The quilts hang from the ceiling, colorful and some so massive that I wonder how their maker used them. Fully covering a king bed, perhaps? Cloaking an entire wall? Mrs. Gussie Beatrice Arnold Hill designed her quilts to be functional, Anjali Austin explained at a reception celebrating her grandmother’s works at the Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts. Decades after the quilts’ construction, Austin works to discover the mysteries hidden in their fibers.
The Quilts of Gussie Beatrice Arnold Hill presented by the Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts
I gazed at the quilts for a good 30 minutes before Austin began her presentation. Hill used a variety of techniques in her pieced quilts, from handquilting to machine sewing, tied layers to no backings at all. Light shined through these quilt tops, giving them a stained-glass-like appearance. Because the exhibitors had hung the quilts, we could (and did) examine them from the front and the back—Austin even explained that we could touch the textiles as long as we didn’t pull. A quilter’s dream!
Hill assembled a selection of her quilts from an array of fabric shapes and sizes, piecing blocks of irregular shapes and sizes but all working into one finished, flowing piece. Others had been painstakingly cut and assembled from small squares, sewn into lines more than 30 strong. Most came from everyday fabrics, but one shown was in satin. Her relaxed style, eschewing straight lines and 90-degree corners gave her quilts movement. The collection is beautiful.
Quilts as Connection
The museum exhibit ran from May 15 to May 22 and is the result of Austin’s research and artistic dedication to her grandmother’s legacy. As the display explains: “to the brilliance of our ancestors—African Americans—who weathered the struggle with resilience and strength.” Austin lived with her grandmother until she was five, and research the into quilt and her family’s stories—as well as her experience as a professional dancer and dance professor at FSU—inspired her master’s thesis work and performances that showcase these stories.
Her grandmother, Austin recalls during a piece of Live Oak that she performed at the reception, was born in Tallahassee in 1912. Struck by lighting as a child, the family thought she had died until the undertaker realized their mistake. More than 30 quilts crafted during her lifetime now reside with Austin, in addition to one jumpsuit and one unfinished work. Austin wants to complete that fragment one day. Though she doesn’t quilt, yet, she is confident that she will as she forms deeper relationships with the quilts and the stories behind them.
Close-up of one of Hill’s pieces presented by her granddaugther, Anjali Austin
To Austin, the quilts connect her not only to her family but to the legacy of black quilters in America. During her talk, she noted that three of the quilt designs used as signals to escaped slaves on the underground railroad appear in her grandmother’s quilts.
- Bow Tie = Dress in disguise to appear of a higher status.
- Bear Paw = Follow an animal trail through the mountains to find water and food.
- Log Cabin = Seek shelter now, the people here are safe to speak with.
From the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage
Into the Future
Austin’s work with her grandmother’s quilts is far from over. She plans to hire a fabric expert to discover what some of the stains and spots on the quilts might tell her about their use, about life in her grandmother’s house. She pointed to areas of the quilts that looked ripped or worn and explained that lye soap had taken its toll on a few areas. Still other signs of wear remain a mystery.
As she said during her performance, the quilts “have a story to tell, but you gotta know how to read ‘em.”
For more information on the work of Anjali Austin, click here.
Erika Zambello is a writer and communications specialist living in Florida. She is a fan of knitting on the move, especially during walks, hikes, and kayak trips. You can follow her fibercraft explorations at @knittingzdaily on Instagram.