This I Accomplish, Part III (in memory of Dr. Monni Adams, 1920-2014)

Pictorial Quilt (American, Athens, GA), 1895–98. Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910). Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik (64.619). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Black Art, an international quarterly; Volume 3, Number 4

The pleasure of pulling a book off the shelf in our towering Textile and Fashion Arts library is enhanced by the occasional glimmer of some remote memory or recognition, as I open to an image, a textual passage, a name. In my search for material written about the iconic Pictorial Quilt by Harriet Powers, I located an essay in the journal Black Art, an international quarterly.  The author: Marie Jeanne Adams. Then came the glimmer—I realized she was the distinguished scholar and educator of African and Oceanic art to whom I was introduced some twenty odd years ago as “Monni.”

Dr. Monni Adams speaking in 2011 at her exhibition Masked Festivals of Canton Bo (Ivory Coast), West Africa at the Tozzer
Library, Harvard University. Web source: Tribal Arts Magazine (click image for web page).

Thus, I came to learn that Marie Jeanne Adams changed her surname at some point in her life after publishing The Harriet Powers Pictorial Quilts in Black Art, the possible reasons for which remained a mystery according to tributes published after her death. A petite woman of exceptional presence and personality, Monni’s incisive wit, energy and vitality were extraordinary and left an indelible impression.  She had already reached the age of 59 when she published the essay I refer to here in 1979, long before I met her, and she never ceased contributing to the fields of anthropology and art history through her teaching, curatorial accomplishments, field research and writing. Her last paper was published in African Arts at the age of 91; she died on December 24, 2014. I was greatly pleased to have this renewed connection to Monni Adams by way of Harriet Powers and her quilts, and a chance to further explore the MFA’s textile treasure through an illuminating study.

Adams begins with a general history and description of the Pictorial Quilt (see also This I Accomplish, Part I and Part II) and places the quilt in the broader context of “folk art.” Discourse I’ve been exposed to about usage of this term and other labels such as “outsider art” points to a constellation of problematic issues relating to culturally-biased, limiting, and inaccurate representations of artists assigned to this class and the work they create. Elaborating on her frame of reference, Adams makes the following comment:

In terms of value or importance, folk art might also be called the art of powerlessness for it usually deals not with problems of power or authority or large spiritual issues but with small purposes or trivial concerns, so that it can afford to be cheerful, fanciful, unambiguous and innocuous.”

Detail, Block #14: “The creation of animals continues.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Adams’ classification of the quilt, in an essay written forty years ago, proves itself inadequate by her own admission, as we shall see later. Needless to say, my real intention here is to follow her thought process as one person seeking to comprehend and interpret the object itself through the mind and hands of the maker, Harriet Powers.

The Biblical themes in Powers’ Pictorial Quilt:, such as Job praying for his enemies (#1); Adam and Eve in the garden (#4); Jonah and the Whale (#6) and the Crucifixion of Christ (#15)—as well as scenes marking historic celestial events: The dark day of May 19, 1780 (#2); The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833 (#8), and The red light night of 1846 (#12)—form the thematic subjects by which Harriet Powers gave expression to her convictions and declared her faith. Adams contends the maker gave deep thought to her compositions in the MFA’s quilt, the second of only two known quilts by Powers, demonstrating increased mastery of complexity and scale:

Quilt block #4: “Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve tempted by the serpent. Adam’s rib by which Eve was made. The sun and the moon. God’s all-seeing eye and God’s merciful hand.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The scope of her interest shows in the many different kinds of motifs she introduces, representing men, women, children, large animals, birds and other small creatures, fantasy beasts of Revelations, trumpets and a bell, a house, a boat, a coffin and special symbols such as the hand of God, stars, comets, and other cosmic bodies.”

…and in the following four images, Adams looks closely at the maker’s visual vocabulary by pointing out communicative details, such as spikes of frozen breath of the mule (#11); the choice of gold metallic thread to outline the figures of Bob Johnson and Kate Bell (rich sinners, according to Powers), elaborated in a series of loops to depict a crown on Kate’s head (#13); and blood and water streaming from the side of the crucified Christ conveying a visceral experience of horrific suffering (#15).

Detail, quilt block #11: “Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895. A woman frozen while at prayer. A woman frozen at a gateway. A man with a sack of meal frozen. Icicles formed from the breath of a mule. All blue birds killed. A man frozen at his jug of liquor.” ~Harriet Powers (Click image for fuller detail of this quilt block.) Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Quilt block #13: “Rich people who were taught nothing of God. Bob Johnson and Kate Bell of Virginia. They told their parents to stop the clock at one and tomorrow it would strike one and so it did. This was the signal that they had entered everlasting punishment. The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Detail of Kate Bell’s crown, quilt block #13 (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Quilt block #15: “The crucifixion of Christ between the two thieves. The sun went into darkness. Mary and Martha weeping at his feet. The blood and water run from his right side.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Celestial bodies, depicted in all but one quilt square, stand out as meticulously worked elements. Quilt blocks #2, #8, and #12 in particular illustrate historic atmospheric events that occurred across the skies of the United States, stories of which spread by way of oral tradition; Adams suggests these compositions reveal Powers’ greatest gifts:

She carefully varies yet re-uses patterned cloth pieces in the appliquéd figures and repeats types of motifs, such as the heavenly bodies, devices that subtly link the scenes together…She lavishes attention on these heavenly bodies; they give the scenes their scale and aura of importance. In contrast to the other figures, each of which is formed with one piece of appliqué, the cosmic motifs are composed of tiny pieces of cloth, painstakingly fitted into sharply pointed forms of contrasting color, and sewn together by hand.”

