Examining Quilt Legacies

ACTA - Posted on 03 November 2010

Share this

Cuesta's Choice, by Hazel Carter, was made for Cuesta Benberry at the time of her induction to the Quilter's Hall of Fame.By Marion Coleman

Editor's Note: Last month, with support from ACTA's Traditional Arts Development Program, quilter Marion Coleman attended Unpacking Collections: The Legacy of Cuesta Benberry—A Symposium on Research and Using Quilt History Collections held at Michigan State Univerity Museum.  In the following article, Marion discusses her experience at the symposium and shares some of the quilts she studied.

Quilters from around the country met at Michigan State University Museum in early October to explore the impact of collections on quilting and research during Unpacking Collections:  The Legacy of Cuesta Benberry—A Symposium on Research and Using Quilt History Collections.  The symposium was a visual and educational acknowledgement of the university's receipt of Ms. Benberry's collection of documents and quilts.  For nearly 50 years, Ms. Benberry, a teacher and librarian, made significant contributions to the world of quilting through her lectures, workshops, writing, and research.  After being introduced to quilting by the women of her husband’s family, she developed a lifelong love of quilting and expanded that passion to include collecting quilts, quilt patterns, and other quilt ephemera.

Filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist Lauren Cross opened the symposium with the documentary The Skin Project, which explores skin color in African American personal stories and quilt imagery.  Quilters primarily from the south and east voiced their memories of color identification and discrimination and the impact these memories have on their work.  Quilters of the Blue Triangle Quilt Guild in Houston, Texas, lead the way by discussing skin tones in their quilts.  Some quilters have decided to use black only while others use various shades of brown to represent African Americans in their quilts.  Through the interviews the audience gains a fuller understanding of the quilting circle and the valuable role sewing circles/quilting guilds play in providing support and encouragement in continuing the tradition.  A touching moment came as one quilter remarked “when the world is being mean to you, you can wrap up in the quilt and have pieces of your past.”  The film demonstrates how quilters can help a community preserve itself and replace what may have been deleted.

One of many highlights of the symposium included an African American and African Quilt Collections Behind the Scenes Tour.  I am honored to have one of my quilts included in the collection and it was exciting to see other works by fellow quilters.  My tour group and I were able to tour other collections including works by Native Americans, textiles from Africa, fashions, hats, shoes and masks.  It was informative to see how materials are cataloged and carefully preserved.

"Petrol Queue," a quilt by Harare Patchwork & Quilting Guild, is a part of the Michigan State University Museum's extensive quilt collection.  A way of life for everyone living in Zimbabwe is queuing -- for petrol, milk, bread, banking, transport -- the list is endless.  This quilt shows a petrol queue and the good nature shown by people in the queue.  Depending on the availability of fuel folk may queue for a few days.Dynamic speakers rounded out the event by exploring a range of topics about collections.  Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, founder of Women of Color Quilters Network, showcased works from members of the Network that were created from the organization’s inception, in 1985, to 2009.  Dr. Mazloomi is a nationally acclaimed artist, curator, and author who promotes and preserves quilt making among African American women and men.  As a member of the Network, I have had numerous opportunities to exhibit my work nationally and internationally. Imagery of quilts within the collection demonstrates the diversity of styles and interests of quilters within the community.

Fellow African American Quilt Guild of Oakland member and UC-Davis Vice Provost of Undergraduate Studies, Dr. Patricia A. Turner, informed us about the legacy of Cuesta Benberry.  She points out that Ms. Benberry was methodical in her research and actively sought venues for her publications.  One of her best known works, Always There: The African American Presence in American Quilts, was published when she was 69.  I personally found this encouraging for my own writing aspirations.  In this groundbreaking work, Ms. Benberry countered previously help perceptions about the style of African American quilts.  Of course, Dr. Turner is also a well-respected quilt scholar whose recent work, Crafted Lives: Stores and Studies of African American Quilters, documents the lives and work of California quilters and others across the country.  My personal story is included in this collection.  Like so many of us, she wants to know the quilters and the narratives behind the quilts they make.

