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 Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories at the Skirball Center

Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories is now on display at the Skirball Cultural Center through March 12, 2023 (photos from the Skirball Cultural Center)


We learn about American history from books, schools, families, paintings and stories. However we never think of quilts as being so important to trace our country’s development, its triumphs and its failures in reaching the world we live in today. Yet The Museum Of Fine Arts Boston and The Skirball Museum did think that way.

We can now see some of the examples of the extraordinary work done by quilters at The Skirball Cultural Center  until March 12. The collection spans 300 years and the question who is American and what is American is answered in many ways as different voices come through. I will mention only a few of the quilts. A difficult decision for me to make as there are so many important stories to tell about our experiences in trying to create a great country. And it has been told mainly by women and out of cloth.  An achievement indeed.


“To God and Truth,” quilt by Bisa Butler, 2019. Printed and resist-dyed cottons, cotton velvet, rayon satin and knotted string, pieced, appliquéd and quilted. (Saravuth Neou / Bisa Butler and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)


Indigo Colour Mixture. Artist: Tomie Nagano


Tomie Nagano was born in Hokkaido, Japan and today splits her time between Dedham, Massachusetts and Japan. She makes quilts with old kimono fabric and has shown her work in Australia, Japan and the US.

Tomie Nagano. the artist on their work from the exhibition’s audio tour:

“My name is Tomie Nagano. I am from Japan. I use a very historical material, antique textile. My purpose is, I want to send it to the next generations, so then they understand the three centuries, the history. I use a nineteenth-century textile and then recycle, then make a quilt. So my purpose is: I want to send my quilt for [the] next generation. Then they can understand three centuries, the textile history. It is my job.

Making quilts is my life. Every hand stitch is from my heart. I use one hundred percent old antique Japanese textiles. So I never use machine, because my opinion is, of course, a machine is more fast and maybe I can get more extra time. Machine is a machine, not a human hand. Cabin motif is American pioneer’s spirit.”


Strange Fruit II. Artis: Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi


Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi is an artist, writer and independent curator from Louisiana. She is also an aeronautical engineer. Today she lives in West Chester, Ohio. Back in 1985 she founded the Women of Color Quilters Network in Los Angeles, California and has since then organized many quilt exhibitions using this art form to tell previously untold stories about the African American experience.

Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi on her work from the exhibition’s audio tour:


“I made this quilt as part of an ongoing series, actually, that spanned over the last twenty years dealing with issues of social justice and African American history. So I view quilts as cultural documents. They’re no different than historical books. The quilts gave you a glimpse into what’s going on not only in our country but in our communities and with ourselves, with our families.

Why did I make this quilt? I made this quilt to tell a specific story about actions that happened back in my era and before. And that’s the lynching of African Americans in this country, particularly in the South. So, Strange Fruit plays on the song “Strange Fruit,” which comes from a poem that was written by a Jewish man, Abel Meeropol, back in the early ’30s. And he made this poem about lynching because he was so taken aback and disturbed by hearing about the lynchings of African Americans in the South.

Most of my quilts are in black and white. And that serves a purpose for me, because when we talk about the history of this country, everything is in black and white. The starkness of black and white puts the story directly to the viewer.

I’m hoping that people see the quilts or particularly my quilt and it provokes a conversation because we are in much need of reconciliation so that we can live in harmony and hopefully peacefully. And eradicate racism altogether. But we have to know the stories of what happened in the past in order that they not be repeated. And this is why I make quilts.”


Bathtub Chaise Lounge. Artist: Joel Otterson


Joel Otterson was born in Los Angeles, California, and raised in Oregon. He’s a trained sculptor receiving his bachelor of fine arts degree from Parsons School of Design and was introduced to quilting by his mother. Here Otterson talks about mixing those two mediums together in his work Bathtub Chaise Lounge.

Joel Otterson on his work from the exhibition’s audio tour:

“I think that my piece is—I think there’s some surrealism in it. I think it’s a little bit anthropomorphic. The plumbing pipe—my father was a plumber, he taught me how to solder from when I was a very early age, so every pipe I solder is in honor of my father. So it’s autobiographical. My mother made quilts, so that’s where I learned how to do that. She would quilt with the ladies at the church. So I think it’s the story of a diverted function: it’s no longer a bathtub, but it’s something you can still sit in, but it’s something you might take a nap in. It’s something that you might be very comfortable in. And I think you probably need a quilt to go on top of you when you’re taking a nap on the Bathtub Chaise Lounge, too! So I think it’s about an absurd luxury, and I think it’s also about a transformation.

I’ve always worked with fabrics. How I ended up with the quilting in the piece, I think that it just made it more. It’s about luxury. It’s about not just putting upholstery on it, but it’s taking it another step and taking those textiles and quilting them. The idea that a quilt is something that’s made out of leftover fabrics and that it’s recycled clothes and all of that, that does exist, but in general the history of quilts is that they were luxury items.

I think quilts are some of the most beautiful objects made on the planet. They move me as much as a great painting. I think that the abstraction of them, the fact that maybe artists weren’t making them, but they land in such a place that I think parallels art.”


“Hoosier Suffrage Quilt,” made before 1920. Cotton plain weave, pieced, embroidered, and quilted. The red and white stripes contain about 300 names hand-embroidered, thought to be supporters of women’s suffrage; “Susan B. Anthony” appears near the top of one of the central columns.(Saravuth Neou/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).


Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories
Tuesdays-Sundays, through March 12; check for holiday closures
This specially ticketed exhibition is $13 to $18, which includes access to general admission areas

Skirball Cultural Center
2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.
(310) 440-4500


P.S.  This is a very personal story for me because my grandmother made quilts for each of her three daughters and l inherited my mother’s quilt. One of our puppies destroyed part of it and l gave the quilt to one of our local artists to incorporate into her art – so the quilt lives on and in the tradition of quilts tells a story.   — Sheila


Backstage with the Buzz is written by Sheila Tepper, Producer Cultural Programming. Sheila has lived in the Larchmont area for fifty years, among her passions have been passing legislation for children with disabilities and interviewing outstanding artists appearing in the Los Angeles area.

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