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81

“A SERMON IN PATCHWORK”

NEW LIGHT ON HARRIET POWERS

GLADYS-MARIE FRY

[]

Since I first began writing about the African American quilter Harriet Powers in the early 1970s, interest in her life and work has greatly increased. She has been the subject of numerous essays, a book for children, and an off-Broadway play by Grace Cavaleri entitled Quilting in the Sun. In addition, a good deal of information about her life has come to light as the result of a project, dedicated to her, that was undertaken jointly in 1993 by the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution. That project's research has given substance to a biography hitherto short on even the simplest facts. The quilts themselves have been the subject of wide-ranging discussions. Scholars in conference and in print have explicated the meaning of Powers's work. Generally, they have seen in it evidence, on the one hand, of a highly religious Christian woman using her art to spread her faith and, on the other, of a clever artist who used Bible stories to introduce into her work African images and ideas that might otherwise have been forgotten. This discussion is likely to continue for some time as who Harriet Powers was emerges. The consensus is that Powers was an artist of considerable power and ingenuity, altogether worthy of the critical attention she has received. Seldom has a quilter been so much discussed, puzzled over, and revered.


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For all this interest and activity, little written material by people who actually met Powers exists, and what there is must be considered in light of attitudes toward African Americans held by most southerners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The most authentic material is a description of Powers and the first of her two “Bible quilts” by Jenny Smith, an art teacher who lived in Athens, Georgia, a town near Powers's home. It was Smith who first came into possession of a Powers work and who brought the quilter to the attention of the art world.

An article by Lucine Finch, “A Sermon in Patchwork,” which appeared in the October 28, 1914, issue of Outlook Magazine, provides another, in some ways even more provocative, look at Powers.[1] It not only provides a word portrait of the artist but also comments briefly on the meaning of the Bible quilt panels. It thus represents an important extension of the Harriet Powers legacy. In this essay I would like to discuss exactly what Finch's essay has added to our knowledge of this unusual quilter and to give some background on the article's author, who is almost as elusive as Powers herself.

THE QUILT CHANGES HANDS:
THE JENNY SMITH CONNECTION

The Harriet Powers story, as the world knows it, began on one remarkable day in 1891, when Powers and her husband, Armistead, made their way by oxcart from their Clarke County, Georgia, farm to the university town of Athens. With them, carried in a crocus sack, was Powers's first quilt, which she intended to sell to Jenny Smith, a teacher at Athens's Lucy Cobb Institute, a school for girls. When after a period of increasing prosperity for the Powers family times had suddenly grown hard, Powers remembered an offer she had had from Smith to buy the quilt, which Smith had seen in 1886 at an agricultural fair. According to Jenny Smith's written record, she purchased the quilt for five dollars, though the asking price was ten—an indication of how desperate the Powerses must have been for money. That it was difficult for Powers to part with the quilt is evident, for she returned to the Smith residence on several occasions to see it. In the course of these visits she explained something of the panels' meaning to Smith, who, luckily for future art historians and folklorists, recorded those explanations.[2]

In 1895, Smith exhibited the quilt at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, where it attracted the attention of faculty


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wives at Atlanta University. Several of these women, struck by the originality and beauty of the quilt, commissioned Powers to make a second. That second work eventually came into the possession of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, its current owner. The one bought by Smith, now housed in the Textiles Division of the Smithsonian Institution, represents the only other surviving work from the artist's hand.

Smith was curiously negligent about the quilt she had gone to such trouble to buy. Her meticulous will made no mention of it. According to her executor, Hal Heckland, the quilt was included among the “odds and ends” of her estate. It was Heckland who eventually donated the quilt to the Smithsonian Institution, along with a sixteen-page letter by Smith describing the quilt and the Outlook article by Lucine Finch.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF HARRIET
POWERS'S LIFE AND HER ARTISTIC INSPIRATION

Jenny Smith knew little about the quilter who had surrendered her masterpiece, but in its outward circumstances, as far as we know, Powers's life was not highly unusual for a woman of her race and time. Powers had been born a slave on October 29, 1837, and often talked to her patron about the days before the Civil War—a topic undoubtedly common in conversations between southern whites and blacks at the time. Like most former slaves, Powers was illiterate but generally shrewd in her business dealings, as various deeds and contracts in her name show. After 1894 she and her husband separated, and thereafter she lived independently in the country, paying her own taxes and perhaps earning her living as a seamstress.

