Quilt extravaganza: from silk to duck necks

Exhibit of historical quilts opens on Museum Day at Alaska State Museum

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

Usually they come for the glaciers, humpback whales, flight-seeing or fishing opportunities. This year, however, tourists may book a jaunt to Juneau for the quilts.

The first comprehensive exhibition of Alaska's quilts opens Sunday at the Alaska State Museum. The 80 quilts are pieced from materials ranging from mallard ducks' feathered necks to linen, from silk to scraps of clothing.

Phone calls and e-mails have come to the museum from across the nation asking about "Quilts of Alaska: A Textile Album of the Last Frontier," museum Chief Curator Bruce Kato said.

"It's been exciting to hear the response from people all over," Kato said. "I didn't realize there were so many quilt aficionados."

"We have gotten e-mails from as far away as England and New Zealand," said guest curator June Hall, a quilter and board member of the Gastineau Channel Historical Society.

Hall spent eight years working on the Alaska Quilt Survey, a project launched in 1992 to date and document the human drama behind the patterns and pieces in Alaska's quilts. Volunteers traveled all over the state to host Discovery Days - occasions on which residents brought family quilts to a central location in their community.

The volunteers saw and documented 1,500 quilts, including one from Nome in the hexagonal pattern "Grandmother's Flower Garden." The quilt was pieced by Wiley Post's mother after he died with Will Rogers in a 1935 plane crash near Barrow. Mae Post, 65, stitched the quilt for Stanley Morgan, a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps who helped retrieve the bodies. She mailed her handiwork north. Stanley Morgan's son, Barrow Morgan, who lives in Nome, lent the heirloom for the exhibit.

From the 1,500 quilts, they chose 45 for a catalog and about 80 for the exhibit itself, Hall said.

"These were very hard choices. I kept putting some in, and they would say, 'No, you can't have that one,'" Hall said.

The need to raise funds for travel and the catalog dogged their footsteps at every turn, Hall said. "We were fortunate to get a large grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the Friends of the Alaska State Museum. Then, for the book, we got a personal donation from Elmer Rasmuson (whose mother's duck neck quilt from Yakutat is on the cover of the catalog). Those big amounts of money kept us going."

Stereotypes about the value of "women's work" kept quilts from being appreciated and out of the art limelight for centuries, Hall said. A woman quilting was "just keeping busy," while a man painting was "making art." These attitudes meant that quilting was not documented or valued, she said.

"A lot that came into the survey were dragged out from attics, crawl spaces and garages," Hall said. "Some people were totally amazed that they got so much attention" from the surveyors.

Quilts were made by women and men who needed them for practical or aesthetic reasons, Hall said. "They speak of women's perseverance in life and art," Hall said. "They were not dashed off. They weren't trying to see how fast they could make them. I have learned a lot from these quilts, the people who made them and their descendants."

"I don't know if you have perseverance when you begin to quilt or learn it as you go along," she added.

To get the most from the quilt exhibit, people need to slow down, Hall said. "People need to take the time to really grasp what it has taken to make each quilt, because they are very technically difficult to make - which may not be obvious at first glance. Each has its own special quality."

Internationally known quilt scholar Merikay Waldvogel of Tennessee will be in Juneau to lead a walking tour of the exhibit Sunday.

"What's interesting to me about a state like Alaska is that it was a frontier and because people were going there, they took treasured possessions with them. I think that in Alaska we're going to see a microcosm of what we see in the Lower Forty-Eight," Waldvogel said.

People have quizzed Hall about the faded and torn quilts in the exhibit, but she feels they're important. "The ones that are not in good shape still have a real beauty about them. They say something about the age just like a Greek sculpture with no arms."

The quilt collection will be on display at the museum through Sept. 29 and then begins a tour of other Alaska venues. Summer hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Copies of the full-color exhibition catalog are $21.95.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.com.

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