This Black artist’s vibrant quilts inspired generations of U.S. artisans

In the photograph speckled with age, the gaze of the woman is direct. The hands, strong, with long, tapered fingers, hold a scrap of fabric. She wears an apron. A closer look reveals it is more than a modest, domestic icon. It is an artistic statement. The material is common, cheap cotton, embellished by an uncommon exuberance of scalloped edges and large appliqued sunbursts. The sunbursts echo those on two late 19th-century quilts made also by the wearer of that apron, Harriet Powers, an African American woman from Athens, Georgia. Born enslaved, Powers would transcend that to express her powerful, creative vision in stitched squares of fabric.

Her vision appears in a quilt, known as the Pictorial Quilt, in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston. Her other surviving masterwork, known as the Bible Quilt, can be found in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Both were made in the late 19th century. Quilt making did not originate in the United States, but it has a strong American connection. These blankets were both practical and artistic, often deeply personal and reflective of the artists themselves.

The entry for Powers’s Pictorial Quilt in the archives of the MFA is as straightforward as its maker’s gaze:

Appliqué quilt, dyed and printed cotton fabrics applied to cotton. The quilt is divided into fifteen pictorial rectangles. Worked with pieces of beige, pink, mauve, orange, dark red, gray-green and shades of blue cotton.

What the notes don’t say—only the quilt itself can—is that it and its sibling, the Bible Quilt—are the personal testimony of a woman of unshakeable faith and self-confidence. Novelist Alice Walker, writing of the Bible Quilt, called it “a quilt unlike any other in the world … the work of an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford.” Folklorist Gladys-Marie Fry would sit in front of that quilt in reverie. “Who was Harriet?” she wondered. “What was her history?”

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Putting the pieces together

Powers’s history, not unlike her quilt, is pieced together, gathered from the scraps biographers use to assemble a life: letters, museum files, faded photographs, interviews, scholarly journals, exhibition catalogs, and newspaper clips. What is known is that Powers was born into slavery in 1837 in Madison County, Georgia. Married in 1855, she later moved with her husband, Armstead, after Emancipation to a farm closer to Athens. She was deeply religious, literate, and gifted.

The Bible Quilt has 11 pictorial squares. They depict, among other stories, Adam and Eve, Jacob’s Ladder, and the Last Supper. The panels in this and the MFA quilt are presented in the order in which she wants to tell those stories: “It’s a cycle, like a renaissance fresco,” says Jennifer Swope, curator in the MFA’s Textiles and Fashion Arts Department. “Moving, and deceptive in simplicity.”

Handed down along with the quilts was a description of each panel by Powers herself. She was the storyteller and would make sure her intentions were understood. “We see trauma, trouble, suffering, chaos that reflects stories of her own life and those of African Americans,” says Tiya Miles, a professor of history at Harvard University.

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Stories of star fall

In the Pictorial Quilt, viewers can count down to the second row of the panels, move three squares over to the right, and find the dynamic center panel. Orange comet-like forms, topped by starburst shapes arc toward earth as four human figures—a family—lift their arms, perhaps in surprise, fear, or both; a rabbit sits in the left bottom corner; a cat leans into the right bottom corner. An eerily disembodied hand floats at top left.

The square, Powers wrote, shows “[t]he falling of the stars on November 13, 1833. The people were fright and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds.” It was an actual event—the Leonid meteor shower of 1833. Shooting stars fell like rain. “People were terrified and many thought it was judgment day,” Miles explains. “They theorized that god was bringing the world to its close, and some enslavers actually worried perhaps it was sin of holding people as property that was leading to this judgment moment.”

The meteor shower happened before Powers was born—but she had heard the stories. The quilt was her own telling of the event: trauma, trouble, chaos, and, finally, salvation embodied by the hand of God.

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On display

The Pictorial Quilt, exhibited at an exposition in Nashville in 1897, was bought by a “group of faculty ladies” at Atlanta University as a gift for the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall, possibly to celebrate his appointment as president of Union Theological Seminary.

The Bible Quilt was displayed in 1886 at a fair in Athens, Georgia, where Jennie Smith, a white art teacher at a girls’ school, tried to buy it. It was not for sale. Several years later, when the Powers family was stressed financially, it was. Forced to sell “the darling offspring of her brain,” Powers delivered the purchase in an oxcart. She described holding the “precious burden in her lap encased in a clean flour sack, which was still further enveloped in a crocus sack.” She returned several times to visit the quilt, Smith wrote. “She was only in a measure consoled for its loss when I promised to save her all my scraps.”

Both quilts would end up in museum collections, and that part of the story—the journey from her Black hands to private ownership in white hands to museum wall—is complicated by what Miles suggests is the difficult dynamics of race in museum collecting, philanthropy, and stewardship.“It is not through Powers’s intentional will that her quilts wound up on display in two of the country’s most renown museums,” Miles has written. On the other hand, it is through that journey those quilts have been preserved, appreciated, and recognized for their significance.

Powerful legacy

Had she known her quilts would be hanging on a museum wall, “she would have praised the Lord,” says quilter and independent scholar Kyra Hicks. Powers was proud of her work. When she was alive, she did not hide her art in a trunk or under a spread, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Harvard University emerita professor of history, writes. “When others admired her quilts, she insisted on explaining their meaning. Her quilts survived not only because they are remarkable works of art but because she spoke about them to anyone who would listen.”

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Her voice can be heard not only through her quilts but also directly in a letter Hicks discovered in the files of the Lee County Historical Society in Keokuk, Iowa. Powers was 58, and in that letter spoke of her church, her husband, her nine children, learning to read, and of her quilts, including three whose whereabouts remain unknown. It is tempting to hope that the quilts she mentions (one with “2 thousand and 500 diamonds”) are hidden in a trunk waiting to be discovered, but one can feel gratitude for the two that do survive. And, adds Hicks, “Aren’t we lucky that there are loving hands to pass it along?”

There is gratitude as well for the portrait of her gazing across decades. Powers visited a photographer’s studio in Athens for that picture—a deliberate, confident act of self-documentation. She stands alone, on her own, fabric in her fingers, wrapped in her art. “This I accomplish,” she says in that letter. Harriet Powers knew her worth.


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