The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Open House: The James
An interview with Marin Hanson, curator of ‘Binding Threads: The James Family Collection’ currently on view at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum.
The incomparable Marin Hanson, Curator of International Collections. Photo courtesy IQSCM.Every quilter who has ever made a quilt is part of the legacy of quilting in America. But quiltmakers are not the only ones crucial to the story. Just as we need people designing and making quilts, we need historians to study and investigate them — and we need collectors and museums to keep them safe from the ravages of time. And critters. And ill-advised garage sales. And wine spills. You get the idea.
On view right now at Quilt House at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM), in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a special exhibit of quilts from the home
of world-renowned quilt collectors Robert James and
his late wife, Ardis, who founded the organization 10 years ago. I spoke to the show’s (delightful, brilliant) curator, Marin Hanson, about this unique exhibit.
It’s good for the soul to be in a quilt museum—any quilt museum, ever—and when
the show is as personal and one-of-a-kind as “Binding Threads,” you really feel like you’re with family.
QS: Hi, Marin! First, would you tell me a little about your background and about your role at Quilt House? Your beat is usually more international, right?
MH: Yes, as Curator of International Collections, I’m responsible for building and interpreting our global quilt collection, in particular our non-Western pieces. I work with researchers, collectors, and dealers to acquire quilts and patchwork from regions like Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Africa, and Oceania. I also work with scholars to curate exhibitions about worldwide quilt traditions and to create modules for [the Study Center’s] "World Quilts" website. I love sharing diverse quilt and patchwork examples with our audiences—there's always something new to learn!
QS: Now, before we talk about the exhibit, let’s first talk about who the Jameses are and their connection to Quilt House and the Study Center.
MH: The IQSCM wouldn't exist without Ardis and Robert James. We were established in 1997 with the gift of their quilt collection to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Just as important, the James family has remained a staunch supporter of our collecting, research, and educational mission. They were lead donors for our museum facility and expansion and they have always been generous with time and resources in helping us build a world-class collection and program. They truly understand the importance of studying and sharing knowledge about quilts, which, as we all know, can shed light on so many different aspects of society, culture, and individual lives.
QS: I remember my mom talking about Ardis and Robert years ago, how amazing it was that the IQSCM was going to happen…She said, “Mary, when you visit Quilt House for the first time, you’ll cry.” And I did. I do every time! How many quilts, roughly, did the Jameses donate to help "seed" the IQSCM?
MH: They gave about 1,000 quilts, mostly antique American but also an excellent group of studio art quilts, as well as some international patchwork and quilting examples.
From L-R: Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, c. 1870-1890, IQSCM 2009.039.0009; Attic Windows
by Ardis Butler James (1925-2011), 1989. Image courtesy the International Quilt Study Center
& Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska.
QS: I hope I get to meet Mr. James someday. In a way, though, “Binding Threads”
kind of facilitates that encounter. It’s such an intimate, personal show. How many quilts in total?
MH: [The show’s] eight quilts are all pieces that are still in the hands of members of the James family or, in one case, a quilt that is now at IQSCM but was a treasured piece that Robert and Ardis James displayed in their home for many years, Robbing Peter to Pay Paul.
Because quilts became such a preoccupation for the Jameses, some of their fascination with them rubbed off on their children and grandchildren. Their son, Ralph, in particular, came to appreciate the history and beauty of quilts. He is especially fond of Crazy quilts, partly because his mother was, too. He told me, “My mother loved Crazy quilts—I think she always tried to imagine what the quiltmaker was thinking—and so naturally, I loved them, too.”
QS: A lot of quilters have "show" quilts and quilts they use for the "everyday”—which makes me think of "Everyday Use," that famous story by Alice Walker. Do you see that distinction being present here in the show? Like, these were the quilts in the James family, as opposed to the quilts in The James Family?
MH: Ardis and Robert loved collecting quilts, but many people don't know that Ardis was also a quiltmaker. She especially liked making quilts for her loved ones to use—and use them they did, and still do.
I think the tension in Walker's story between using and sequestering perhaps wasn't as foregrounded for the Jameses because they had such a large and important collection to cherish. They likely saw that as a way to preserve a collective, largely female, voice for future generations. I think they also understood that it was important to collect not just the "special"—read: expensively made—quilts.
For instance, they acquired many examples made from workaday wool fabrics— including ones that are usually assumed to have been tailors' samples. Having grown up in the 1930s, Ardis and Robert understood the importance of reuse and frugality. As Ralph James puts it, when talking about the antique, everyday quilts the family still owns: “These quilts remind me of the Depression era realities Mom and Dad always talked about.”
QS: The IQSCM does a really good job of mixing extraordinary masterworks from the past with exciting work being done right now—at the museum and also in this particular exhibit. In Quilt House, there are "humble" wool quilts in one gallery and intricately quilted calamancos in the next. How does this exhibit carry on the tradition of "high" and "low" in quiltmaking?
MH: In a very direct way, “Binding Threads” mixes everyday quilts with art pieces. I've already mentioned some of the functional—yet beautiful—pieces in the show, but we are also showing Ute Baunach's Herbstabtrieb (Autumn Drift), a studio art quilt acquired by Ralph James a few years ago. Additionally, we have included a commemorative piece: a digitally printed quilt made by artist Michael James [no relation] that reproduces the original architectural illustration of Quilt House. It was given to Robert and Ardis when the museum opened in 2008.
When you visit Quilt House, you’ll cry, too — in a good way! Photo courtesy IQSCM.
QS: Last question, because for me, “getting to know” a famous or long-loved quilt is truly like meeting a celebrity. The Robbing Peter to Pay Paul quilt in the “Binding Threads” show is truly one of my all-time favorite quilts I've ever seen.
MH: I dare anyone not to love that quilt. What's amazing is that Ardis and Robert loved it so much, they displayed it in a stairwell at their home and installed different colored carpet treads all the way up, each one matching a fabric in the quilt!
QS: That is amazing. That is absolutely amazing, and why didn’t I think of it? It’s the perfect way to decorate a house: entirely around a favorite quilt. Thanks, Marin.
MH: Thanks, Mary. You’re welcome!
For more information about “Binding Threads,” World Quilts, the entire IQSCM collection online, and much more, visit www.quiltstudy.org.