Unfortunately, with advancing age, her income so declined that when she died at age seventy-four, in 1911, her estate was much reduced from what it had been ten years before. Like most African Americans of her era, she had worked hard all her life and had done whatever was necessary to raise her family in a society that placed little value on the lives and fortunes of African Americans. Certainly she could never have expected that her world and her artful quilts would one day be the focus of so much attention.

The Bible quilt (Figure 10) that Jenny Smith purchased was an interesting and ingenious combination of Bible stories, African motifs, and meteorological phenomena like the spectacular Leonid Star Shower of 1833 that had become part of African American folk memory.


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The quilt was constructed using the appliqué technique, a quilting method popular during the period, in which precut figures are sewn onto a blank background. The quilt contains eleven panels, or framed narrative scenes, in which Powers captures the stories of Bible characters like Adam and Eve, Jacob, Satan, and Jesus. Over half the panels are devoted to the story of the Garden of Eden, and the life of Jesus figures in several others.

The African element in the quilt can be seen in its design, its construction technique, and its use of narrative. The work in fact resembles the tapestries of the Fon people of West Africa, who also used the appliqué technique extensively. The Fon tapestries feature figures sewn onto a black or gold background, many of them animals that were totem representations of eleven significant kings. Perhaps because they are not portraits of real animals, these figures are pictured in unusual colors like green, blue, purple, and white and at times have an abstract quality. At the same time, the Fon tapestries illustrate well-known stories or proverbs in the Fon culture. Powers makes extensive use of uniquely realized animal figures and, like the Fon with their stories of the kings, presents in pictorial form Old Testament stories that had become part of the African American oral tradition. Finally, the astronomical bodies in her panels have, along with their connections to the folk history of African Americans, distinct African associations. The sun, which figures prominently in both her quilts, for instance, is an African symbol for the concept of circularity and the omniscience of God.

LUCINE FINCH: A SECOND EYEWITNESS

The African roots of the quilt were not known to Jenny Smith or to any other white viewer until recent years, when scholars of African art, looking at Powers's work, immediately associated it with figures and signs familiar to them from their research. Certainly those roots were not known to the Alabama writer Lucine Finch when three years after Harriet Powers's death she published her article about the Powers quilt. Lucine Finch was, however, acquainted with African American folkways. Her mother, Julia Neely Finch, was a well-known collector of “mammy songs,” and she herself would write a series of vignettes featuring former slaves she had known. She and Jenny Smith, the sole eyewitnesses to the Harriet Powers story who committed their views to


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figure

10. Harriet Powers, Appliqué quilt, ca. 1886


[Full Size]
paper, were similar in several interesting ways. Both were well born and well bred: Jenny Smith's father had been a successful cotton buyer in Athens, and Lucine Finch came from a distinguished Birmingham family. Both were unmarried artistic ladies who supported themselves through their art. They may well have met through Smith's brother, Wales, a popular journalist on a Birmingham daily, and it is possible that Jenny introduced Lucine to Powers.

Lucine Finch was younger than Jenny Smith, and her artistic ambitions were equally high. Smith had studied art not only in distinguished schools in America but in Paris. Finch's first love was music, and she was sufficiently good at it that she gave regular concerts, including one in Carnegie Hall in February 1919. A letter to her mother stresses her excitement about not only the performances but the money she would be paid for them: “Well, tomorrow is the eventful day when I make my first $150 fee for an hour's recital!!!” she noted brightly. “The next night I have my one at Carnegie Hall, for which I hope to make $50.”[3] In the same letter she speaks of a manager pressing to represent her—


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an indication of how seriously she was being taken in some quarters. But while she continued giving recitals well into the 1920s, even going on regular tours, her repertoire was, by her own admission, limited, and over time her engagements dwindled.

Lucine Finch seems to have been one of those individuals who had, by any normal standard, outstanding talents in many directions, but none of sufficient quality to bring sustained recognition. As with music, so with her writing. She published poetry, short stories, and the previously mentioned series of vignettes called “Slaves Who Stayed” but only two books, which earned her no notable critical or popular success. She was also deeply interested in drama—one of her books had been a play in verse—and in addition to her concert work, she was paid to stage dramas in the wealthy suburbs of Connecticut. There, though herself far from wealthy, she spent the decade, eventually opening a shop to supplement her income. During the 1920s Finch also took responsibility for her ailing mother, from whom she refused to be parted.