Center, quilt block #2: “The dark day of May 19, 1780. The seven stars were seen 12 N. in the day. The cattle wall went to bed, chickens to roost and the trumpet was blown. The sun went off to a small spot and then to darkness.” ~Harriet Powers (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Detail views of Powers’ stitching of celestial imagery (Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

By following Adam’s observations, from small details to broader thematic ones, and based on how the Pictorial Quilt was progressively stitched, I learned that the individual squares were connected in vertical columns. It stands to reason that Powers made deliberate choices about the arrangement of scenes. Adams’ close reading of the quilt’s visual elements and their configurations reveals that the scenes are consolidated thematically, crystallizing narrative poles of punishment and redemption; of apocalypse and salvation—spiritual concerns of scale that hardly conform to an “art of powerlessness”:

The more one examines the style and the content of Harriet Powers’ work, the more one sees that it projects a grand spiritual vision that breaks out of the confines of folk art. Pondering the pictorial content of each scene and its relationships to the others leads one to realize the depth of her concern for and how well she grasped the apocalyptic yet redemptive vision of Christian doctrine.”

If we look at quilt block #13, at the bottom of the third column, we see what is arguably the most important icon of God’s redemptive power as envisioned by Powers: “The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia…”  Betts reigns supreme as the largest single figure on the quilt, foregrounding the rich sinners who await their eternal punishment (could Bob Johnson and Kate Bell have been former slave owners)? In her methodical synthesis of the connective tissue of Power’s fifteen quilt blocks, Adams locates Betts as the essential fulcrum of a dynamic narrative playing out across the surface of Harriet Powers’ creation:

Detail view of Betts the hog, quilt block #13: “…The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts.” ~Harriet Powers (Click image for fuller detail of this quilt block)

Bett’s flight provides a scarcely veiled reference to the path of runaway slaves of pre-Civil War days. This image crimps together at this central point the grand meaning of the religious theme and the struggle for freedom from slavery and suggests a parallel between Mrs. Powers’ faith in the Biblical stories of deliverance and her vision of her life experience as a freed slave. Viewed in this light, juxtaposing events within the first four columns from the Old Testament and from the skies over the United States makes sense as comparable old orders. The last column stands alone as a lasting message of deliverance.”

If Betts stands as a symbol for the human struggle for freedom and the possibility of a long and hard-won journey to independence—then I observe, in higher relief, the subtle line of bright orange fabric surrounding the contours of the hog. Powers placed two layers of fabric together (laying the brownish fabric over the orange layer), stitched the outline of Betts’ body within the cut edges of the two layers,  and then, with calculated attention and patience—not unlike her painstaking rendering of celestial bodies—the maker carefully trimmed the edges of each fabric layer close to her line of stitching, starting with the top layer. She chose to trim the orange layer quite close to the first, leaving just enough to reveal a glowing sliver of incandescent radiance: a clue that Betts the hog is no ordinary farm animal.

Monni Adams (1920-2014) with one of her masks (personal collection). Web source: The Boston Globe; Photo: Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer. Click image for web page.

A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.

This I Accomplish, Part II

Pictorial Quilt (American, Athens, GA), 1895–98. Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910). Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik (64.619). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The historic contexts surrounding the iconic quilts made by former Georgia slave, Harriet Powers, are so fascinating and rich. Only two of her quilts are known to survive, and each is housed in a major Museum collection. Her earlier quilt, known as the Bible Quilt, is at the Smithsonian, and the Pictorial Quilt, made ten years hence, is here at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In last month’s post, I explored accounts related to the earlier of the two quilts: stories and texts that gave rise to a fuller understanding of the maker herself. With that as an introduction, let’s now take a closer look at the quilt we so proudly steward and cherish here in Boston.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 1st row above (blocks 3 & 4), 2nd row below (blocks 8 & 9). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It is not known whether the Pictorial Quilt was created by Harriet Powers on commission, or whether she sold it after it was completed, but we do know that her quilt was presented as a gift by female faculty members, or wives of Atlanta University professors, to Presbyterian minister Rev. Charles Cuthbert Hall (1852-1908) when Hall was serving as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. Those who read my previous post on Harriet Powers and her quilts will recall that in 1895, Jennie Smith, the young artist/educator who purchased the Bible Quilt from Powers, placed it on exhibit at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, GA. It is quite possible that the women who had ties to Atlanta University saw the Bible Quilt at the Exposition, were impressed by what they saw, and approached the maker about creating another quilt.

