March 22, 2012

Esprit Collection at the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum

I had the bittersweet pleasure of viewing all 82 Amish quilts in the Esprit Collection at the Lancaster Quilt and Textile Museum.  I was taken by surprise when I walked into the main gallery and was uncharacteristically moved to tears by the visual and emotional impact of the display.
Due to economic challenges in this brutal economy, the museum is closing and the collection is going into storage.  They are making the best of a bad situation and establishing an endowment for the preservation of the collection.  You can read more, and contribute if you are inclined, on their website here.  Several of these masterpieces have been deemed National Endowment for the Humanities National Treasures, and justifiably so.  I am cautiously optimistic that at some point an appropriate new home will be found for them.  They deserve to be in a venue where they can be accessible and admired by all.

This parting gift, this (hopefully temporary) last hurrah, displayed the quilts creatively and effectively, including a rotating set in the middle of the gallery.  You can see my short video of the effect here:

These quilts speak to me on several levels.  Their graphic appeal is undeniable.

The sophisticated handling of a limited color palette is superb.  The colors of the cloth used for clothing, and subsequently the quilts, had to be approved by the church bishops. 

But it’s the glimpse into the lives of the women who made them that truly resonates with me.
I was born and raised in a small rural community in central Pennsylvania, originally populated by German and Swiss immigrants who fled religious persecution in the late 1600 and early 1700’s.  They established farms and small villages and proceeded for generations to live a life very similar to the one they left behind.

My people were not Anabaptists, but apart from that subtle distinction their lives were not very different from that of the Amish.  Modern conveniences, when they came, were slow to change the traditional ways of doing things.  Patriarchal family structure, agricultural and tradesmen economies, self reliance, clannishness and the adaptation of the German language -- speaking PA “Dutch”--were more than just cultural vestiges in the years of my childhood.  I was imbued with a tremendously strong work ethic--industriousness has served my people, and myself, very well.


So I understand a bit of what life was like for the women who made these quilts.  It can be a wonderful life, rich and full of nurturing relationships, with the work and the rewards shared by all.  One of the guiding principles of this type of society is the emphasis on being “plain”, of conforming, of subverting the individual ego and its expression to the greater good of the community. It’s a tenet of religious faith as well as a cultural ethos, and the desire to conform to it is deep and meaningful for the devout.  And despite the patriarchal structure, women are valued, cherished, and empowered in their sphere of influence within the home and especially in their role as mothers.
The other side of the coin is that it can be a very constrained life for those who yearn for a broader view of the world not sanctioned by the rules and practices of the closed group.  The opportunities for self expression in this type of society are limited in the same way that the approved color palette is limited.  Women can become great cooks and bakers--food is necessary for life.  They can keep flower gardens, where all can enjoy the beauty of God’s creations in the natural world.  And they can make quilts for the bed, a  household necessity.

We all get on in life as best we can, given our innate talents and abilities and our starting point in our culture.  The individual women who made these quilts may or may not have seen them as significant beyond their role as bed covers.  To me the point is that they did the work, and they did it to the absolute best of their abilities, honing and refining their technical skills along the way.  (The hand quilting on most of these works is minute and exactingly drafted and executed.)  If I can be allowed to mix cultural references, it’s the application of the Buddhist principle of “Right Occupation” carried to a sublime expression.

It’s this expression of the ethos, even more than the color palette or the design work, that has been an influence and a touchstone in my own work.  Spending a few hours admiring and drinking in these quilts was a powerful reminder for me of how important intention is in my studio practice. 


Terry said...

Thank you, Sue! I saw the collection at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco in 1990 and it is still, to my mind, the most beautiful exhibit I have ever seen. The quilts glowed in that setting and had a heart and soul that spoke to me. I do believe seeing them forever changed the way I see quilts. They are simply glorious and a national treasure. It is very sad that they will not be seen.

Barbara Campbell said...

Thanks for posting these great pictures for those of us who couldn't see it in person. Hopefully the collection will find a good home in the not too distant future.

Brenda Gael Smith said...

I alwys enjoyed visiting the museum when I wasvin Lancaster. It was a great antidote to the often inferior, rote works found in the commercial outlets. I am sorry to hear the collection is going into storage and trust this is a temporary measure.

Cindy Cooksey said...

The photos of the exhibit are great - what a fantastic job by whoever hung them! The collection was at the Laguna Art Museum (So. California) in 1995 and was one of their most popular exhibits ever. I hope the collection finds a new home soon.

Terry Jarrard-Dimond said...

Hi Sue. Thanks for the excellent commentary on the wonderful collection of quilts. Had you not shared this story I'm sure I would never have had a glimpse of this beautiful work.

Dianne Koppisch Hricko said...

Thank you for taking the time to post these beauties. As an artist who really relishes color it gives me great pleasure to know that this is a most human quality. These artists whose work was produced for function not strictly pleasure clearly had highly developed aesthetics and reveled in the joy of color.

Sue Reno said...

I appreciate all the thoughtful comments, I'm glad I was able to share a bit of this significant collection with everyone.

Leslie Tucker Jenison said...

I would have loved to see this splendid exhibition in person, but was unable to travel to it. Thank you for your thoughtful remarks about the quilts, and the women who created them. I enjoyed it very much.