THE FINCH INTERVIEW AND ITS LIMITATIONS

Finch's article on Harriet Powers in Outlook shows Finch to have been a southern-bred woman of her time—more than a little patronizing about the mental and emotional qualities of African Americans. The article begins with a general regret that “‘the old timey’ Negro”—in other words, the former slave—was disappearing. The author takes Powers to be a good example of such a “Negro” and adopts the liberties one might expect. She does not give the circumstances of the interview, the background of the subject, or a physical description of her. Lucine Finch never identifies Powers by name, referring to her simply as an “aged Negro woman,” and she sees the quilt, not as a work of art, but only as the “reverent, worshipful embodiment of an old colored woman's soul.” Undoubtedly, the maker's reverence and worshipfulness are part of the quilt's power, but much that Finch takes for granted looks like artful camouflage on the quilter's part. What the white interviewer sees, for instance, as unintentional humor is, to the modern onlooker, a quality of whimsy consciously built into the work. Indeed, throughout the article, the reader is aware of many hesitancies and quiet evasions in Powers's words and expressions that the writer misses entirely.


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HARRIET POWERS DISCUSSES HER QUILT

The article in fact reveals Powers's attitudes and personality. After the introduction it proceeds to the eleven panels of the quilt and Powers's comments on them. These comments are written in dialect—at the time practically a literary convention in transcribing the words of African Americans—but the ideas are precise. Powers presents herself as an artist working out of the deep sense of personal humility many firstrate artists feel in approaching their work, of thankfulness for the artwork as a given—as received rather than produced—and of herself as a channel through which a greater power was speaking. She says that her intention was to “preach de Gospel in patchwork, ter show my Lawd my humbility.” In other words, the oral tradition of the African American slave, through which all religious beliefs and legends were communicated, is transmuted into the rich African American visual tradition. Moreover, in the patchwork—pieces of fabric otherwise unusable—the quilter finds a fitting metaphor for herself as the humble individual willing to offer herself and her talents to a great task.

Could this humility have been a pose? Possibly, considering the skill southern African Americans achieved in communicating self-effacement in the presence of whites. Yet the religious feeling Powers brought to her work is undoubtedly genuine, and much of it must have been evident in her life—one of her sons, we know, became a minister. Whatever her intent in construing her claim and her metaphor, however, she establishes here yet another important characteristic in her makeup—a highly poetical sense of language. She discusses her work pithily and at times cryptically in the article and in her metaphors gives evidence of that abstract quality of mind that is clearly visible in her designs. But she also remarks, with more than a hint of the prophetic in her voice, that the quilt will not simply tell a story but make plain an event of universal importance. Having established herself as the humble artist, she feels empowered to enter onto a great theme: “Dis heah quilt gwine show where sin originated, outen de beginnin' uv things”—the five panels of the Garden of Eden story.

Powers's references to the first panel show her keen sense of humor, some of it directed at herself, but also the care with which the quilt has been wrought. Lucine Finch praises her fine stitching but must have been surprised at the meaning invested in every figure. Even the smallest


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item is significant. Powers knows exactly why a figure was portrayed in a certain way. For instance, the devil, in the form of a snake, is presented with feet—an obvious reference to God's curse on the snake in the Book of Genesis, that it would, forever after the events in the Garden, move on its belly. The reason given for the feet is humorous but not without serious implications: “ter get aroun' man, chile.” Here is our first indication of how very aware Powers was of the symbolic quality of her work. The feet are not merely feet but a sign of guile, which itself points, in a later panel, to even more mysterious and terrible qualities of the devil.