The year of the gift is thought to be 1898, marking the beginning of a stable home for Harriet Powers’ Pictorial Quilt in the life of the Hall family for six decades. For some portion of those years, the quilt was hung in a Victorian summer home built by Charles Hall in Westport Point, MA, which he named “Synton House.” It was installed with simple tacks on the wall of the 2nd floor hallway. After Charles passed away in 1908, his eldest son Rev. Basil Douglas Hall (1888-1979), also a minister, inherited the quilt when he was twenty years of age.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 2nd row above (blocks 8 & 9); 3rd row below (blocks 13 & 14). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Pictorial Quilt’s story takes a turn in 1960, when Basil Hall was seventy years of age, and finances were tight. At around this time, he sold Synton House to his son-in-law, George Utter. He also decided to gather up the family quilt, along with notecards inscribed with handwritten descriptions of each story block, and a small photograph of Harriet Powers taken around the time of the quilt’s gifting to his father—removed them from Synton House—and brought them to the textile department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It would appear that Basil Hall may not have made an appointment, judging by the words of Adolph S. Cavallo, Textile Curator at the time:

A man walked in one day and put it on the table…I had never seen a quilt like that…the richness of her [Harriet Power’s] imagination was fascinating, so touching, so sweet, and so human.”

This moment was indeed a turning point, as Basil Hall offered to sell the quilt to the MFA, leaving it temporarily in Cavallo’s care as the proposition was taken into consideration.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 1st row above (blocks 1 & 2); 2nd row below (blocks 6 & 7). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

For Adolph Cavallo, the issue would not concern the purchase itself: rather, it was the way he would approach the acquisition, which he believed would carry more prestige if the quilt were to become part of a certain donor collection. The donor Cavallo had in mind was Maxim Karolik, who, together with his wife Martha Codman Karolik, made a decision around 1935 to build their collection in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts. Karolik wrote of the collecting philosophy that he and his wife shared:

People who would like to see representative works by the well-known and much-praised painters will find them in this collection; but they are incidental to a larger purpose, which is to tell the whole story through that period—the story of the known, the little known, and the unknown artists. Only an ensemble of all types of creative work, I believe, can adequately show what happened in that period. The well-known names—the popular Stars—are only part of the story.”

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 3rd row (block 15). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

With Adolph Cavallo as intermediary, Maxim Karolik readily agreed to purchase the Pictorial Quilt from Rev. Basil Hall with the intention of gifting it as a bequest to the MFA. Karolik passed away in 1963, and a year later, the Pictorial Quilt and its related documentation formally entered the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Pictorial Quilt is impressively large: 69″ x 105.” Its presence in the confines of the upstairs hallway of Synton House must have loomed large, especially for the children and young members of the family who must have spent countless hours together upstairs, away from the adults, captivated by the lively spirit and storytelling qualities of Powers’ magnificent quilt. Robert Utter, a great-grandson of Charles C. Hall, recalled spending many weekends at Synton House and remembered he and his younger sister Loraine making up their own tales about the quilt blocks. I picture in my mind’s eye the imaginary universe conjured by these young siblings, bringing them close to the quilt—free to explore the multi-patterned fabrics and appliqué shapes with their fingertips—extending the quilt’s life as an object imbued with creative vitality, and becoming a part of it.

‰Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 3rd row (block 11). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.‰

In a series of telephone interviews in 2008 with Kyra E. Hicks, author of This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces, Robert Utter shared his recollections of the Pictorial Quilt and would go on to divulge a long-held personal secret, the memories of which surfaced upon his first direct encounter with the quilt some forty years later. The year was 2001, when the MFA organized an exhibition to showcase the Museum’s growing folk art collection. American Folk prominently featured the Pictorial Quilt, regarded by many to be the single most important object on display. Robert Utter’s mother organized a family excursion to the Museum to visit the quilt that in 1964, had been accessioned into its textile collection.

At the time of the exhibition, Utter was 48 years of age:

I dreaded seeing the quilt. I sensed that I might have done something to the quilt or dreamt I might have. The whole family was there…Then I saw it and yes, I realized that I had done something. I was a little shocked, queasy…”

The young Robert Utter—using a Bic® ballpoint pen with black ink—drew eyes on some of the figures.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 2nd row (block 5, with penned-in eyes). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I never told anyone.”

I find myself particularly touched by this story, especially when I see these wide-open, penned-in eyes looking out at the viewer, enchanting us with spiky eyelashes and an innocent stare. On the very figure that Harriet Powers identified as a “seven-headed beast and 10 horns” (click here for complete quilt block descriptions), the alluring expression bestowed upon the creature at the hand of a young child seems amazingly in step with the playful, imaginative spirit of her quilt. Standing in front of the quilt that he knew intimately as a child, Robert Utter showed his older sister Katie the places where he had applied his Bic® pen. Her reaction was to turn around to the others and declare:

My brother did the eyes!”

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 2nd row (block 9, with penned-in eyes). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Well, we know that Robert Utter drew some of the eyes—the others were appliquéd by Harriet Powers to the quilt top. But Utter’s admission did resolve a puzzling question for some familiar with the Pictorial Quilt, who wondered why Powers would solely hand-stitch the eyes on her Bible Quilt characters, then use two separate methods to achieve the same purpose on the Pictorial Quilt. This is purely speculative, but my own thought is that Harriet Powers intentionally appliquéd some of her figures with eyes and chose to leave some without—achieving a particular aesthetic result that was pleasing to her.

Detail: Pictorial Quilt. 1st row (block 3, with penned-in eyes). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Stories such as this one, involving a child’s creative impulse, locates the Pictorial Quilt in a living relationship with human actors throughout the life of its history and makes me wonder what Harriet Powers would have thought of the young boy’s inspired additions to her quilt?

