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Amish Quilts: Kaleidoscope of Color -- From the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown

March 19, 2005 - June 19, 2005

Quilts of bright, vibrant colors shaped from geometric designs that anticipated modern ideas will grace the walls in Amish Quilts: Kaleidoscope of Color -- From the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown at the Denver Art Museum beginning Saturday, March 19, 2005. Dating back to the turn of the century, the more than 40 Amish quilts on view through June 19, 2005, foreshadow modern artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt and Mark Rothko. Although these quilts are often referred to as 'modern' in appearance, these unique and exquisitely detailed pieces were created from around 1900 to 1940 by a people who viewed themselves as anything but modern.

Called "plain people," for many, the Amish conjure up images of horse-drawn buggies, barn-raising parties, and simple, conservative clothes in drab colors. Core values of the Amish include humility, devotion and community. Even today, they reject mainstream consumer culture, value simplicity, and shun ornamentation. The Amish, who came to this country from Switzerland in the mid-1700s and 1800s seeking religious freedom, now live in more than 200 communities in 25 states. The Amish traditionally make their quilts for use in their homes. The quilts in this exhibition come from the two largest Amish communities, which are in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and Holmes County, Ohio, as well as from other communities in the Midwest. (left: Center Diamond-Barbara Fisher, c.1930, Lancaster County, PA. Wool; 80-7/8 x 82-1/2 inches. Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown.)

"The Amish may choose to farm with horses and travel by buggy-to be clearly out of sync with modern life. Yet the Amish women who made the quilts in this exhibition produced stunning designs that were then "rediscovered" by leading art museums in the 1970s, setting off an era of avid collecting," said Patterson Williams, Master Teacher of Asian and Textile Arts at the Denver Art Museum.

Amish Quilts begins with examples and variations on large-scale geometric patterns from the early 20th century and moves on to increasingly optically complex patterns. An entire room is devoted to small quilts, mostly crib quilts that show a range of patterns. After a display of illusionist and kaleidoscopic examples, the exhibition ends with two "crazy quilts." While initially appearing to be pieced from randomly chosen shapes and colors, these two quilts are actually subtly organized to create a harmonious effect.

"The exhibition is designed to lead the viewer on a visual odyssey that grows in intensity. The arrangement of the quilts encourages a "sensory" as well as cerebral understanding of the Amish aesthetics," said Dr. Alice Zrebiec, Curator of Textile Arts at the Denver Art Museum. "While the show celebrates the visual and artistic qualities of these quilts, it also underscores that these seemingly modernist compositions were created by extremely conservative people and that the objects on view are from one remarkable collection that celebrates this conundrum."


Conservation & Discovery

The conservation department has created a visual display to explain why museum visitors are asked to not touch the art. This explanatory space gives visitors the opportunity to more clearly understand why art, specifically quilts, need proactive conservation. This area answers two of visitors' most frequently-asked questions.

* Why is the lighting so low?
To help answer this question, a partial Amish quilt square was reproduced and exposed to light, while part of the square was protected. This allows visitors to see the effect light has on fabrics and dyes, and why it is necessary for the light levels to remain low while textiles are on view.
* Why can't we touch the quilts?
Part of a second quilt square was repeatedly touched, while part of the square was protected. Visitors will be allowed to continue to touch the unprotected part, illustrating how the dirt and oils even on what appear to be clean hands transfer to the fabrics and change their appearance and condition.

Later in the exhibition in the Amish Quilts Discovery Library, visitors can relax in a comfortable sitting area. There will be an extensive array of reading materials for visitors to browse through to learn more about the Amish and quilts. Visitors can also view an excerpt from a PBS documentary film entitled The Amish: A People of Preservation . Finally, there will be a web cam where visitors can record their own "quilt story" and share it with other visitors to the exhibition who can later electronically browse through the recorded stories.

A symposium on Amish quilts will be held Saturday, May 14, 2005. Speakers include Faith and Stephen Brown. (right: Ocean Waves, c.1920, Holmes County, OH. H. 69-3/4 x W. 61-1/2 inches. Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown.)


The Collectors

Thirty years ago, Stephen Brown and his wife, Faith, who currently reside in California, began building what is today one of the country's most notable private collections of Amish quilts. Their desire to collect was sparked by their introduction to this style of quilting in the early 1970s. Strong graphics and vibrant colors that reminded the Browns of modern art, struck a chord with the couple, leading them to years of amassing their impressive collection of nearly 100 quilts. However, their collection is not an encyclopedic representation of Amish quilts, but rather a reflection of their aesthetic preferences. While many of their quilts have toured the country visiting venues that include the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor and the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, more than half of the quilts in Amish Quilts at the DAM have not been exhibited before.


The Denver Art Museum's Textile Collection

The scope of the Textile Arts department at the Denver Art Museum ranges from Coptic and pre-Columbian textiles to contemporary works of art in fiber. A nationally recognized collection of American quilts and coverlets, the Julia Wolf Glasser Collection of samplers, and the Charlotte Hill Grant Collection of Chinese robes and accessories collected on site in China in the early 1900s, are among the strengths of the department. The Neusteter Textile Gallery presents changing exhibitions drawn primarily from the permanent collection, and textiles are incorporated into displays in the Asian and New World galleries.

About the Amish

The Amish are a conservative Christian group who came to the United States in the mid-1700s and 1800s from Switzerland, Germany, and the Alsace region of France seeking religious freedom. They settled on farms primarily in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, although today the Amish live in more than 200 communities in some 25 states and Canada. While they live largely apart from the "English," as they call nonmembers, the Amish do engage in contact and commerce with outsiders.

In general, the Amish reject mainstream consumer culture and many modern conveniences, but each community sets its own rules and restrictions. Television, computers, and radios are not permitted, and most communities forbid telephones within the home and the use of electricity from public utilities. But while some Amish still travel in horse-drawn buggies, others ride in hired motorcars-and use cell phones.

Known as "plain people," the Amish strive to avoid anything prideful or ostentatious. They value simplicity in their lives, clothing, and homes, but they also appreciate beauty in their household furnishings and gardens. Even outside their own communities, Amish men are known for their fine carpentry and woodworking, and Amish women and girls for their sewing and quilting skills.

From about the 1870s on, Amish women made quilts for personal use, dowries, and gifts. More recently, women have made quilts specifically for sale. Although each community defines the patterns, colors, and fabrics allowed, individual choices within these limits lead to a wide range of variations. As well as an artistic expression, quilting can also be a social activity. Amish women may gather together at a "frolic"-a day or more devoted to communal work-to sew together or finish large quilts. (right: Broken Star-Holmes County, OH, c.1930. H. 81 x top W: 75-1/2 inches. Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown.)

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