BYU exhibit features African-American quilts

Quilting has been part of American landscape for centuries, but each culture has taken the art form and made it its own.

The quilts you see in "From Heart to Hand: African American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts" at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art are "very different from the quilts that many Utahns make," says Paul L. Anderson, MOA curator for the show. Yet, they have a folk-art quality, a homespun charm that makes them appealing, he says.

"These quilts are done with a certain freedom from the rules. There's a sense that quilting is less about precision than putting it together."

In recent years, there's been a lot of interest in the quilts that have been produced in some of Alabama's very small, very rural towns such as Gee's Bend, Eutaw and others, says Anderson. Most of the 31 quilts in this show were done in the 1980s and '90s. They tend to use bold colors and somewhat random designs. If a quilt turns out with more blocks on one side than the other, no problem. "Some play off traditional patterns such as the log cabin and Lone Star, but they go in different directions."

But, he adds, "the more you look at them, the more interesting they get." A quilt by Nora Ezell called "Star Puzzle," for example, has stars of all different sizes exploding everywhere. "Bars and Blocks" by Mary Maxlion "has random strips of colors, but your eye wants to make patterns out of the black squares or out of the yellow ones," says Anderson.

Many of the quilts use scraps and materials at hand. Catherine Somerville's quilt made from worn denim patches "embodies a sense of hard labor and frugality."

But Ezell actually bought fabric for one of her quilts, a bag of neckties that cost 75 cents. It took her 160 hours to put them together in flower-like clumps decorated with beads and spangles for "Nora's Necktie Flower Garden."

And Mary Lee Bendolf's "Strings" has a very sophisticated design that was used on a postage stamp, says Anderson.

The show features 12 quilts by Yvonne Wells, and they are a delight, says Anderson. "She apparently tried to make quilts like those she had seen and then had an epiphany that she could make them her own way. She started making story quilts."

The quilts in the show tell of both religious and Civil Rights stories. One of the popular ones interprets the 10 Commandments. "People love looking at how she illustrates them," says Anderson. For example, for not taking the Lord's name in vain, Wells has "this ugly black coming out of the mouth. I also love how she numbered the commandments — with numbers from a tape measure."

Wells has done a tribute to Helen Keller, who also came from her home town of Tuscaloosa, creating a figure without eyes and a Braille alphabet made of snaps. A "Self-portrait" done after 9/11 shows her making a new flag, with children bringing the stars. "It's really very hopeful," says Anderson.

One of his favorite quilts is "Put on the Whole Armor of God." "I negotiated that one into the show because BYU is one place everyone would be familiar with that. Her quilt has the warrior stomping on the devil much like you see St. George and the dragon."