The Quilt Ambassador
Le Rowell (Photo by Edward Rowell)
Homage to Bourglinster, photo by Edward Rowell. Quilt made by Gudrun Bechet and included in the exhibition "Quilts: A Cultural Dialogue" during Luxembourg's 1995 European Capital of Culture. Collection of Ambassador and Mrs. Edward M. Rowell.
Liberation Quilt, photo copyright Jochen Herling. The quilt was completed in time for the 50th anniversary ceremonies in Luxembourg City. The project was initiated by Le Rowell. Florence Thilgen (Luxembourg) designed and directed the seven other quiltmakers who worked with her on the project.
According to Thilgen, "The quilt represents a page of a history book and appeals to the viewer not to forget about the events of World War II. The awareness of this is essential to the prevention of similar disasters by future generations."
Original stencils to label World War II U.S. army vehicles were used for the black and white lettering in the center of the quilt that represents the printed historical text. The red B's symbolize the “bodies and blood” that were the price of freedom paid by both soldiers and civilians. The English translation of the Luxembourgish words: “Luxembourg remembers its liberation.”
At various times during his years of diplomatic service, Le Rowell’s husband served as the U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Portugal, and Luxembourg. As the Ambassador’s wife, Le developed a unique career of her own in international relations by introducing American quilts and quilting to the various countries in which she and her husband lived and worked.
Although not a quilter herself, Le inherited a love of fabric and needlework from her grandmother, who was—according to Le—“one of those miracle ladies with magic in her fingers.” As a child, Le enjoyed sorting, by colors, the strips of men’s wool suiting cloth that her grandmother planned to use in hooking rugs. It was this particular memory that resonated with Le when she saw a Log Cabin quilt hanging on a wall at a church bazaar. So moved was she by its appearance that she bought it—the first quilt she owned and the foundation of her collection.
When the Rowells were assigned to Bolivia, Le took advantage of the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies Program (whose mission is to create “a global museum that exhibits original works of art by U.S. citizens in the public rooms of approximately 180 American diplomatic residences worldwide”) to showcase quilts.
She was able to obtain a loan of Amish quilts from the American Folk Art Museum and the exhibit was a huge success. She then put together another exhibit of 42 American quilts owned by women in the Bolivian capital. “There were people who thought that all the American Ambassador’s wife could talk about was quilts,” Le laughs. “But the exhibits were so well received. The media picked up on the events and for a while American quilts were all the talk of La Paz!”
In Lisbon, Portugal, Le featured a different sort of quilt exhibit, focusing on a group of contemporary quilts loaned by the West Virginia Division of Cultural and History and made primarily by Amish and Mennonite women in Virginia as a means of providing income for their families.
In Luxembourg, as she was preparing to mount an exhibition of traditional American quilts in a 12th-century castle some distance outside of the capital, skeptical officials warned Le that no one would come. “They will come,” she assured the doubters. And so they did. “It was a phenomenon,” Le recalls. “People were, frankly, amazed. I could see them visibly soften as they stood before the quilts.”
In 1995, Luxembourg was selected as the European Capital of Culture, a yearlong designation during which the chosen city is given a chance to tout its cultural development. Le proposed to show quilts made by women in Luxembourg. With the exception of an exhibit of well-known Impressionist paintings, the quilt exhibition was the best-attended event of the entire celebration.
In addition to mounting exhibits in all the countries she lived, Le would not only teach people how to quilt, but lecture to groups with a presentation entitled "America’s Story in Quilts."
“As the Ambassador’s wife, I admittedly had a bully pulpit, “ she says. “But people were fascinated to learn of the depth and artistry of quilting in America. I felt that I was able to tell the story of my country through quilts.”
In 2001, Le received the Order of Merit from the Grand Duke of Luxembourg for her contributions to a mutual understanding between the people of Luxembourg and the U.S. She also received the Avis Bohlen Award for contributions toward advancing American interests abroad.
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Column 54: On the Trail
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Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
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