Whether spread across a bed or hung on a wall, in many ways quilts can be seen as novels written with fabric and stitchery — works of highly expressive textile art created for both utilitarian and purely aesthetic purposes, and rich in personal, local and national history.

‘UNPACKING COLLECTIONS:
THE LEGACY OF CUESTA BENBERRY, 
AFRICAN AMERICAN QUILT SCHOLAR’
When: Through March 2017
Where: DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th St.
Tickets: $10 adults; $8 Chicago residents
Info:www.dusablemuseum.org

Cuesta Benberry (1923-2007), the historian, scholar and collector, understood this in a profound way. While she might not be a household name, she is widely credited as one of the pioneers of research on quiltmaking in America, with a special focus on African-American quiltmaking. And her passion for the subject is now the focus of  “Unpacking Collections: The Legacy of Cuesta Benberry, an African American Quilt Scholar.” The lovely, often eye-popping traveling exhibition runs through March at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History.

The DuSable show is drawn from the collection acquired by the Michigan State University Museum (also home of the Great Lakes Quilt Center), with which Benberry had a long association. It includes 50 quilts, with work made by such historically prominent modern quiltmakers as Carole Harris, Hazel Carter, Fanny Cork, Minnie Benberry, Faith Ringgold, and the Gee’s Bend (Alabama) Freedom Quilting Bee, as well as earlier pieces, including “Pomegranates,” an enchanted garden of a quilt by Mary Stanford, dating from 1876. Also part of the exhibition is an interactive children’s area.

According to Marsha MacDowell, MSU Museum curator of folk arts and professor of art and art history: “Every collection reflects a point of view, a passion, a mindful purpose of the collector who made it. In literally unpacking a scholar’s collection, a museum or an archive has a responsibility to care for, research, interpret, and make accessible the contents of the collection. It is when a collection — its parts and its whole — is figuratively ‘unpacked’ that we can learn more about the scholar and the subjects they researched.”

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“Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors Freedom Quilting Bee,” made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, in 1980, is part of Cuesta Benberry’s collection, on view at the DuSable Museum of African American History. (Photo: Courtesy of the Michigan State University Museum)

Benberry, who founded and participated in various quilt groups, and wrote articles in renowned quilt magazines and journals, collected important quilts dating from the late 19th century up to the 21st century, and amassed many quilting exhibition catalogues, books, articles and personal research papers. Upon her death in 2007, her family gave MSU her collection of African and African-American quilts. And in 2009, the American Folk Art Museum in New York City transferred its Benberry Collection to the MSU Museum so that the bulk of her work could be in one place and used more effectively for research and educational purposes.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and raised in St. Louis, Benberry received a bachelor’s degree in education from Stowe Teachers College and a masters in library science from the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and worked in the St. Louis public schools for 40 years.

Quilt scholar Cuesta Benberry made this work, “Afro-American Women and Quilts.” (Photo: Courtesy of the Michigan State University Museum)

Quilt scholar Cuesta Benberry made this work, “Afro-American Women and Quilts.” (Photo: Courtesy of the Michigan State University Museum)

It was a trip to Kentucky to visit the family of George L. Benberry, who she married in 1951, that first sparked her passion for quilts. And while she did not necessarily wish to make them herself, she wanted to study them — focusing on the individual behind the work, and pioneering much of the research done about African-American quilting in particular.

In the early 1970s she began writing for Nimble Needle Treasures, a small magazine based in Oklahoma notable for publishing articles as well as quilting patterns. After that magazine closed she wrote for Quilter’s Newsletter, then the only magazine of its kind.

“Only a handful of the quilts in Cuesta’s collection were purchased, ” said Mary Worrall, curator of Cultural Heritage at the Michigan State University Museum, who devised this exhibition. “Some were passed on to her by her family, many were gifts from quiltmakers or scholars in the field, and some were ‘friendship quilts,’ patched together from individual ‘blocks’ as a tribute to her from many quiltmakers. The show suggests the range of her activities, and her influence on the thinking of other scholars in the field. And while not all the quilts are made by African Americans, you can certainly see Cuesta’s sub-interest in African-American stereotypes, with one work featuring ‘mammy’ images and another with watermelon eating. She also was interested in contemporary South African quiltmaking.”

The show, which suggests the regional, economic and racial differences in quilts, also suggests how quiltmaking has changed. As Worrall noted: “One of the biggest differences is that up until the 1970s the quilts were made of cotton; after that, polyester batting came into use. Quilting kits, sold in such stores as Montgomery Ward and Hudson’s, became popular in the first half of the 20th century, with the materials and patterns in one big package. And some elements were made by machine.

“Some observers compare these quilts to the work of the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1950s,” said Worrall. “Others note the great quilt revival of the 1970s that developed in this country. Cuesta was one of the few who looked at the whole of it. There is even one quilt in the show, ‘Afro-American Women and Quilts,’ she made herself.”

Cuesta Benberry | SUPPLIED PHOTO

Cuesta Benberry | SUPPLIED PHOTO