In the same panel, Powers illustrates “forbidden fruit, or original sin.” The figure with which she represents original sin is a dressmaker's form (drawing from the astute Miss Finch an exclamation point). Here the form signifies not only the vanity through which Eve is traditionally supposed to have been seduced by the devil but also, with deliciously comic and ironic effect, Powers's own talents as a seamstress. Asked about the intricate trimming around the neck, Powers responds that it was designed “to ketch de eye er mortal man.” That is one of the aims of her quilt as well, indicating that catching the eye of mortal man was, at the least, a morally ambiguous act. The next panel continues the symbolism and the moral message. It represents Adam and Eve in the presence of a peacock, added to symbolize “dey proudness befo' de fall”—an extension of the idea of the dressmaker's form. Interestingly, the dressmaker's form and the peacock are female and male symbols respectively—a hint that Powers might not have been content with the traditional view of the Fall as the consequence of Eve's sin alone. Where there is iniquity in the story, there is also equity. Not for the first time in the quilt, Powers steps forth in feminist guise.

The third panel is one of the quilt's most striking. It represents “Satan in de Seven Stars,” the seven stars being the Pleiades. Shorn of his creaturely mask in the Garden, the devil appears in his real form—a black figure with one pink eye (“sinister in its effect,” Finch comments). The movement from the local event in the Garden to the dominant place of evil in the universe here goes back to Powers's intention of explaining how evil sprang from the beginning of things. She is not entirely forthcoming about this figure, however. The devil's “yuther eye is behin'” and “wusser 'n dis one,” she says. Asked to explain why Satan is holding one of the stars, she replies, “Dar ain't no tellin' dat, chile; no tellin' dat.” Such is the weight of meaning of all the other


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figures in the panels that Powers probably could have given a direct answer had she so chosen. Perhaps she only wanted to exaggerate the mystery of the figure, perhaps she was commenting on the ultimate unknowability of the great powers of the universe, perhaps she was working out of a symbolism (rooted in African lore) that Lucine Finch would not have understood. Or perhaps she knew that to explain too much about a work of art is to risk explaining it away. One of her most powerful figures, in any case, remained her secret, and remains so to this day.

Panels 4 and 5 focus on the story of Cain. Powers establishes firmly here a major part of her color scheme: positive figures (like Abel) are portrayed in white, and negative or at least morally ambiguous ones (like Cain) in what Lucine Finch calls “drab” or black. Abel also has sheep, which are sewn in white. Along with the small doves pictured in the first two panels, we see here the visual interconnections in the panels that lead up to the appearance of Christ the Lamb, as well as the Holy Ghost. Of Cain's slaying of his brother, Abel, Powers remarks that the stream of blood from Abel's death wound is “flowin' over de whole worl'.” In other words, Cain's act ushers death into the world, just as Christ's crucifixion and resurrection later bring in life, attained through the shedding of his blood. In such instances, Powers proves that she is theologian enough to know that the Creation story, in Christian belief, prefigures Christ's coming. It is no small matter, however, that the color white in much African symbolism is associated with the supernatural. Further, in panel 5 we see another possible African symbol: the lion, associated with Cain, according to Powers, “fer to prove de strength of Cain.” Such use is reminiscent of the Fon tapestries, where animals are portrayed not for their own sake but as totems of kings.

Panel 6 shows Jacob's wrestling with the angel in a dream. Powers whimsically remarks about the spotted ladder: “I couldn't turn myself loose in color, honey! De animals' calico 'blige ter run over in de ladder. Dar wa'n't no yuther way.” This explanation provides yet another instance of Powers's artistic eye at work. It reminds us that she makes two kinds of statements about the quilt in the article: the first is about meaning, related to the traditional Christian story, at which we are invited to experience wonder; the second is about craft. The first falls into the category of mystery; the second, of knowledge. Powers is never more sure of herself than when she explains why she adopted a certain


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color or design, saying flatly that there could be no other approach to the subject. But there is yet another arresting feature of this panel: the angel with whom Jacob wrestles is female. Quite apart from the possibility that the angel is an anima figure, Powers again takes a proto-feminist stance, countering traditional illustrations of such angels as male. Panel 6 also operates as a bridge between the story of the Fall in the Old Testament (panels 1–5) and the story of Christ in the New (panels 7–11). The choice of subjects for the panel is particularly apt because it shows man at odds with God as the result of the Fall, summing up the entire human experience from Adam to Jesus in one panel—a remarkable example of Powers's narrative economy.