Author Kyra Hicks includes comprehensive resources pertaining to Harriet Powers’ quilts’ histories and exhibition records, annotated bibliographies, and timelines in this book.

Kyra E. Hicks, author of This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (Black Threads Press, 2009) is credited for providing the primary source material for this post. Her book is a comprehensive resource, and a must-read for any person interested in learning more about Harriet Powers and her quilts. I find pleasure and inspiration in Hicks’ highly personal accounts that engender for her readers a sense of excitement and suspense as she follows her nose to uncover myriad details. I also appreciate the questions that she poses for herself, and for her readers, in the process of piecing her research together. Throughout her book, one experiences the author’s palpable reverence for the person of Harriet Powers and her creative mind.

There is still more to come on this subject. Until then, you can explore close-up images and descriptions of each of the fifteen quilt blocks, as told in the artists’ own words, on our collections page at mfa.org.


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.

This I Accomplish

Pictorial Quilt (American, Athens, GA), 1895–98. Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910). Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik (64.619). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Set apart as an iconic work in the encyclopedic collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a 19th century quilt. The world-renowned Pictorial Quilt, depicting Biblical themes with bold and graphically animated vignettes, including figures both human and animal, is one of only two known surviving quilts made by Harriet Powers, an African-American woman who was born into slavery in 1837. Her other quilt, made a decade earlier and known as the Bible Quilt, is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

What we know about Harriet Powers emanates from the earlier quilt that she stitched, so let’s begin at that place in the story. The Bible Quilt made its auspicious debut to the general public when Powers placed it on exhibit at the Cotton Fair of 1886 in Athens, GA (thought to be the Northeast Georgia Fair held November 9-13, 1886). Among the individuals who were touched by seeing the quilt for the first time were two white women who would go on to record, in written form, the stories behind each block of the Bible Quilt. Whether from first-hand verbal dictation by the artist, or through personal reflections about Power’s artistry penned into a journal, these texts have enriched our ability to enter both the Bible Quilt and the Pictorial Quilt more fully, where one can palpably sense the artist’s deeply-rooted spiritual core that breathes life into these precious textiles.

Bible Quilt (American, Athens, GA, 1885-1886). Harriet Powers, American (1837-1910). Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H M. Heckman (283472). Photograph © Smithsonian National Museum of American History . Click image for Smithsonian web source.

The Bible Quilt’s presence at the Cotton Fair of 1886 captured the attention of Jennie Smith (1862—1946), a young artist and teacher. Smith approached Powers to buy the quilt, but the maker was unwilling at the time to part with it. At a later date, when her finances were tighter, Powers responded positively to another inquiry from Smith, who at the time was only able to pay one half of Power’s asking price of ten dollars:

She arrived one afternoon in front of my door in an ox-cart, with the precious burden in her lap encased in a clean flour sack, which was still further enveloped in a crocus sack…She offered it for ten dollars, but I only had five to give…After giving me a full description of each scene with great earnestness, and deep piety she departed, but has been back several times to visit the darling offspring of her brain. She was only in a measure consoled for its loss when I promised to save her all my scraps.”

~ Jennie Smith, Handwritten essay, c. 1891, Textile Department, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.

1n 1895, Smith placed the Bible Quilt on display at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, GA, where African-Americans were given a separate exhibition venue. It was here that Lorene Curtis Diver (1846—1922), another pivotal figure in this story, first laid eyes on the quilt, having traveled the long distance from Keokuk, IA to attend the fair. The quilt made a deep impression—she would later write about it as “A Sermon in Patchwork.” Diver’s pressing desire to own the quilt persisted even after she received the following note from its owner, presumably in response to an inquiry:

Received of Harriet Powers a Biblical Quilt for which I gave her five dollars and enough calico to make another quilt.”

Jennie Smith
September 1894

Copy of letter from Jennie Smith to Mrs. James B. Diver, Keokuk, IA in the Lorene C. Diver file, Lee County Historical Society

What we owe to Lorene Divers’ determined interest to own the Bible Quilt, now at the Smithsonian, is a gift of invaluable text that offers us important information about the quilt’s maker. It also provides proof that Powers created at least five quilts, leaving us to wonder what might have happened to the other fruits of her creative hands and mind. After tracking down her mailing address, Divers sent Powers a letter, to which the following reply was received:

Athens, GA
Jan 28th 1896

Photograph of Harriet Powers

The life of Harriet Powers. Born in Madison Co. 8 miles from Athens on the Elberton Road in the year Oct. 29, 1837. Her mistress was Nancy Lester. I commenced to learn at 11 years old and the white children learn me by sound on a popular leaf. On Sundays after that I __on books  and done my own studying. I was married to Armsted Powers 1855. When I was free I moved to Dondy, Ga. In 1872 I made a quilt of 4 thousand and 50 diamonds.

In 1886 we moved to Athens and in 1887 I represented the star quilt in the colored fair association of Athens – Mr. Madison Davis, Pres, E. W. Bridy, clerk. The quit of mine taken the premium.

In 1882 I became a member of the Mt. Zion Baptist church. Then I visited Sunday school and read the Bible more than ever. Then I composed a quilt of the Lord’s Supper from the New Testament. 2 thousand and 500 diamonds.

