Imbalance, Imperfection, Beauty and Emotion

Dream Quilt by Arester Earl, 1981
“Dream Quilt” by Arester Earl, 1981

I just finished reading The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd.  It’s about a slave owner, Sarah,  in  early 1800’s Charleston and the slave, Handful, she is given for her 11th birthday.   It’s based on the life of the Grimke Sisters, early Abolitionists and Women’s Rights Advocates.  It’s about identity and freedom (at one point Handful tells Sarah that she may be a slave of the body, but Sarah is a slave of the mind)  and being true to ourselves no matter the risk or loss that may come from it.   I could relate.

Through out the book Handful’s mother is creating a Story Quilt that tells the story of her life.  She sews a picture using applique, depicting each defining moment in her life.  Some of her other quilts use symbols such as black triangles to represent flying blackbirds, telling the myth of when her ancestors could fly.

At the back of Kidd’s book is a list of historical references, that’s where I found the book Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts, by Maude Southwell Wahlman.  I don’t know a lot about quilts.  I took a quilting class once when I was in high school and vowed never to quilt again.  I found it tedious and nerve-wracking.  But I’ve always appreciated the work and creativity that goes into quilting.  Quilters were making Op Art a hundred years before it became a style of painting in the 1960’s.  And although I understand the importance of it and intellectually appreciate quilting, I’ve never been emotionally touched by it until I saw the Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  Those quilts touched me so deeply, at a time when I had given up on making art, that I was inspired to create again.

I know now that its in the imperfection, in what seems to be randomness in color and design that speaks to me. It’s in the way the corners don’t meet and the squares that aren’t square, that the emotion and uniqueness of each quilt and it’s maker comes through. It’s each woman’s individual intuition, not a set of rules, that is in the fore front of such quilts.

I read in Wahlman’s book that the” …busy, hard-to-read asymmetrical designs and multiple patterns…protect against evil, enslaving spirits”… by confusing them…”before they could do any harm”.  This explains  one of the things I love about many of the Gee’s Bend quilts.  It’s the way they carry your eye, haphazardly around the quilt, never finding a place to light, a center, beginning or end.

The quilt above made by Arester Earl from Altanta, Georgia (not a Gee’s Bend quilter) is the perfect example of what draws me to this type of quilt.  It’s filled with emotion and movement.  It has a mystical quality, like some of the ancient cave paintings I’ve seen photos of.   They seem to move between worlds.  Shifting and transporting me from one space to another as I look at them. (not that I could define those spaces they are, for me, beyond words)  Looking at this quilt does the same.  It speaks of the imbalance and imperfection and beauty of life all at the same time.  It’s based in this world, a utilitarian quilt, but like the Cathedrals were built to do, it’s complexity and beauty is transformative, yet, unlike the Cathedrals,  it never stops speaking of being human.


16 thoughts on “Imbalance, Imperfection, Beauty and Emotion

  1. I have the book on my “to read” list. So interesting to read your review and interpretation of the information from it in your own artwork. Now more than ever, I need to read it.

    As always, wonderful artwork, Maria!


  2. This was a wonderful blog Maria. I think imperfection and imbalance give birth to the beauty, the emotion and the individuality of the piece.A piece of the artists identity shines through this work. I love it too. So nice to find something we don’t know a lot about and have the drive to pursue and learn more. I’m doing this with all the greats of the natural horsemanship world. To me this is as fascinating and similar to your hunger for more knowledge!

  3. Maria, After reading your post, I simply had to order SMKidd’s book. Your tho’ts in your post speak to me. The randomness, imperfection, “asymmetricalness” of life, the “imbalance and imperfection and beauty of life”–none of this could be said better than you have said it. Beautiful! MCS

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed Sue Monk Kidd’s new book, but then I love her very southern and soulful story telling and her unique spirituality. Quilts are story tellers and once you know the language and discover some of the secrets they protect so beautifully they became even more fascinating. I am looking forward to your trip to Alabama as I expect you will come away with with some pretty interesting stories yourself!!!

  5. Maria,
    I connect deeply with your beautifully expressed observations about the power in these quilts. I will remember your words the next time I felt. Finding the balance between perfection of technique and self expression, beauty, mystery.

    Thank you for such a well written, thoughtful piece. And yes, what an amazing quilt. Transporting…

  6. Beautifully written Maria. I have Kidd’s new book on my iPad waiting, looking forward to it. On a random note,I had a dream with you in it last night. I was looking through a box of old clothes you were giving away (imagine that:) while you stood nearby. I would pull a piece out, and you would tell me about it, ” I wore this to yoga,” and so on. Then I came across this dress, a colorful summer dress, that I recognized as something you had worn and I exclaimed over! “You can’t give this away Maria! “. I told you how I could never wear it, it wouldn’t look good on me, things like that never did, and you said, ” I thought that once too.” I don’t remember any more after that. Thank you for entering my dream world, I just wanted to share.
    Terri Brown

    1. I’m so glad to hear it wasn’t a nightmare Terri. I’ve heard one way to interpret dreams is that everyone in the dream is really ourselves. I think you were talking to you Terri. Giving yourself good advice. Thank you for sharing your dream.

  7. I adored “The Secret Life of Bees” and will get this book the next time I go to my used book store. I am looking forward to your journey to see the Gee’s Band Quilters …

  8. Thank you for your reply Maria. If it was me telling myself something I needed to hear, I’m so glad I had your beautiful face!

  9. Maria, after your post, I got The Invention of Wings immediately(without Oprah’s annotations as the reviews found them distracting, to say the least). What a fabulous book! I couldn’t put it down! Next I am going to get Hidden In Plain View: the story of quilts and the underground railroad, found in Kidd’s reference list at the end. I aspire to become a quilter, having come from a background where quilting is done and valued. Keep up the good work!

  10. What is exciting is that we still have curious places inside that just need to find out more! I thought I was rather of an intellectual slug of late but learning horsemanship the Natural Way is spell binding. It’s a whole different philosophy full of truths and connections. Buck Branaman is a name. Pat Parelli and his wife Linda. They were mentors of the late and great Ray Hunt and before this the Dorrence Bros.
    I’m truly excited for your Alabama trip!

    1. I can imagine it’s a whole new way of perceiving the world and life Cindy. I don’t know the specifics, but I can imagine what it feels like.

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