Harriet Powers, 19th century American woman artist, represents a class of artists most people ignore. When I say 19th century American artist, does the word quilter come to mind? Probably not. Harriet was among the most renown Southern quilters in the last half the 19th century. Her accomplishment is even more remarkable when you consider her life began in slavery and ended as a free woman running her own small business. How?
Why I Understand
Let me add a little background note here. I love all types of needlework. If there isn’t a book in my hand, there is a needle of some type. From knitting to stitching to sewing and quilting, I do it all. When I discovered Harriet Powers among the famous women artists of 125 or so years ago, I got really excited about covering her life here. Why?
Fiber artists tend to get short shrift in the art world. Even more so if their work borders on the primitive or folk-art side of things. To be sure, there is a market for folk art and it will probably continue. The market is strong for folk art and primitive artist items made by slaves and former slaves that enters the realm of real money when items change hands. That means they cost a lot!
Powers’ Life Story
Born in 1837 in rural Georgia, she remained in Georgia her entire life. She grew up as a slave and was taught to fine work, as good stitching was known. Remember there were no sewing machines available and everything had to be made by hand. Small groups of stitchers were employed to turn out all the clothing necessary for all who lived on the farm or plantation.
From bedclothes to linens to daily wear, ballgowns, hunting breeches to regal formal wear, women were adept at using needles and threads to produce everything in fiber. Many of the textiles were locally produced by hand, imported from Europe, or from the New England textile mills. Cotton, of course, came from Southern states, but it had to be processed to end up as a fiber usable as thread or fabric.
She learned to make the quilts for bedding. She became expert at a technique known as applique, where a design is cut out of several fabrics that are carefully stitched along the edges to affix the fabric on top of the underlying background fabric. It is a process of layering a background fabric, a sort of invisible lining under the top design fabric, and then the visible top fabrics.
Quilting resembles making a sandwich: bottom, middle and top. In fact, the concept of a quilt is a big piece of sandwiched fabrics that create a warm, useful and decorative blanket.
Designs and Quilting
Harriet excelled at her designs and handwork. Only two of her quilts remain whole and in public spaces. One if her Bible Quilt, made in 1886, and her Pictorial Quilt, 1898. People thought originally that she was illiterate, but she was careful to state in interviews that she was taught to read the Bible when she was young so she would learn the Bible stories. They become the basis for her Bible Quilt. Her quilts depicted Bible stories and astronomical events.
Married to Armstead Powers at age 18 in 1855, followed by the birth of nine children, Harriet and her husband were freed after the Civil War and were able to purchase four acres of farm land for their family. Eventually Powers had financial losses, sold off piece after piece of land, and ended up leaving Harriet alone with the children in 1895. She was forced to leave their home and became a seamstress to support herself and the children.
In 1886 Harriet entered her quilts into exhibitions. Her first entry was her Bible Quilt, show above, in the Athens, Georgia, Cotton Fair. Luckily for Harriet, Jennie Smith from the Lucy Cobb Institute saw the quilt and fell in love with it. When financial woes threatened Harriet, she sold the quilt to Lucy for the princely sum of $5.
Lucy carefully documented Harriet’s own reflections on the meaning of the quilt. She also described the techniques Powers had used. Lucy wrote additional notes in her personal diary, so we know the story behind the quilt and the woman who created it.
The quilt resides at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Let me explain some of the quilt details for you. This information comes from an article on Powers in Wikipedia.
The Bible Quilt
The Bible Quilt (1886) has 11 panels with 299 pieces. The separation lines are a West African design, meant to scare away spirits and preventing evil. The panels depict Bible stories including Jacob’s ladder, Adam and Eve, Eve and her son, Cain killing Abel, Cain leaving to find a wife, the baptism of Christ, his crucifixion, Judas Iscariot with the 30 pieces of silver, the Last Supper and the Holy Family.
The Pictorial Quilt
The Pictorial Quilt (1898) as 15 sections with Bible scenes, Christian symbols, some African symbols, and stories about astronomical and meteorological events such as Black Friday (May 19, 1780) forest fires, weather events, the Leonid meteor shower of November 12-14, 1833, and falling stars in 1846.
The quilt making continued, with the sales of quilts helping to sustain the family. Harriet never married again and was the sole support of herself and family.
The next quilt example we have extant, the Pictorial Quilt, is said to have either been commissioned by the Atlanta University faculty wives group who saw the Bible Quilt displayed at the Cotton States exhibit, or purchased in Nashville in 1898.
The quilt ended up with Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall, who was a trustee of the university’s board at that time. The Pictorial Quilt was purchased from his heirs and given as a gift to the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston.
Harriet Powers was honored in this century as an important American woman artist. She was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement Hall of Fame in 2009 and feted with celebrations of her quilt making.
Quilting: The American Art
Quilt making is an important component in American art history. American families have made or purchased thousands of quilts to add to their personal collections or to donate to museums. Quilting, an American art form, began by using scraps of fabric to create warm blankets.
When textiles were hard to import from England, or were too costly for many people, women simply recycled fabric from other items to create necessary blankets.
From blanket to art
In time, these women sought to make these quilts as beautiful and original as they could. Designs were created and exchanged, with women showing off their design notions as well as their needle skills.
For women who might be artistic without access to other artist supplies, designing and stitching quilts became an accepted art form and was elevated out of the column of necessity and into the column of artistry. We are lucky to be able to see these quilts and to make our own.
Create Your Own
I hope the story of Harriet Powers, another 19th century American artist, inspires you to put your own creativity to use in different ways. As for me, I’ll be sure to write something about quilting in one of my upcoming books.
Have a great week creating!