The five panels presenting the life of Christ, in contrast to the Old Testament story with its linear development, dispense with chronology. They are ordered as follows: Christ's baptism, the crucifixion, Judas's betrayal, the Last Supper, and a portrait of the Holy Family. Powers carefully chooses her emphases to balance the older story. For instance, the baptism, in which the dove of the first two panels reappears, symbolizes the rebirth of the spiritual in the world, severed by the events of the Fall. Powers says that “de dove is kissin' him, an' John a-leadin' him by de han' like a chile,” stressing not only Christ's renascent spiritual quality but also his humility, which stands in such contrast to the pride of Adam and Eve in panels 1 and 2.

Panel 8, the crucifixion, counters the image of Cain's killing of Abel. Powers sews three suns into this panel to show the various stages in the event. Lucine Finch, quoting Powers, says, “First it [the sun] is black, the rays white, when ‘darkness come over de worl’ in dat minute.' Then it is white, ‘when de good Lawd accepted,’ and then turned to blood.” Also in red is the wound in Christ's side. The phrase “when de good Lawd accepted” hearkens back to the initial dispute between Cain and Abel, which revolved around a sacrifice; God accepted Abel's sacrifice and rejected Cain's, just as here Christ's sacrifice is accepted. Powers makes one remark that seems to baffle Finch: “Wipe it out in de worl', wipe it out in de worl'.” Yet these words are not so difficult to interpret: the “it” is original sin and its sign, the blood shed by Cain; Christ's blood has come to “wipe out” the stain of both sin and Cain's villainy. Powers was not, as Miss Finch assumes, being mystical.

The ninth panel shows Judas with his thirty pieces of silver: the man of sin, the human equivalent of the devil in the third panel. Referring to the silver coins, Powers says, “Missy Coomby counted 'em for me. Cos


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I kin count 'em backwards same as I kin count 'em forwards, an' dat ain' no way to count!” I have been unable to identify “Missy Coomby,” but the notion of counting backward is part of the folklore associated with witches and conjurers. To do anything backward is to upset the proper order of the world for evil purposes; thus counting backward is “no way to count.” Further strengthening the identification of this panel with panel 3, Powers produces a disk at the bottom, representing the “whole worl' wid sin on top of it.”

Lucine Finch's discussion of panel 10, the Last Supper, marks the last time we hear Powers's voice. Once again, she is concerned with the design elements of her quilt: “I giv' de Lawd a plate,” she says. “I couldn't spare no plate for de 'ciples.” This seems a small point indeed, but great works of art are made of many small points considered. In such comments we see the working out not only of Powers's meticulousness—also represented, for instance, by the fineness of her stitches—but also of her keen ability to see the relation of parts to the whole and to use symbols precisely. Christ alone has a plate because he is the true feast of the Last Supper from which all will feed. As always, her artistic economy is striking.

The final panel presents the Holy Family, the antitype of the family of Adam and Eve. What begins with a family ends with a family. The individuals who produce the beginning of history are replaced by individuals whose appearance heralds history's end. A certain circularity is involved, though the idea of loss and restoration is foremost.

Lucine Finch's article ends at this point, rather sentimentally, as she notes her own “wistfulness” in the presence of the quilt and her view of it as deriving from the “unbidden pathos” of the “deep heart” in all its sincerity. As I have tried to show, however, there is much more involved. Powers's comments both reveal her personality, invisible until the recovery of Lucine Finch's article except for what could be inferred from her quilts, and show how her mind worked—its basic generosity and its ability to deal with dramatic and complex events in concise form.

Since the 1970s much has come to light about Harriet Powers. The layers in which her life had been concealed have slowly been peeled away. Her life, family, and background are now, to a greater extent than ever before, accessible. But there is still much to learn and much work still to be done. For example, I have suggested that Harriet Powers may have encoded African images into her quilt. If so, for what purpose?


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Was she engaged in Africanizing Christianity? Was the quilt really a visual means of passing on oral material about an African belief system? Did Harriet Powers fill a role in the African American community apart from her apparent roles as mother, good Christian, and quilt maker? In investigations of this kind, one hopes, the core of the Powers story will be revealed.

A SPIRITUAL CONNECTION

I would like to conclude this essay with some personal thoughts and experiences related to the Powers Bible quilts. I really do not remember the exact date—though the year was 1972—when I first saw the Smithsonian-owned quilt. What I do remember is making a routine visit to the National Museum of American History and noticing an extraordinary quilt hanging alone on the museum's second level. The inscription read simply:

Made by Harriet

An ex-slave

Athens, Georgia

Here was the quilter's entire life summarized in three lines! But I thought how sad it was that the person who had made this wonderful art was not even identified by her last name.

