Metropolitan Museums

Protest Quilts

Joslyn Museum, Omaha, November 2018

I drove across Kansas, up into Nebraska and on to the Missouri River. We rode our bikes along the creek that I grew up near, when it was a stinking puddle next to railroad tracks and the Interstate. We rode a bike path that is half my age at best. As we rested from a hill – there are many in Omaha, a forested city next to the river, not at all like the flattened land of rural farms to the west of it – we met world travelers who hoped for a change in their political leadership. They felt their hope was futile, and were proven correct.

Change has been good for Omaha. I’d never seen the Missouri River as a kid, except occasionally to drive over a bridge into Iowa. It smelled and the banks were clouded by industrial waste and inventorie —  the shitty look of a place that people had abandoned to not caring. Cities like Omaha wanted to design buildings that were as cool as their big brother city, Chicago, had done, but there were and still are today so many places that civic eyes ignore.

Why does a Wal-Mart, a Budweiser distribution center need to be so ugly? You ask yourself that many times as you drive through the great plains. Where people have gotten together to form a city, we done a little better, at least in recent history. Since I left home, Omaha has done great things with the riverfront. A bike path follows along it for a couple miles, although some of it is just a sidewalk, and there are only a few pieces of public land that are open and parklike. One is the base of the Bob Kerry Bridge – a non-car bridge to Iowa. Travelers over it can actually see the river. There are big business’s campuses along it. One, ConAgra left town after taking up all this space for their pod-like, low-height office buildings. Fine with me, just don’t let the next owner build theirs 50 stories tall. Or better yet, turn it into a college. A public one. And then elect state representatives who will fund it properly.

Our destination, the reason we set out on our bikes, was Joslyn Art Museum. One man we met on the path offered to show us how to navigate Dodge St – the main street of Omaha, on which Joslyn is situated between midTown and downTown. He wanted to keep the status quo and wouldn’t engage in political discussion. My husband asked why he wasn’t watching the Nebraska game, and he said he can’t watch, if he does he jinxes the team and they loose. (Should this belief in superstition disqualify him from voting? I think, maybe so.)

Quilts hung in the gallery dedicated to changing exhibitions. Many made before women could vote were labeled by date and place and the maker was rarely named. The style of quilt, the larger patterns, have names like wedding ring, or star, or compass. These names just describe the pattern, associate it with a known object in order to describe it to other quilters. These old quilts were made well before modern art, well before art could be non-representational, but here they are hanging in a museum and being about nothing but pattern, form and color like Abstract Expressionism.

These abstract objects would have taken up more visual space in a persons house than any painting they were likely to have.  And if an American family had the money for paintings there were usually portraits of some family member. Maybe a landscape made by a family member.  These quilts influence the aesthetic spirit of the families who lived with them, and like art they make an effort to educate our perception and judgement.  To me, these women are behaving with precise attention to detail and quality and harmony of composition.  They are not pressing their names, certainly not putting it on buildings or even laws.  They had no political power but they believed in a politics of good judgement. And as they have persisted, I find them courageous.

The show was organized by the first museum in the country to show quilts as art, a museum started by a woman and located in Shelburne, Vermont.

Pattern and Purpose: American Quilts from Shelburne Museum
On view in Omaha, at the Joslyn Art Museum from 10/6/2018 – 1/6/2019.

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