, but I think that was just wishful thinking on my part.)

John Michael Vlach, in describing Harriet Powers’s appliqued figures, also sums up the connection between the Bible Quilt and Studio 360’s series: “They express the essence of a being or object; they are icons.” For me, the Bible Quilt expresses the essence of American quilting: women’s artistic expression and commerce in the public sphere through what, on the surface, might appear an attempt at “mere” homemaking.

Actually, I’m sure the Studio 360 producers could think of many more interesting and inventive angles if they were to take on the Bible Quilt. So whaddya say, Kurt Andersen? You’ve got my e-mail address–let me know if you want to talk.

About Mary Kate Karr-Petras

Mary Kate is an associate editor at Quilters Newsletter.
This entry was posted in Mary Kate Karr-Petras, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Bible Quilt as American Icon

  1. Harriet Powers is one of my favorite quilt makers and her works have been an inspiration to me when creating my own. I am an African American quilt maker from Freestone County Texas. I invite you to visit and follow our blog at http://www.quiltstoriesbysherryann.blogspot.com. Enjoy!!! http://www.quiltstoriesbysherryann.blogspot.com.

  2. Mary Kate Karr-Petras says:

    Sherry, thank you for your comment! I loved checking out your site, reading about your family, and looking at your amazing quilts.

  3. al says:

    I’m trying to locate a copy of the “Bible Quilt” or “Pictorial Quilt” patterns.

  4. Mary Kate Karr-Petras says:

    Hi al. I did a quick Google search for “bible quilt powers pattern” and a few results looked like they might have what you’re looking for. I can’t vouch for any of them so I’m not posting them here, but perhaps you’ll find what you’re looking for with a similar search. Best of luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>