Friday, August 6, 2010

more thoughts on art

Recently while my step-son was visiting--and yes, it is amazing how grown up he has become--but that's a different story--he showed me some new holes on a quilt in the guest bedroom that he uses during his visits.

"Is this yours Ann?" he asked. "What do you want to do with it?"

I look at the quilt--a simple Irish Double Chain in green and white. I know it well. For years it had been on my parents' bed.

It was made I believe by my grandmother--not the one who made the oak quilt I previously wrote about-- ( Granny never would have used such large stitches or such a simple design--but my mother's mother. The one I called Grandmother. She had a halo of white hair. Always soft spoken. I never knew her that well--she died when I was in eighth grade. This is Granny and Grandmother together--I'm sure you can figure out who is who.

I know that compared with Granny I always thought she lacked "pizazz". One year she gave my sister and me a paint by number kit with colored pencils. How frustrated we were that she would color hers so softly we had to go back over it to get it to look nice and bright. In retrospect I am sure she thought she was spending very special time with us.

After all she had gone to the Art Institute in Chicago after high school. This is one of her early paintings--technically OK but just a study.

Back then the Art Institute was viewed as a finishing school for young ladies so they could marry "successfully". There were upwards of 900 gentlewomen there learning to paint flowers and scenes.  I know this from reading Georgia O'Keefe's biography--how she chafed at the restrictions placed on  girls and insisted she take classes with the young men who were studying to be serious artists. I am sure that if Grandmother was there at the same time--and there is a strong possibility that she was--Georgia would have sneered at her.

Indeed after Grandmother  met her husband--a successful grocer--I don't believe she ever painted again. She was busy raising her 3 daughters and meeting with her friends at the Mercredi Club--lunch every Wednesday for close to fifty years. It was during this time she made the Irish Chain Quilt--not for any need for artistic expression nor because she needed to make a quilt for warmth--they were fairly well to do city folks. No, she did it to spend time with her daughters and her friends. The quilt was a social affair--an excuse to get together and talk.

Then she gave it to my Mother--the middle daughter--the city girl--to take to her new home on a farm  50 miles away. Once a year Grandmother would come down to visit--not much to do but see her daughter and grand children. She slept on a sofa in the living room with a screen to give her a modicum of privacy. During the days she would sit on the porch and count the white cars that went by on highway--I kid you not. As I said, I thought she lacked pizazz. Yes, that's me in the picture--doesn't she look happy?

After I became a quiltmaker my mother used to remind me that I came from a line of quiltmakers on both side of the family. I confess that at first I used to role my eyes. Granny was a quiltmaker--her quilts were art--but Grandmother--hmm not really.

As I grew older and learned more about her,  my opinion of Grandmother grew. It turned out she was actually quite the business woman. While she had been raised to keep a home going, when the grocery store business needed her help, she was there. Cheerfully greeting the customers and doing whatever was required of her.  After that store failed during the Great Depression, she helped my Grandfather open a candy and nut store. Remember there were three daughters to raise--what's a business failure when there are mouths to feed.  Indeed she made it successful enough that they could open another store in  a nearby city for her oldest daughter--my aunt--and her husband to run when they needed work. I don't believe Grandmother ever complained about the hard work except maybe at the Mercredi Club..

The quilt followed my parents when they sold the farm and moved further south. It was on their bed during their last illnesses. There is something very honest about the quilt--it never pretended to be artistic. It was meant to decorate a bed and provide memories of good times and it served its purposes well. While I could theoretically fix the obvious holes, I know deep in my heart that  it is too worn. Too stained with time. Yet, I cannot bear to  throw it away. Instead I will keep it quietly folded in the closet. Take it out every once in a while to remember a life that was lived with patience and perseverance and so much grace. A halo of white hair. After all, one of the reasons I like to make quilts is because everyone can relate to them. Some quilts are meant to be art and hung on walls. Some quilts are meant to be put on a bed and respected for the time and love that went into making them. This quilt has encompassed a lot of memories and deserves to spend the remaining days of its life resting comfortably.

And what about you? Do you have quilts that aren't "art"? Do you agree that these quilts also deserve respect?

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