In the year 1888, I composed and completed the quilt of Adam And Eve in the Garden of Eden—afterward sold it to Miss. Jennie Smith, and it was represented by her at the Exposition in Atlanta. I was there at the Ex — Dec. 26, 1896.

I am the mother of 9 children—6 dead and 3 living. I am 58 years old.

After leaving Atlanta it was said that I was dead—it was not so, for I was at the Exposition because I present the Governor of the colored department a watermelon Christmas gift. I am enjoying good health in Athens, Ga.

This I accomplish
Harriet Powers

Copy of letter from Harriet A. Powers to Mrs. James B. Diver, Keokuk, IA in the Lorene C. Diver file, Lee County Historical Society. 

The above letter from Harriet Powers survives as a hand-written copy, possibly in the hand of Lorene Divers. There are inconsistencies on some of the dates. Nevertheless, the scarcity of personal records from African-American women in this period of history underscores the significance of Powers’ surviving quilts and their associated texts—and the potency they convey as physical embodiments of a person’s life, faith, and sensibility so exuberantly expressed. For me, these objects carry and transmit value beyond measure.

Looking at the Pictorial Quilt up close is to commune with the stitching hands of its creator while gazing into the eyes of history and bearing witness to moments in time that are remembered throughout generations. On this July 4, 2018, I’m inspired to include the image below of one quilt block in particular, situated squarely in the middle of the Pictorial Quilt:

Detail of Pictorial Quilt block (third row, middle) depicting the historic Leonid meteor shower on Alabama and other areas of the Northeast in 1833. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833. The people were frightened and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds.”

~ Harriet Powers, dictating the story illustrated in this Pictorial Quilt block

19th century woodcut depicting the 1833 Leonid meteor shower that streaked across Alabama. Click image for web source.

The “falling of the stars” as seen by those who witnessed the Leonid meteor storm of 1833 must have been a most amazing sight to behold! The storm was an unusually active display of meteors—specks of debris from a Halley-type comet, often as small as grains of sand—that briefly streak across the sky as they burn up in the atmosphere. It was a significant and memorable event, described as the sky “literally filled with fireworks.” People were said to be terrified, and that many believed it was the end of the world! The phrase “Stars Fell on Alabama” became a hit song in 1934, appeared as the title of a book published that same year, and graced Alabama license plates from 2002-2009.

The contents of this post about Harriet Powers and her quilts are greatly informed by Kyra E. Hicks’ book, This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (Black Threads Press, 2009). Hicks offers us a highly personal account of her research journey, and documents comprehensive resources pertaining to the quilts’ histories, annotated bibliographies, and timelines.

The MFA’s treasured quilt by Harriet Powers will continue to be the subject of future posts! In the meantime, I invite you to explore close-up images and descriptions of each of the fifteen quilt blocks, as told in the artists’ own words, on our collections page at mfa.org.


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.

Image and Message

Detail of mantle fragment created in block color style. Wool plain-weave with stem-stitch embroidery. Peruvian (Paracas). Denman Waldo Ross Collection (21.2556). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In the absence of any written texts, woven and embroidered fabrics and ceramic pottery are all that remain of Paracas civilization. It has been a privilege to look closely at textiles in our collection that miraculously survived for nearly two millennia; ritually buried with their dead in the arid sands of the Paracas Peninsula, protected from the vicissitudes of light and moisture. Exploring the intriguing Paracas embroideries of ancient Peru has made me familiar with some of the theories and interpretations about how these textiles may have functioned within the culture. The piecing together of actual details is difficult, but the stories that I find most interesting are those that weave themselves into textile structure itself for clues.

A comparison of two formally and iconographically different embroidery styles is one way of understanding the ways these textiles transmitted discrete knowledge within the society. In my blog post A Hidden Order, I wrote about the distinctive block color embroidery–a highly expressive, flexible, and pictorially detailed style of fashioning images onto cloth (see images above and below). Here, embroidery is worked in stem stitch to both outline and fill in the negative spaces of compositional details such as arms, legs, eyes, mouth, costume elements, wings, appendages, and the backgrounds of borders. Figures embroidered along borders and on the woven field portray humans in costume,  supernatural beings, animals and anthropomorphic figures in vivid colors, allowing for the depiction of real, physical objects from direct observation.

Border fragment, wood plain weave with stem stitch embroidery in block color style. Peruvian (Paracas) Seth K. Sweetzer Fund (31.901). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Another style called “linear” embroidery (see image below) is conceptually and visually divergent from block color style. Whereas block color embroidery is characterized by freehand, curvilinear stitches to identify realistic shapes and figures, linear embroidery stitches faithfully follow the warp and weft pathways of the woven ground, resulting in figures and patterns that are geometric. In the linear style, the background is created first with a series of parallel-running stem stitches. Images emerge as negative spaces that are then outlined with contrasting colored yarns. In this manner, both figure and ground are built up simultaneously, and distinctions between the two are more subtle.

