Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts

Joanna S. Roses’s husband asked her what she would like for her 80th birthday. Her response “to see something she hadn’t seen before and to give something to the City of New York” was the catalyst for the visually striking exhibit which is taking place at the Park Avenue Armory over the course of five days.

Presented by the American Folk Art Museum, this exhibit couldn’t be more aptly named. Infinite Variety succinctly captures the concept and the glory in this exhibit. Joanna Rose began collecting red and white quilts in the 50’s when they could be had for small sums at flea markets and tag sales. Over the years she amassed a collection o 650+. Stored in a cedar closet (a big cedar closet I bet), she had never seen her quilts all together on display nor had she catalogued them. She simply accumulated amazing examples of the quilts created and used by families in everyday life.

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I am so in awe of the vision Joanna Rose had to begin collecting these quilts. Back then no one regarded them as an artistic expression. Yet, she saw the fascination and the artistry and she just kept amassing examples of this artistry. Did she know that red and white was such a dominant color scheme because the red dye was more colorfast than any other colors? Or was she simply arrested by the contrast in the colors? Did she think that someday this would be an immensly valuable collection or was she merely entranced with each new example of a creative vision? I would love to sit and talk to her about this. I would love to have had some sort of analogous brilliance.

The Park Avenue Armory is a tremendous setting for this exhibit. It’s dark and cavernous interior is a brilliant counterpoint to the bright contrast of the red and white quilts. Hanging in spirals from the vaulted ceiling, no two quilts are alike and the visual impact is dazzling. The quilts hang in the air-filled with the vibrant, electric tension of the patterns and color contrast. It is breath-taking, riveting and deeply affecting. The exhibit design and lighting are incomparable.

There is so much to consider in looking at this bounty. The thousands and thousands of hours spent stitching. The countless conversations between friends and neighbors over daily activities and the trials of life. The hopes, dreams and defeats which must have been catalogued over decades as women sat together creating and actualizing an artistic vision which was, at the time, manifestly disregarded. The idea that women could take scraps of cloth and fashion them into something at once so utilitarian and yet so beautiful. The incredible breadth of artistic expression which could manifest itself despite the constants of red and white fabric. The idea that such things of beauty could have for so long been considered nothing more than an old blanket. Joanna said often the quilts she found were used to wrap more “valuable” items purchased at the flea markets.

Quite obviously this exhibit was a total delight to me. And I wasn’t alone. It was joyous to watch the other visitors taking in the dynamic and exhilarating visual display. Stepping back to take in the enormous room exploding with designs in red and white and then stepping forward to examine closely the consummate detail of stitching or embroidery. I will never forget it. I think I have to go back before it is gone Wednesday. I could have stayed for hours taking in the glorious sights.


One Comment to “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts”

  1. That exhibit sounds just incredible. I’m sorry I couldn’t see it but your pictures and description was the next best thing. Thanks

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