A painted picture usually comes to mind when someone hears the phrase “visual art”. On occasion, someone may think of sculptures when they hear those words. However, another example of “visual arts” is …..(drum roll please)…..”quilting”.
While “quilting” is not always perceived as “art” (perhaps due to its utilitarian purposes), it began to became more recognizable thanks to “The 1886 Bible Quilt” created by Harriet Powers. Her applique and piecework technique demonstrated both African and African-American influences. Ms. Powers, a folk artist, used those techniques to record bible stories and astronomical events.
Harriet Powers (1837 – 1910) was born into American slavery near Athens, Georgia. Early in life, she married Armstead Powers and they became landowners after the Civil War (1861 -1865). When she was nearly 50 years of age, Mrs. Powers began to exhibit her quilts at county fairs – where they were an i mmediate hit, and where she was discovered by “Jennie Smith” who was an artist and art teacher from the Lucy Cobb Institute. Later, and due to hard times, a very reluctant Ms. Powers sold the “1886 Bible Quilt” to Ms. Smith for $5. More importantly, however, she told her a narrative about each of the Eleven sections of the quilt. (I will leave it up to the interested reader to discover Ms. Powers’ narrative).
Now the twist.
In 1987, Pat Ferrero and Julie Silber (Board Member of the Alliance for American Quilts) produced a film based on their research. The film, Hearts and Hands: The Influence of Women & Quilts on American Society, challenged the notion that 19th Century quilts were merely functional. Among the narrated claims is a statement that, “They say quilts were hung on the clotheslines to signal a house was safe for runaway slaves.” In 1990, Gladys-Marie Fry, a folklorist, stated in her book “Stitched From The Soul”, that, “Quilts were used to send messages. On the Underground Railroad, those with the color black were hung on the line to indicate a place of refuge (safe house)….” Thus, “The Quilt Code” was born.
While there have been many authors (including Giles Wright, an historian and authority on the Underground Railroad in New Jersey) who have debunked the “Quilt Code Theory”, the conversation continues. (See: “The Underground Railroad and the Use of Quilts as Messengers for Fleeing Slaves” by Kimberly Wulfert (2011).
However, as the authorities debate the evidence and criterion for accepting the validity of an existence of a “code”, it may be apparent that art can and has been used for multiple purposes, including the communication of symbolic and direct(ions) messages.
For Steppers who are aware of the communication techniques in the dance, there is reason to consider the miracle of messaging in “partnered dancing” that allows two people to move as one unit – in time and space. Perhaps, someday, a “Jennie Smith” may discover the great variety of communication patterns and techniques involved in Steppin’. T hat discovery may even give the proverbial “Ms. Jennie Smith” a reason to conclude that there are elements of “applied skill” and “judgment” involved in this “structured-improvisational-partnered dance, that are not present in many other dances that are currently and more readily accepted as “Art”.
While I can assure you, as a practitioner and lover of Steppin’, that there is symbolism and communication in the production of this visual art (thru spontaneous physical expressions, that are the product of musical interpretation); I can also assure you that an equally contentious discussion about the value of the dance as cultural art (with deeper implications) is going to take place. First, however, lets hang that quilt up and put on that exhibition, so that Ms. Smith can observe, discover, and maybe even become a practitioner of Steppin.
Invite a friend to a Steppers’ Set in your neighborhood, and let them watch the art unfold in front of them.
If you don’t know where to find a Steppers’ Set (or an instructor) in your neighborhood, contact Phamily Steppers. We can show you where you can discover this art. Then you can determine, for yourself, whether the art is a code for communicating an escape to (freedom) stress reduction, health, and happiness.