Of course, I knew that viewing other famous artists’ work in a museum would inspire me…….I just didn’t understand to what magnitude. So, on a chilly day in late November, while doing our usual “Broadway Play Marathon,” my husband Chuck encouraged us to visit the Whitney Museum of American Art. I’ll admit that I haven’t always been the most significant museum fan in the past. Sure, I’ve traveled parts of the world and seen many great works of art like Night Work by Rembrandt, the Mona Lisa by da Vinci, and my all-time favorite, The Goldfinch by Fabritius. But visiting museums just seemed to be a “tourist” thing to do.
But something has changed since I have been quilting and working with fabric. I can’t really explain it. And this trip to the Whitney left me hopeful, inspired, and wait for it…….emotional. I’m a big old sap with just about everything……most people who know me well know I can cry at just about anything that moves me, a movie (I cried when ET was left on Earth), book writings, a Broadway musical, an old memory…..but never a collection of paintings.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the first things I saw while at the Whitney was this fantastic quilt by Rosie Lee Tompkins called “Three Sixes” https://whitney.org/collection/works/18230. Ms. Tompkins was an African-American textile artist (wow, I love that title). Like many Black women quilters in the American South, she blended West African textile traditions, European patterning, and individual improvisation in their art. I had already learned a bit about the quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, who are famous for their quilts (maybe a future blog), and I suspect Ms. Tompkins came from that same era and persuasion. I was utterly amazed that a quilt, made from small pieces of three unique colors, which was also entirely imperfectly perfect, would be hanging in the Whitney. A QUILT WAS BEING DISPLAYED IN THE WHITNEY alongside some of the other wonderful famous art pieces known to the world. Under the same roof!
And the Three Sixes wasn’t perfect in the way we often think quilts should be. If you are a serious quilter, it’s all about matching points and perfect lines. A good friend who I didn’t even know knew anything about quilting joked with me about my misaligned points or lack thereof on my very first quilt. Heck I didn’t even know anything about points at the time. Thanks Mark!
The colors were amazing, and the imperfection gave me permission to try both. And I just stood in awe.
Perhaps an even more significant event for me, which brought me to tears, was the amazing work of Jennifer Packer called “The Eye Is Not Satisfied With Seeing,” which included some 30 portraits of intimate renderings of friends and family and still life flowers. Jennifer Packer is an extraordinary African American artist in her late thirties. My favorite painting of hers, though they were all amazing, was “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (Breonna! Breonna!).” This painting was dedicated to Breona Taylor, the 26-year-old Black medical worker killed by police in her home in Louisville, Ky., in March 2020. Both Ms. Taylor and the death of George Floyd began the movement of Black Lives Matter.
Obviously, Ms. Packer’s work raises awareness of social concerns, and I’d like to say I became teary-eyed over that commitment. But it was really her use of colors, acid yellows and vibrant raspberry, and her vision of what appeared to be everyday people that really moved me. Not only does she do amazing colorful portraits, but she also does impressive still lifes. I think I read that she feels somehow consumed after some of her paintings and therefore paints amazingly calm still lifes to settle herself. I was also struck that I was seeing fantastic art by an artist who is currently alive. This artist was even younger than me, and not some artist who had lived centuries prior.
But when all was said and done, it was Ms. Packer’s use of color that caused me to walk towards her art. I walked away more knowledgeable about Breona Taylor, George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter…….that ordinary people paid the price for a racial and social movement. And I was so moved, I had a little cry right there among her work. I was a little embarrassed to have tears in my eyes and on my cheeks because I had been so moved by her work. I am sure that some people saw my tears and were ready to call for security!!!!
And so I came home that day from the Whitney committed to the idea of using some of the same colors that Jennifer Packer used in my next quilt. I used the same yellows, pinks, raspberries to start my work and then flowed into my favorite colors of orange and turquoise. I’m now almost finished with my own rendition of my textile fabric work “Most Days . See I’m calling it textile work and not a quilt. And you’ll have to stay tuned for a future blog to see “Most Days” in its entirety.
My work might not ever hang in the Whitney, speak of social injustice, or even make a person cry from admiration……but it sure makes me feel alive and that my work means something to it’s the greatest admirer….me. So, thank you Jennifer Packer, Rosie Lee Tompkins, and the Whitney Museum of American Art for the experience and inspiration. And always to you, the reader, for reading this blog.