Touches of Angels
Joyce Gross and Cuesta Benberry at work in the Point Bonita research room, 1996. Joyce organized retreats for quiltmakers and quilt historians at Point Bonita, California beginning in 1981. The retreat became an annual event dedicated to quilt research and study. (Photo number di_05721 from the Joyce Gross Quilt History Collection, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.)
Sometimes, things happen that are so serendipitous they almost have to be magical. The eminent quilt historian and collector Joyce Gross calls these fortunate events “touches of angels.” Joyce has experienced many such “touches” during her career, but certainly one of the most momentous would be her friendship with fellow Quilter’s Hall of Fame member Cuesta Benberry.
Cuesta, who died in 2007, was Joyce’s mentor in all things having to do with quilts. The two shared a passion for history (particularly as it relates to women), for meticulous research and documentation, and for the thrill of the chase, so to speak, as it relates to recognizing great talent and rescuing it from obscurity. When Cuesta and Joyce became friends, the world’s knowledge of masterpiece 20th-century quilts and the women who made them increased exponentially.
Rose Kretsinger, Bertha Stenge, Dr. Jeanette Throckmorton, Florence Peto, Charlotte Jane Whitehill, Emma Andres, and Pine Hawkes Eisfeller are names certainly known to most of us interested in quilt history. Without Joyce and Cuesta, however, these (and other) quiltmakers might never have received the attention they deserved.
During their 30-odd years of friendship and collaboration, Joyce and Cuesta spent hundreds of hours tracking down these quilters, meeting or corresponding with them if possible, documenting their efforts, writing about them, featuring their work in exhibits, collecting their quilts, and generally ensuring that they be held in due esteem.
“I knew virtually nothing about quilts until Cuesta taught me,” says Joyce. “My mother was not interested in needlework at all. When she married, she told my father that she did not intend to ever ‘darn socks or sew on a button.’ Cuesta taught me everything.”
Of course, Joyce is being a bit modest (click here to read more). By the time she met Cuesta, Joyce had owned a small boutique that supported the sale of garments designed and made by teens for teens in the Bay Area of California, and was a founding member of the Mill Valley Quilt Authority—cleverly named so as to command respect at a time when quilts received little—during the early 1970s.
But it was Cuesta who served as Joyce’s quilt history muse. Together, the two of them worked tirelessly to elevate the status of quilt artists they championed, which culminated in the publication of their exhibition catalog, 20th Century Quilts: 1900-1970: Women Make Their Mark, published by the American Quilter's Society in 1997.
In 2008, the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin acquired a substantial portion of Joyce’s extensive collection of quilts and related ephemera (see Kindred Spirits). In November 2009, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin opened the exhibition A Legacy of Quilts: The Briscoe Center's Joyce Gross Collection.
Joyce attended the opening and was thrilled with the exhibit. During her remarks before the opening-night crowd, Joyce acknowledge Cuesta for her important influence as it ultimately led to this exhibit. In private she told the curator, Kate Adams, that she (Kate) had performed miracles with the show, and asked if she couldn’t please perform one more by resurrecting Cuesta so that her old friend could be there to see it. Who knows? Cuesta’s spirit was certainly present that evening, and touches of angels have always been a part of Joyce’s life.
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Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
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Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
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