CURRENTLY ON VIEW in Gallery LG33. Detail of mantle created in linear style embroidery, Peruvian (Paracas). Camelid plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery; fringe. . John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund (1972.353). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Anne Paul, who I cite extensively in my posts on the Paracas embroideries, tells us in her book Paracas Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru that formal and iconographic elements of linear style embroidery are consistent from sample to sample, with some designs transmitted over the duration of many generations, without major changes. She considers the fabrication process to explain why such designs would resist innovation over time:

The design plan of linear style embroidered images was conceived as though it were woven: the artist counted the particular sequence of warps or wefts to be covered by thread in each row of the background. Thus, a design could be counted out, assuring iconographic and formal consistency among the same type of images.”

Poncho embroidered in the linear style. Peruvian (Paracas). Camelid plain weave, embroidered. Mary Woodman Fund (31.496). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Referencing block color embroidery as a means to depict realistic imagery, Paul compares this fluid working method to the opposing linear style method that aligns itself along the structural matrix of woven fiber– and thereby explains how this latter process, resulting in conventionalized symbols, plays a role in the transmission of a different form of cultural knowledge:

The procedure for creating a linear design implies that the image was not thought of as an entity separate and discrete from the background, since figure and ground were built up together; it was a method  of working that was not suited to the copying of forms in nature. It is as if, in terms of working procedures, the linear style were more appropriate for the description of non-perceptual knowledge, as if the images were derived originally from non-visual sources. In fact, the images depicted in linear style are more generic in character, compared to the specific block color designs, which depict species of animals and details of costuming.”

Paul considered the disparate embroidery styles as encoding different types of information. In my blog post A Hidden Order, I included comments she made based upon her actual observations of Necrópolis mummy bundles, where she proposes that block color figures portrayed on embroideries found buried with their dead (for example, bird impersonators) represented the deceased person in life; establishing an association with a particular cult entity. The flexible rendering of pictorial images by use of this style fulfilled this purpose. Looking at linear style embroideries, Paul postulates how these functioned as communicators of traditional meaning:

…the method did have a potentially important advantage: the creation of a pattern encoded in a formula that was in turn governed by the structure of the cloth guaranteed a regular repetition of the image. Once the sequence of stitches for every row was learned, it was relatively easy to repeat the design consistently. This would have been an advantage if an image carried traditional meaning, necessitating repetition without variation through time.”

Border fragment, Peruvian (Paracas). Plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery worked in linear style. Samuel Putnam Avery Fund (35.1125). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Linear style embroidery that employed the woven plane as a master template for both the number and direction of stitches, building geometric forms that mirror the essential structures of woven fiber, encoded a different type of message that by its nature, was more abstract and universal. I end this post with a final thought from Anne Paul about the role linear embroidery style may have served in maintaining the continuity of traditional knowledge in Paracas culture:

The formal characteristics of linear style images—that is, the stylistic features that make them visually elusive—together with the presence of iconographic conventions used in ancient Peruvian art to indicate supernatural status and the absence of elements of costume and details that allow identification of animal species, suggest that linear style images are supernatural and mythical rather than physically real objects…

Detail of stem-stitch embroidery in linear style. John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund (1972.353). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

…This style was highly symbolic, a vehicle for the communication of abstract information. The types of abstract information that could be made visible through a conventionalized style would be such things as the names of ancestors; lineage, clan, or family names; and symbols of community supernaturals or nature spirits. Images carrying expressive content of this sort would produce patterns of distribution over time that conform most closely to those of linear style images: they likely would be represented over long spans of time in an unchanging way, and although there would not be a need for many different images, the existing images would be shared by many persons over many generations.”


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.

A Hidden Order

Man’s mantle and two border fragments, embroidered with bird impersonators. Peruvian (Paracas). Wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Paracas embroiderer rarely, if ever, failed to realize her end, no matter how involved her plan. We ourselves are likely to be hopelessly lost in these compositions in which pattern elements-shapes, positions, colors, and techniques-are variously combined and played over a surface with unparalleled virtuosity.”
~ Cora E. Stafford, Paracas Embroideries: A Study of Repeated Patterns

My focus on the transcendent Paracas embroideries used for ritual purposes, from study fragments to large mantles on view in the MFA’s Ancient American galleries, in tandem with reading about the subject, has taught me something about the dominant embroidery styles, which are most commonly called 1) block color, 2) linear, and 3) broad line. According to Paracas scholar Anne Paul, these three styles coexisted temporally, and were emblematic of specific symbolic and communicative purposes. This makes a great deal of sense to me as an artist: the styles are visually divergent, the fabrication choices are intentional, and respective approaches to rendering imagery result in iconographies that read very differently. Though we cannot know the true meaning these embroidered garments conveyed in Paracas culture, it’s intriguing to imagine how the differently-styled textiles may have functioned. In today’s post I focus on block color embroidery, the most varied of the three styles.

Block color style: Detail of bird impersonator embroidered on man’s mantle and two border fragments (Peruvian, Paracas). Wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The embroidered figure above has been described as a bird impersonator – it’s not difficult to see why! Block color style embroidery allowed for the fluid rendering of readily identifiable images that were reflective of a Paracas world view and its relationship with an ecological order. The standing figure sports in colorful detail a ritual garment, mask, headdress and accoutrement thought to have been worn by a Paracas leader. Having studied the embroideries in the context of examining individual mummy bundles excavated from the Necrópolis of Wari Kayan, each of which was sequentially numbered (see blog post City of the Dead), Anne Paul shares direct observations in her book Paracus Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru:

…In bundle 378 there are representations of ritual functionaries wearing pampas-cat skins, feline masks accompanied by vegetation, shark suits, bird capes and tails, feline-bird outfits and possibly serpent costumes. The embroidered images record the types of ritual attire that were likely to have been worn. Although examples of the actual costumes were not among the contents of this bundle, an elaborate three-tiered cape made of condor feathers was placed around the “shoulders” of Necrópolis  bundle 290…The embroidered images of the costumed personages on the garments in bundle 378 represented living impersonators of cult images.”

