AMISH ABSTRACTIONS – Fabulous Quilt Exhibit Now at the de Young Museum

Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown
Exhibition celebrates the artistry and diversity of the Amish quiltmaking tradition with a remarkable selection of full-size and crib quilts dating from the 1880s to the 1940s

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The Amish have been referred to as plain people, but there is nothing plain about their quilts. The artistry of the Amish tradition will be on full display at the de Young when the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) presents AMISH ABSTRACTIONS: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown in the Caroline and H. McCoy Jones Textile Gallery. The exhibition, on display until June 6th, 2010, features 48 full-size and crib quilts that showcase the diversity of the Amish quilt tradition, as well as the connoisseurship of collectors Faith and Stephen Brown. Amish faith embodies the principles of simplicity, humility, discipline, and community, yet Amish quilts are anything but humble. Using a rich color palette and bold patterns, the quilts are visual distillations of Amish culture and a truly unique contribution to American textile history.

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Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown.
All photos, Seán Martinfield

The works’ abstract patterns complement their craftsmanship and complexity. When first encountering Amish quilts, the Browns recall, “We were amazed by the bold graphics and striking colors, the very opposite of what we had expected. And we couldn’t get over the way some quilts seemed to anticipate abstract artists such as Josef Albers, Victor Vasarely, Frank Stella, Mark Rothko, Sol LeWitt, and Ellsworth Kelly, among others.”

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Faith and Stephen Brown

THE EXHIBITION
The quilts in the exhibition originated in communities throughout Pennsylvania and the Midwest and date from the 1880s to the 1940s, the height of Amish quilt production. Exhibition curator Jill D’Alessandro of FAMSF explains, “Although Amish women first learned quiltmaking from their ‘English’ [non-Amish] neighbors, they quickly developed a unique sensibility of their own, coupling distinctive choices of quilt patterns and fabrics with unusual spatial arrangements.”

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The Amish approach to quiltmaking is informed by social structure and religious belief, and each community has adopted distinctive methods and techniques. It is commonly believed that the conservative Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania were the first Amish to make quilts. Their quilts are renowned for their high-quality wool and surprising color choices; common Lancaster County patterns include Center Diamond, Bars, and Sunshine and Shadow.

The largest Amish settlement in the United States is in Holmes County, Ohio. The Holmes County community is less conservative than the Lancaster community, and the diverse quilts of Holmes County reflect this. The women of Holmes County often used black as a background color to set off the jewel-like hues of their piecework, a choice rarely made by mainstream American quiltmakers. Common patterns used among Holmes County Amish include Roman Stripe, Ocean Waves, Bowtie, and Tumbling Blocks.

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The Amish approach to quiltmaking is informed by social structure and religious belief, and each community has adopted distinctive methods and techniques. It is commonly believed that the conservative Old Order Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania were the first Amish to make quilts. Their quilts are renowned for their high-quality wool and surprising color choices; common Lancaster County patterns include Center Diamond, Bars, and Sunshine and Shadow.

The largest Amish settlement in the United States is in Holmes County, Ohio. The Holmes County community is less conservative than the Lancaster community, and the diverse quilts of Holmes County reflect this. The women of Holmes County often used black as a background color to set off the jewel-like hues of their piecework, a choice rarely made by mainstream American quiltmakers. Common patterns used among Holmes County Amish include Roman Stripe, Ocean Waves, Bowtie, and Tumbling Blocks.

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The exhibition represents FAMSF’s longtime commitment to the art of quiltmaking. In 1990 the Museums worked with the Esprit Collection to organize the landmark exhibition Amish: The Art of the Quilt. In 2006, the de Young presented The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, the artistic legacy of four generations of African American quiltmakers from the small rural community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “The Museums have long recognized the important place of quiltmaking in our social and artistic heritage,” says John Buchanan, director of FAMSF. “Amish Abstractions builds upon previous exhibitions to demonstrate without a doubt the significance of the quilt in the American story.”

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THE AMISH CONTEXT
The Amish represent a highly conservative branch of Protestantism with origins in Switzerland and Germany. Established in 1693 by Jakob Ammann, the Amish doctrine is based on creating a community apart from the rest of society. This community of believers makes no separation between secular and religious activities, holding that spiritual redemption is found in the submission of the individual to the group. The first wave of Amish immigrated to America between 1737 and 1754, settling on farms in Pennsylvania and, later, throughout the Midwest. Living largely apart from mainstream culture, the Amish reject most modern conveniences in favor of a quiet, ordered life that is reflected in their farms, buildings, furnishings, gardens, and textiles.

THE CATALOGUE
A new, fully illustrated catalogue, AMISH ABSTRACTIONS: Quilts from the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown, accompanies the exhibition. Published in conjunction with the exhibition organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the catalogue explores the origins, techniques, and context of these visual masterpieces.

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More than seventy-five quilts originating in communities throughout Pennsylvania and the Midwest from the 1880s to the 1940s are presented with contributions by three quilt experts: Joe Cunningham, a well-known quilt artist, author, and lecturer; Robert Shaw, an independent curator of numerous quilt exhibitions; and Janneken Smucker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Delaware specializing in quilts from the Amish and Mennonite traditions. The 128-page hardcover, published by Pomegranate Press in association with FAMSF, is for sale at the Museums Store for $29.95.

A SYMPOSIUM
Amish/American: Quilts in Context, a symposium, will be held at the de Young on Saturday, December 5th, from 1–4 pm in the Koret Auditorium. Come for an in-depth look at the art of Amish quilts through the eyes of a diverse panel of speakers. Each presenter will talk about a different aspect of the Amish quiltmaking tradition. Collectors Faith and Stephen Brown will make introductory remarks. Speakers include Joe Cunningham, author of The Quiltmaker’s Quandary; Jonathan Holstein, On Collecting and Its Consequences; Janeken Smucker, Gifts of Humility, Objects of Pride; and Robert Shaw, American Quilts: The Democratic Art. Click here to purchase tickets: QUILTS IN CONTEXT

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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