The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Meeting a True “Sewlebrity”
Me and Anna May, hanging out. Photo: Annie, from my class, with my cell phone.No matter how carefully I try to put this, it’s going to come off sounding awful, but here goes: Sometimes, when quilters meet me, they flip out a little bit. (Not all of them. And I told you it would sound bad.)
It’s the TV/internet show effect. When you watch a person through a screen for a long time and suddenly that two-dimensional screen person is standing in front of you, three-dimensionally, it’s weird — and super exciting. If that person helped you learn to make quilts and you love quilts more than life itself, well, there may be some jumping up and down and crying and hyperventilating that happens. I totally get it.
In fact, just last week, it happened to me. I met a celebrity, and I completely lost my composure. I freaked out. I cried. I made a fool of myself and it was amazing. But it wasn’t a human celebrity I met; it was a quilt.
A big perk of being in graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) is that you get to take field trips to the Art Institute across the street. Last Wednesday, my Material Studies class was invited to go behind the scenes of the museum’s Textile Department. We got to see the restoration offices and were given a tour through the gallery as they took down the recent exhibit on velvet and prepared for the next show on batiks from Java. The last part of our tour took us into the department’s storage catacombs.
The storage catacombs of the Art Institute’s Textile Department
Tapestries and woven masterpieces, some many hundreds of years old, were rolled on steel tubes and wrapped in archival materials. The halls were climate controlled and pristine. The head curator was telling us about preservation and selection, and it was all very interesting.
But as we turned to head toward the door, I saw something so extraordinary, I cried out — and then I just started crying.
Rolled out halfway on a table for inspection, right there in one of the long storage corridors was a quilt that I have seen in photographs for years, a quilt that I have loved dearly ever since I first laid eyes on it: It was the Garfield-Arthur Medallion Quilt.
Garfield-Arthur Medallion Quilt. Photo: Geoffrey Carr.
Made by Anna May Ensminger in 1884, measuring 84’’ x 84,” Garfield and Arthur is a quilt that really gets around. By that I mean that you see this quilt in books, on Pinterest boards, and in documentaries like Shelly Zegart’s great “Why Quilts Matter,” where it appeared in Episode 2. (I understand the quilt was at one time in Zegart’s personal collection.) The reasons Garfield and Arthur is such a media darling hardly need to be pointed out: The center point of focus is a campaign handkerchief from 1880, the layout is unusual, Ensminger’s command of color is extraordinary, and so on. There are many reasons to
love the quilt.
And I do. When I saw a picture of this quilt years ago, I fell in love. It was a hard time in my life. This quilt seemed to vibrate with a particular kind of grace and beauty that I needed. I saved a picture of it in a folder in my computer labeled, "Quilts To Make." I wanted to make my own version of this at some point. But while working on other quilts, I like to flip through that folder for fun, and so I have looked at this quilt a lot over the years, and recently came across it again in doing research on political quilts.
But I've only seen it in a book or through a screen as a digital image. It’s been 2-D to me. To turn around in that storage room at the Art Institute and see the quilt itself, right there, in the cloth? I nearly fell over.
Isn’t she lovely? Detail, Garfield-Arthur Medallion Quilt.
Making a gurgling noise, I rushed over to the table and, leaning over to get a closer look without touching, tried not to let my tears fall onto the quilt. (My class was worried about me, but several of the gals told me later they teared up themselves to see me so moved.) Both my professor and the curator who was leading our tour seemed pleased that a student was getting her money’s worth. And how.
It’s more beautiful than you can imagine. The fabrics are lush. The quilting is lovely. The patina of time has rendered the piece softer and more gentle, somehow. Being so near this celebrity object felt made it feel as though Anna May Ensminger herself was standing next to me, holding my hand.
That woman lived. She made quilts. I live. I make quilts. We're connected through time. And we connected through a screen many years (and many quilts ago) but meeting her “in person,” through her work, was a celebrity encounter I shall never forget. I didn’t get an autograph, but I sure did get a picture.