No presentation about the legacy of African American quilts would be complete without acknowledging the work of former slave Harriet Powers (1837-1910) who made two Bible Quilts.  One is included in the Smithsonian's collection.  Quilter and author Kyra Hicks excited us with her investigative research into the life and quilts of Harriet Powers.  Her research challenged us to explore the work of other quilters in our history whose stories have yet to be told.

There is much more to keeping the quilting tradition alive than just the quilts themselves.   Merikay Waldvogel, who has been a board member of the America Quilt Study Group and the Alliance of American Quilts, pointed this out as she documented her journey into collecting and maintaining all things related to quilts.  These materials are invaluable to quilt researchers now and in the future.  In 1992, Ms. Waldvogel, a friend and protégé of Cuesta Benberry, acquired over 100 boxes of quilt ephemera that belonged to Mildred Dickerson, a collector from Alabama.  These materials continue to be a source of research and inspiration to her and others.  She reminds to keep the paper as well as the quilts to have a complete story of the tradition.

The symposium stimulated my thinking and served as a gateway to begin exploring quilt collections, documents, and other avenues of research about the African American quilt and the people who make them.  Men and women now and in the past used fiber and thread to present their experiences and explore the world around them.  Now the challenge is to venture into my own past and see what I can find.

Additional information Cuesta Benberry Quilt Collection can be found at http://museum.msu.edu/glqc/collections_sample_benberry.html.

Additional information about Marion Coleman can be found at http://www.marioncoleman.com and http://marioncoleman.blogspot.com.

The author thanks Michigan State University Museum and Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi for the use of the images of quilts in their collections.

ACTA's Comment Disclaimer

Thanks for your article.  I was there for the behind the scences look at the MSU colection. I found the event the highlight of my 14 year quilting experience,  I attended with Nannette Locke and Joanne Walton of the Rocky Mountain WaShonaji Quilt Guild in Denver,   There was so much to see and learn fron the authors, presenters, Dr. Turner, Dr. Mazloomi, Ms. Hicksa and other dynamic quilters.  I want to return to MSU and assist in researching some of the quilts in the extensive collection. Sewfully,

Dr Adrienne N. Bryant, African American Quilters and Collector Guild of Denver.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Examining Quilt Legacies


Afro-American Women and Quilts is the only quilt that Cuesta Benberry made.  In every block in this sampler quilt, Cuesta uses a visual symbol to pay tribute to quilts made by different African-American quiltmakers.  Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum.


Filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist Lauren Cross lectures about her 2010 documentary, The Skin Project.  Photo: Marion Coleman


Lady's Shoe Quilt, by Fanny Cork.  Cuest Benberry believes Fanny Cork, her husband's grandmother, cut the shoe shapes without using a pattern.  The Payless Shoe Company used this quilt in an advertising campaign.  Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum.


Black Family Series #1: The Family of 3, a quilt by Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi.  Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi is acknowledged as being among the most influential African-American quilt historians and quilting artists of the twenty-first century.  Photo courtesy of the Michigan State University Museum.


W.P.A. Tulip, a quilt by Minnie Benberry, Cuesta Benberry’s mother-in-law.  Photo courtesy of Michigan State Univeristy Museum.


Cuesta's Choice, by Hazel Carter, was made for Cuesta Benberry at the time of her induction to the Quilter's Hall of Fame.  Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum.


Joseph's Coat of Many Colors, by the Freedom Quilting Bee, a cooperative of quilters from Gee's Bend, Alabama.  Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum.


Little Brown Koko, a quilt by Jeannie Cuddy.  Cuesta Benberry was interested in collecting all aspects of quiltmaking, even when the quilts depicted offensive stereotypes.  The designs in this quilt were inspired by a series of stories about a small boy that were published in the 1930s-40s in the magazine Household.  Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum.


Pinwheel Flower, circa 1860, is believed to have been made by a former slave.  Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Museum.