Harriett Powers: Quilting Folk Artist

Discussion in 'Honoring Black Ancestors' started by cherryblossom, Oct 29, 2009.

  1. cherryblossom

    cherryblossom Banned MEMBER

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    http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-2577

    Harriet Powers
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    Harriet Powers is one of the best-known southern African American quilt makers, even though only two of her quilts, both of which she made after the Civil War (1861-65), survive today. One is part of the National Museum of American History collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The second quilt is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. The cotton quilts consist of numerous pictorial squares depicting biblical scenes and celestial phenomena. They were constructed through appliqué and piecework and were hand and machine stitched.

    Powers was born into slavery near Athens on October 29, 1837, and lived more than half her life in Clarke County, mainly in Sandy Creek and Buck Branch. The first of the Powers quilts was displayed in 1886 at a cotton fair in Athens,

    Bible Quiltwhere Jennie Smith, an artist and art teacher at the Lucy Cobb Institute, a school for elite white females in Athens, saw it. She asked to purchase it from Powers, but Powers declined to sell it. Smith remained in touch with Powers, however, and five years later Powers, having financial difficulties, agreed to sell the quilt for five dollars. At the time of the sale Powers explained the imagery in the squares, and Smith recorded the descriptions along with additional comments of her own.

    The history of the second quilt is less clear. One account indicates that the wives of Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) faculty members saw the first quilt in the Cotton States Exhibition in Atlanta in 1895 and decided to commission a second quilt by Powers. Another account suggests that the second quilt was purchased by the same faculty wives who may have seen it at the Nashville, Tennessee, Exposition in 1898. Regardless, the faculty wives presented the quilt to the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall of New York in 1898, while he was serving as the chairman of the board of trustees at Atlanta University. Subsequently, the folk art collector Maxim Karolik acquired it from Hall's heirs and donated it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

    Powers's quilts are remarkable for their bold use of appliqué for storytelling and for their extensive documentation. Her use of technique and design demonstrates African and African American influences. The use of appliquéd designs to tell stories is closely related to artistic practices in the republic of Benin, West Africa. The uneven squares suggest the syncopation found in African American music.

    Only one image of Powers herself survives. .... Powers's interpretations of both quilts have survived, though they are likely influenced by their recorders. Powers herself probably was illiterate and may have used the quilts as visual teaching tools for telling biblical stories.

    In January 2005 Cat Holmes, a doctoral student in history at the University of Georgia, discovered the grave of Harriet Powers, as well as that of Powers's husband and daughter. The headstone, which was uncovered at the historic Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens, reveals that Powers died on January 1, 1910.

    She was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement in 2009.
     
  2. cherryblossom

    cherryblossom Banned MEMBER

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    Harriet's first quilt is part of the Smithsonian's American History Museum, her second Bible quilt, as mentioned above, is now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Both quilts are beautifully reproduced, panel by panel, in a book by Mary E. Lyons called "Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers," along with commentary and quotations from descriptions given by Mrs. Powers (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1993). See also "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad," by Jacquiline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard (Anchor Books, 2000)

    In regard to the first 11-panel quilt (see its first panel above depicting "Adam & Eve Naming the Animals"), Mary E. Lyons tells of a circus that came through Athens soon after the Civil War, with animals similar to those in the quilt. The animal style, according to many writers, is also influenced by African iconographic traditions.

    Lyons shows also how the different sizes of the quilt blocks in each row actually tap out a synchopated musical pattern found in 19th c. African-American music.

    Harriet Powers could neither read nor write but she knew the Bible stories from singing Negro spirituals and from sermons given by local preachers. Here we see the Biblical story of "Adam and Eve Naming the Animals," including, according to Lyons, three camels, an elephant, an ostrich, a sea monster and a serpent. The seemingly unusual serpent-like form (which also appears in panel 4 above) is actually a detailed rendering of a salamander (a colorful, lizard-like amphibian, harmless to humans) as can be seen by a comparison to the illustration below (from Encarta 97 CD-ROM). Notice how the artist has faithfully kept the eyes the same yellow-orange color as the markings -- the skin pattern would vary according to the individual creature.

    Each panel in Harriet Powers' quilts tells a story of its own and can be viewed and studied like a painting. And so although we have only two quilts, they are comprised of 26 panels in all, eleven for the first and fifteen for the second. Mrs. Powers' art is truly powerful and yet playful, warmly innocent and yet full of spiritual wisdom -- her panel-stories are rightly credited as masterworks of American folk art.

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