Adam & Eve Naming the Animals, Panel 1 (of 11), Harriet Powers' 1st Story-Bible Quilt    
HARRIET POWERS, known as the "mother of African-American quilting," was born into slavery in Athens, Georgia on October 29, 1837 (died in 1911). She married Armstead Powers, and her first daughter Amanda was born in 1855 when Harriet was 18. Southern Negro women slaves were often trained as expert seamstresses and Harriet was probably instructed in the craft of appliqué quilt-making by her mother.

There are just two quilts by Harriet Powers that have come down to us (both created after she was freed from slavery following the Civil War), but they are among the most famous and revered works of art in the history of African American folk art. The magical story of how Harriet Powers' story Bible quilts came to be known and preserved has been told many times...
Harriet Powers (1837-1911), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The following is Sule Greg C. Wilson's telling of the fated meeting of Harriet Powers and Onetta Virginia (Jennie) Smith (illustration right), as published in "African American Quilting: The Warmth of Tradition" (Rosen Publishing, 1999).

"Harriet Powers's [first quilt] was displayed in 1886 when the city of Athens, Georgia, held the cotton fair, which was even bigger than the annual county fair. Mrs. Powers's quilt depicted Bible stories as well as historic events: record cold temperatures of 1895, a phenomenal meteor shower of 1833, and the 'Dark Day' of 1780.

"A Euro-American woman, Jennie Smith -- herself an artist and art teacher in Athens -- was at the cotton fair and saw Mrs. Powers's quilt. Recognizing a masterpiece, she hunted down the maker and offered to buy it. Mrs Powers said no.

"Every once in a while, Ms. Smith would check up on Mrs. Powers and her work. Five years later financial hardship forced Mrs. Powers to sell the qullt to Ms. Smith. Ms. Smith wrote an 18-page document about the quilt and its history, in which she describes the day Mrs. Powers brought her the quilt."
Harriet's first quilt is part of the Smithsonian's American History Museum, her second Bible quilt, as mentioned above, is now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Both quilts are beautifully reproduced, panel by panel, in a book by Mary E. Lyons called "Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers," along with commentary and quotations from descriptions given by Mrs. Powers (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1993). See also "Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad," by Jacquiline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard (Anchor Books, 2000)

In regard to the first 11-panel quilt (see its first panel above depicting "Adam & Eve Naming the Animals"), Mary E. Lyons tells of a circus that came through Athens soon after the Civil War, with animals similar to those in the quilt. The animal style, according to many writers, is also influenced by African iconographic traditions. Lyons shows also how the different sizes of the quilt blocks in each row actually tap out a synchopated musical pattern found in 19th c. African-American music. Harriet Powers could neither read nor write but she knew the Bible stories from singing Negro spirituals and from sermons given by local preachers. Here we see the Biblical story of "Adam and Eve Naming the Animals," including, according to Lyons, three camels, an elephant, an ostrich, a sea monster and a serpent. The seemingly unusual serpent-like form (which also appears in panel 4 above) is actually a detailed rendering of a salamander (a colorful, lizard-like amphibian, harmless to humans) as can be seen by a comparison to the illustration below (from Encarta 97 CD-ROM). Notice how the artist has faithfully kept the eyes the same yellow-orange color as the markings -- the skin pattern would vary according to the individual creature.

Each panel in Harriet Powers' quilts tells a story of its own and can be viewed and studied like a painting. And so although we have only two quilts, they are comprised of 26 panels in all, eleven for the first and fifteen for the second. Mrs. Powers' art is truly powerful and yet playful, warmly innocent and yet full of spiritual wisdom -- her panel-stories are rightly credited as masterworks of American folk art.
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Book cited in this article:

• Sule Greg C. Wilson - African American Quilting: The Warmth of Tradition (Rosen Publishing, 1999)
• Mary E. Lyons - Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers (Aladdin Paperbacks, 1993)
• Jacquiline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard - Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Anchor Books, 2000)
Antique Geometric Quilt Designs
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