When I returned to my normal routine, I did not forget “the quilt” and began visiting it regularly every Saturday afternoon. Fortunately, there was a bench in front of it, so I could sit, take in a full view of the work, and meditate on it. These were truly mystical experiences. I felt drawn to the quilt. But so many questions swirled in my mind: Who was Harriet? What was her history? How much was known about her life? What was her last name? Did she make any other quilts that had survived? If so, where were they? What did this extraordinary woman look like? When did she live?

My interest in Harriet Powers became more focused that same year as I prepared to present a paper to the American Folklore Society on her and another African American quilter. The summer before my paper was due, I made a routine business trip to Boston, where, finding myself with a free afternoon, I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. After viewing the museum's permanent collection and perusing the gift


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shop, I asked at the information desk if the museum owned any African American quilts, and, even more boldly, whether I could see a textile curator. When the curator appeared, she responded to my question about the quilts by saying, “Yes, we have several. The most important one was made by Harriet Powers.” It took a few minutes for me to connect the Harriet of the Smithsonian to the Harriet Powers of the Boston museum, but when I did, I exploded with inner excitement: “There is another quilt! I have a last name!” And then the curator said, “Would you like to see it?”

She took me to a storage facility on the museum's lower level. There I watched as she removed the quilt from a box and from its acid-free paper. I am not sure I was breathing while watching this process. But at last the quilt was spread out on a worktable and I was handed a pair of white gloves. Then the curator said, “I have to return to make an important phone call. Do you mind staying here by yourself for a few minutes?” At that she left, and, alone now, I touched the quilt, felt the raw, unprocessed cotton inside, looked closely at the various pieces of calico and other types of fabric Harriet Powers had used, and examined her quilting stitches, which I observed were fairly large to accommodate the raw cotton in the middle layer. My thoughts tumbled over each other. Harriet Powers's hands had touched this fabric, composed this square. The connection I felt with her at that moment was mystical. Then the curator returned. As I left, I remember thanking her for agreeing to see me on an unscheduled visit, but my mind was in a daze. “There are two of them! There are two of them!”

I presented my paper at the Folklore Society in Nashville, Tennessee, in the fall of that year, showing images of quilts by both Harriet Powers and Clementine Hunter (a Louisiana folk artist), as well as the animals in the Fon tapestries that resembled those of both artists. I had even visited the Benin embassy in Washington, D.C., to photograph its collection of tapestries, including one of a magnificent peacock. Once I had given the paper, I put Powers temporarily out of mind. But it seems that she was not through with me. During Christmas vacation in 1974, my telephone rang unexpectedly. I had an unlisted number, known only to family and friends, and the call came at a time of day, noon, when I was seldom home. The call was from the Georgia Council for the Arts asking me if I would be interested in coming to Athens, Georgia, for two weeks to research Harriet Powers's life—all expenses paid. The end product of this research would be an essay in a monograph


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to be entitled Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1776–1976. The call came on a Saturday; on Monday morning I was on my way to Athens, Georgia.

As a result of the research I did in Athens, the inscription on the plaque under Harriet Powers's quilt in the Smithsonian now reads:

Harriet Powers

An ex-slave

Born 1837, died 1911

Harriet Powers, at long last, had the beginnings of a personal history, and I had a new passion—nineteenth-century quilts—that eventually resulted in a book and three major exhibitions.

Having done so much work on the art and life of Harriet Powers, I now sometimes imagine her smiling down on me. In those moments I ask myself whether that smile means approval or encouragement, telling me that, though much has been done, more—much more—awaits unraveling. I like to think it is a bit of both.

NOTES

1. Outlook Magazine was a publication of the Congregationalist Church, edited by Lymon Abbott. [BACK]

2. A reproduction of the quilt can be found on the Internet at the following site: http://www.comet.net/writersc/lyonsden/html/stars.htm [BACK]

3. I would like to thank Andrea Watson of the W.E. Hoole Library at the University of Alabama for making photocopies of the Lucine Finch letters available to me. [BACK]


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