Yo-Yos & Half Squares: Contemporary California Quilts At The Oakland Museum of California

My Grandmother made quilts.

My time spent in her home was surrounded by Bible stories and piles of remnant fabric left over from sewing our lives together. We cut the oddly shaped remnants into squares and triangles and rectangles and pieced them together to make large geometric patterns, mostly squares next to squares in straight Germanic lines, with the most complex pattern used being a pinwheel. I still have a single sized quilt that I made by myself on her treadle sewing machine when I was nine-years old, and another, that I made on the same machine, which had an electric motor added to it by my Grandfather somewhere between the two, when I was thirty-four.

Quilts in my childhood were not art. They were functional and belonged on a bed, or folded up along the foot of one. Most of Grandma’s quilts were not even handed down to family members. The only reason I even have two is because I made them myself with her guidance. All of Grandma’s quilts went off to the orphans in Africa, sent there by her and her Lutheran Church-Lady friends. After my Grandmother passed away, I saw a documentary on PBS about an orphanage in (I think it was) Zimbabwe. The camera scanned one of the simple and clean dormitory rooms and on each well made bed was a handmade quilt. I had wondered if my Grandmother had made any of them – they were made in her style.

Yes, quilts have styles.

In the same way that you can guess the name of a painter just by observing the subject matter of a painting or observing how the paint was used, or a a photograph by how a photographer used their camera, quilters often create their own style by using familiar and similar fabrics from quilt to quilt and have a way of cutting their shapes, stitching things together, and tying off of their finished quilts, that make them uniquely their own.

"Black Yo-Yos on Green Hanging (Stevie)", quilted by Irene Bankhead and pieced together by Rosie Lee Tompkins
“Black Yo-Yos on Green Hanging (Stevie)”, quilted by Irene Bankhead and pieced together by Rosie Lee Tompkins

During this fall and winter, the Oakland Museum of California has brought together a small grouping of modern, contemporary quilts dating from the late 1980s and early 2000s. These quilts highlight the large collection of Oakland resident Eli Leon, who traveled the country in the 1980s on a Guggenheim Fellowship, collecting the stories of quilters and the quilts. The exhibition features twenty contemporary quilts that expand the notion of craft through their individual artistic expression.

This exhibition features quilts and stories from Northern Californian quilters Angie Tobias, Arbie Williams, Mattie Pickett, Rosie Lee Tompkins, and Sherry Byrd. As most women who quilt do, the featured quilters learned their craft from their mothers and grandmothers, for whom quilting was both a necessity and creative outlet. The exhibition also features the collaboration in which these quilts were made by noting who had done the piecing and who had done the quilting.

Looking at these 20 quilts is like entering a different world—one that is asymmetrical and tactile. We hope the exhibition alters your idea of what a quilt can be. — Carin Adams, Associate Curator of Art and Material Culture

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Yo-Yos: These are made from circles of fabric, with the edges turned and stitched onto the top of the quilt.
Half Squares: Triangles of fabric quilted together to form a square.

Yo-Yos & Half Squares: Contemporary California Quilts
Exhibition Dates: September 12, 2015 – February 21, 2016

Oakland Museum of California
1000 Oak Street @ 10th
Oakland, California

Image: Unfinished (red velvet and embroidery), quilt pieced together by Rosie Lee Tompkins

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