National Quilt Museum Features Human Rights Heroes in "OURstory" Exhibit

Jun 19, 2020

This summer, Paducah's National Quilt Museum will feature a new exhibit, "OURstory: Human Rights Stories in Fabric." Susanne Miller Jones, curator of the exhibit, speaks with Tracy Ross about the featured works and the civil rights movements throughout history they commemorate. 

From the National Quilt Museum website:

"In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was drafted by a committee chaired By Eleanor Roosevelt. It delineated the rights to which all humans in all countries should be entitled. This poignant and timely collection is about our human rights, the groups who've been denied them, the heroes who've fought for them, as well as the events that drew the attention of news media and the public. Forty-seven artists from six countries tell those stories and some personal ones as well."

Although "OURstory" is being featured for the first time this summer, Jones has been planning this exhibit since "the day after the 2016 election," she explains. "I had to check with my publisher to see if they were interested in this one, and they grabbed up the idea very quickly. The actual idea didn't come from me. It came from artists that have worked with me before."

"After "HERstory" [a 2018-2019 exhibit highlighting extraordinary women throughout history], they kind of felt like if somebody was going to do something about human rights, it would be me," Jones continues. "They came to me and said, our rights are going to go away under this new administration. We need to do something. I actually put the call out [for the exhibit] on January 20th, 2017."

Only six countries are featured in "OURstory," which is less than "HERstory" and "Fly Me to the Moon," both of which Jones recently curated. Jones attributes the change in size to two calls that went out at the same time. "One was called "Threads of Resistance." It was a protest call. They got tons of people...500 entries or something like that. I think people who would've made a quilt for "OURstory" were busy making their quilt for ["Threads of Resistance"] because the calls were almost identically timed."

"The protests that are going on now are absolutely right on. They need to protest. But my collection was not a protest," Jones explains. "Mine was all about showing how far we've come, and how far we need to go, who the human rights heroes were, what the human rights events were. We have a quilt about John Lewis that also, of course, talks about Bloody Sunday. We're looking at celebrating how far we've come, but also realizing that there's an awful long way to go."

In addition to the physical exhibit, there will be audio excerpts from the artists available to listen to by using a call-in number specific to a particular piece. Jones has also compiled a book on the exhibit. "What I like about this is, I always tell people who are recording...don't tell the same story that I'm telling in the book or that we're putting on the signs," Jones says. "If you're looking at the quilt and reading the blurb, and then you listen to the artist, you'll get a different backstory. Then when you go into the book and read, you get a more in-depth story about the person or the event."

Of the 65 quilts featured in the exhibit, two are collector's items that will not travel with the other pieces. "As I was finishing up the [exhibit] book, I was googling to see who these human rights heroes were to make sure I had covered everyone, and one that I didn't have was the Dalai Lama," Jones explains. "I knew Meryl Ann Butler made a wonderful quilt about the Dalai Lama. I wrote to her and asked her if I could use a picture of it in the book and tell about the wonderful things the Dalai Lama had done for human rights, and she gave me permission. When the National Quilt Museum wanted the collection...Meryl Ann Butler loaned her piece to them."

The other non-traveling piece comes from Jones' personal collection: a brightly-colored, abstract, Gee's Bend quilt made by Mary Ann Pettway. Gee's Bend, located in a large bend of the Alabama River in Wilcox County, Alabama, was named for Joseph Gee, who settled there in 1816 with eighteen slaves on a cotton plantation. Officially called Boykin, Alabama, those living in the Gee's Bend area needed to cross the river by ferry to the nearest town, Camden, to vote. During the civil rights movement, the ferry was closed to prevent the predominantly African American population from being able to vote. The ferry remained close for 44 years. 

"These women [from Gee's Bend] were quilt makers, and their style was so different that someone came along and found out about their quilts and put them in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They traveled all over the place. This little, tiny town that had a civil rights story associated with it became renowned for their very abstract quilts," Jones explains. 

Jones hopes the exhibit can "change [people's] hearts if it doesn't change their minds about things. There is a piece, for example, "Colorblind." It is a picture of a little girl that's Black and a little girl that's white who are embracing. It was a picture of [the artist] Mary Jane Sneyd's sister and her best friend at Mary Jane's childhood birthday party. Mary Jane is from New Zealand, but she lived for a time in her childhood in Tennessee. As you can imagine, that might not have been a popular scene in Tennessee in the early 60s. That piece, when I see it, evokes hope."

"There's a piece I made about my grandmother who didn't vote until she was 84 years old," Jones continues. "She was never allowed to vote -- first, because she was a woman. Second, because she married a British citizen and lost her American citizenship -- people didn't know that happened in the early 1900s. They lived in Washington, D.C. until 1964, which was the first year that anybody in D.C. could vote for anything. My grandmother moved to Maryland, and there was a residency requirement there."

"There's that kind of story that says to us, we fought for this. Don't blow it. Don't give up your right to vote," Jones concludes. 

"OURstory: Human Rights Stories in Fabric" is on display at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky now through September 8th, 2020. For more information on the museum's hours and cost of admission, visit the National Quilt Museum website