Detail of mantle border with “bird impersonators.” Peruvian (Paracas), wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The block color embroiderer overwhelmingly favored “stem stitch” as a means to realize the descriptive imagery associated with the person for whom the textile was fabricated. Worked first with a forward moving action over the fabric surface, then backwards underneath the fabric and out again, this technique creates a series of overlapping thread segments that can delineate any type of line, whether straight or curvilinear, affording the greatest freedom of rendering imagery in a realistic, pictorial manner. The use of block color embroidery as a means of conveying a visually symbolic association between the wearer of the mantle and the figures stitched on the cloth would have been a practical choice, given the flexibility afforded by this technique.

Illustration of stem stitch embroidery technique

The Paracas embroiderer first created a sketch of the figure using a single color of thread, outlining areas such as arms, legs, eyes, mouth, appendages and other compositional details. Then, by stitching contiguous rows side-by-side, negative spaces were filled in with solid colors. One can easily discern the outline stitches when looking closely at the embroidery ground. It’s also worth noting that the mantle in our collection bearing these bird impersonators has areas along the border that were left unfinished, providing process-oriented clues to the sequential steps of the embroidery process (see image below).

Detail of mantle border with unfinished “bird impersonator” figures, displaying stem stitch outlines. Peruvian (Paracas), wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A distinctive characteristic of block color style is a systematic pattern of alternating configurations of a given color palette from figure to figure, as shown by the diptych below. For example, the olive green thread on the tunic shown on the left is used to color the arms and legs of the figure shown on the right; red used to color the arms and legs of the figure on the left is used for the tunic on the right. Alternating patterns of color placement from one figure to the next is applied in a faithful manner on all fifty-five bird impersonators occupying the woven ground, promoting visual dynamism and movement when viewed as a whole.

Diptych of two “bird impersonator” figures demonstrating alternating patterns of color distribution.

In a paper published by Anne Paul, Why Embroidery? An answer from the ancient Andes (2002), she describes what I consider to be a more compelling role of color associated with the consistent patterning of its distribution:

Apart from pure visual pleasure, color had a more esoteric function: it was used to encode a particular kind of logic in cloth. To begin with, each of the motifs embroidered on a garment is filled in with colored threads according to a master plan that specifies the color of the iconographic details of that image. This combination of colors is called a “color block”; different color blocks can be employed on a single embroidery, aligned in the field to create regular patterns along horizontal rows, vertical columns, and the S and Z diagonals, with the diagonals dominating in importance.”

The predominant “S” and “Z” diagonals that Paul refers to are terms used to denote the directional motions of spun fiber: to produce an “S” twist yarn, the fibers are spun in a clockwise direction; to produce a “Z” twist yarn they are spun counter-clockwise. In addition to the encoded logic imparted by block color patterning as described by Paul, an additional trait of Paracas embroideries are figural motions of symmetry. Paul’s hypothesis is that Paracas embroiderers, in the use of both color and motion symmetries, were expressing principles of ordering and a way of understanding spatial relationships that:

…replicate either the symmetry of fabric structures or the regular alignment of the fiber elements that comprise the fabric plane. This design choice – achieved by stitching images on cloth – underscores the importance of fabric-making processes and the vital role of weaving in their culture.

I’m deeply intrigued by the perception of Paracas embroidery style and patterning as self-referential expressions of intrinsic material structure. I plan to do more looking and reading, especially about aspects of motion symmetry not elaborated upon in this post, and will write more about the theories of Anne Paul, Mary Frame, and others who may emerge in my exploration. In next month’s post. I will also share what I have learned about another Paracas embroidery form known as “linear style.” For an introduction, see previous features from Object a Week:  02.12.18 (Man’s poncho) and 03.26.18 (Mantle), where the kinship between textile style and structure are also referenced.


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.

City of the Dead

Detail of mantle, camelid plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery; fringe. Peruvian (Paracas). John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund (1972.353). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Border fragment, wool plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery. Peruvian (Paracas). Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.36). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

My first exposure 26 years ago to the spectacular Paracas mantles on display in the MFA’s exhibition of Andean textiles, To Weave for the Sun, was formative and unforgettable. The vivid colors, dynamic compositions and portrayals of elaborately costumed humans, animals and anthropomorphic beings, rendered in minute stem-stitch embroidery, infused my burgeoning curiosity about ethnographic textiles and their ritual use in societies. Fabrics from Paracas culture have long been a source of intense interest ever since the early part of the 20th century, when intricately decorated and finely made textiles from an unknown prehistoric culture began to surface in collectors’ markets in Peru and beyond, devoid of all context. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston was among a handful of public institutions to receive the first of these textiles prior to the archaeological excavations of their source. These included several mantles and border fragments. I recently studied two of those fragments: one that entered the collection in 1916 (see image, left) and the other in 1921 (see this mantle border fragment). They were gifted to the Museum by Denman Ross (1853-1935), a professor of art history at Harvard University, Trustee of the Museum and noted collector of diverse global art. Thanks to the convictions of a preeminent Peruvian archaeologist determined to preserve and learn from the material culture of his country’s prehistory, new knowledge about these textiles has been developed over recent decades. As I delve deeper into these narratives, I believe the story of the Paracas embroideries and other masterful examples of textile achievement from this culture, one that endured for 900 years, is interlaced with their remarkable survival after two millennia, their celebrated discovery and subsequent interpretation.

The long-concealed location of the Paracas weavings was destined to be excavated by America’s first indigenous archaeologist, Julio César Tello, universally known as the “father of Peruvian archaeology.” Tello, an Indian born in the mountains of Huarochirí Province in Peru and a native speaker of Quechua, was obsessed by the embroidered fabrics that were unlike anything he had seen before in Andean culture. After years of searching for their location, he was able to convince a professional grave robber from Pisco by the name of Juan Quintana to take him to sites on the Bay of Paracas, a vicinity of previous looting that began occurring in 1911. Tello intuited this region could be the fountainhead of the embroideries that were being dispersed to private collections and museums.

Julio C. Tello, “father of Peruvian archaeology” (1880–1947)

On July 26, 1925, with Quintana as his guide, Tello and two companions from Harvard University arrived at the Bay of Paracas at a region called Arena Blanca. There, they were met by the sight of scattered textile fragments, pottery shards, and elongated human skulls on the desert surface. It was a decisive moment that marked the end of Tello’s decade long quest for the source of the enigmatic embroideries. He named the undocumented culture “Paracas.”

Map of Peru with inset (lower left) detailing the south coastal region. The Paracas Peninsula is highlighted in red.
Paracas Peninsula, south coastal Peru

 

 

 

 

 

The word “Paracas” comes from the Quechua word para-ako, meaning sand falling like rain. For several hours in the late afternoon, intense southwesterly winds sweep torrents of sand over the desert peninsula, hence its moniker. Bordered on three sides by the Pacific Ocean, warm desert temperatures of the Paracas Peninsula collide with the wind-driven upwelling of the frigid Humbolt current flowing northward along the Peruvian coast, creating conditions that both prevent precipitation, and promote maximum dryness. Such environmental conditions and protection from light were fundamental to the survival of the ancient weavings that were ritually buried with their dead by Paracas communities. These textiles, encoded with iconographic images whose meaning can only be interpreted in the absence of any written texts, were layered around corpses like skins of an onion, in combination with plain fabrics and other objects associated with the deceased. The body was placed in a seated position within a shallow circular basket, head between the knees, encased within conical-shaped bundles formed by voluminous layers of fabric and clustered in dark, dry tombs where they remained hidden from all knowledge for nearly 2,000 years.

Representation of the Necrópolis of Wari Kayan with cone-shaped funerary bundles. Click image for website source.
The Paracas Peninsula showing locations of three burial sites in proximity to Cerro Colorado.

Tello commenced excavations on the desert peninsula with a team from Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos and Museo Nacional de Antropología y Arqueología between 1925-1929; they began with a survey of their starting point, Arena Blanca, where they found evidence of human habitation, numerous cemeteries, textiles, and pottery. They continued southward to the summit of Cerro Colorado, where they discovered bottle shaped shaft tombs known as Paracas Cavernas. A massive  burial precinct was later to be uncovered on the northern slope of Cerro Colorado, referred to as the Necrópolis of Wari Kayan. Excavations between 1927-1928 at the Necrópolis unearthed 429 funerary bundles – a find of epic proportions.

Julio C. Tello examining a Paracas mummy bundle.

The bundles were removed from the tombs, transported to the Museo de Arqueología Antropología Peruana in Lima, and later moved to Lima’s Museo Nacional de Antropología y Arqueología, where a new wave of research and study was launched. Under Tello’s supervision, 40 of the largest bundles were opened with meticulous attention to object numbering and a method for sequencing the removal of every item. The largest bundles offered evidence that the deceased were Paracas rulers and high status members of their ancient society.

Detail of mantle, wool plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery. Peruvian (Paracas). Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.31). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Anne Paul is a key contributor to a more recent place within the research continuum set in motion by Tello’s landmark discovery; I have greatly benefited from her published work in my exploration of the embroideries. In her book, Paracas Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru, Paul addresses the particular challenge of interpreting Paracas material culture:

The contents of these Necrópolis bundles are the main record of Paracas culture; its members left no written records about themselves. Covered with rows of isolated images, the garments worn by the rulers were a fundamental form of visual communication within Paracas society. But the interpretation of the messages encoded in these weavings is difficult. Faced with an absence of written texts, it is the task of the art historian to make sense out of what is seen on these garments-to learn how to read images stitched on cloth instead of letters printed on a page.

Beyond the true meaning and significance ascribed to the Paracas embroideries by their long-deceased makers, compelling research and iconographic analysis has contributed to theories about how these images were meant to be read. Stay tuned for my next post, where I will look at stylistic variations and visual patterns of communication that are characteristic of Paracas textiles.


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.