Piecing stories & quilts

Red and white and told all over.

Storytelling is like a collection of red and white quilts.

Each is an art form working with a few elements but with results limited only by imagination. This thought swirled around me at “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts,” a dazzling and intoxicating display of 650 quilts. Double-sided spirals of creativity writ in red and white filled the 55,000-square-foot drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan and reached up toward the eight-story ceiling.

Each quilt, like a well-told story, was unique. Each was made by hand, constructed with skill and care and benefited from experience, framework, thought and art.

Two elements: many expressions.

The red and white color scheme comes from a dye known as “Turkey red dye” that arrived in Europe in the 1750s. Compared to other dyes of the time which faded with washing or light, this dye was remarkably colorfast. It was made from madder root and came from the eastern Mediterranean. It has been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and was used in the red coats of British soldiers. A cheaper, synthetic dye called alizarin crimson with similar color and colorfast properties became available in 1868 and spurred an increase in red and white quilts.

You may have heard of a 2004 book by Christopher Booker, a columnist at the Sunday Telegraph in London, called  “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.” Here is Booker’s list:   Overcoming the Monster,  Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and  Rebirth.

Circular displays recalled sewing circles.

Karl Albrecht, a management consultant, futurist and author, wrote a blog last May for Psychology Today called “The (Only) Ten Basic News Stories: How the News Producers Grab and Hold Your Attention.” Maintaining that the commercial news process suffers from an industrial model, Albrecht produced these variations: Shock and Horror, Tragedy, Hot Sex, Scandal,  The Fall of the Mighty, Conflict, Worry, Voyeurism, Dilemmas and Gee-Whiz Stories.

Every quilt was different.

Storytelling involves basic elements: observation and compilation. It stirs arguments to put a number on available plot lines but writers and editors definitely recognize recurring patterns. The result can be mundane, marvelous but more likely, somewhere in between.

In talented hands, a familiar theme takes new life again and again. William Shakespeare, for example, took stories told first by others and made them into a canon of our literature.

And, in turn, the title of the Armory show was taken from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra”:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety …

“Infinite Variety,” alas, was open for only six days, March 25-30. I went near the end of the last day and was among those the guards had to coax to leave. In a town of dour-faced pedestrians with downcast faces, the Armory was filled with smiling people looking upward in awe.  Women dominated but there were plenty of men. Some people were dressed like they lived on Park Avenue, while others looked ready for a stroll in the park. Needlework was examined as closely as brushstrokes on paintings at the Metropolitan. Clumps of experts in stitchery chatted and did not mind if you listened or asked questions.

Under spotlights in the Armory, the quilts hanging high shimmered in the air shone in infinite variety. They made their owner, Joanna Semel Rose, and her husband, Daniel, my latest heroes. The Roses assembled a dizzying display about using what you know to make art. The quilts made me wonder about the stories of their authors, women from three centuries working alone and with friends.

In the brochure accompanying the show, Mrs. Rose writes:

“When my husband asked what I would like for my eightieth birthday, I said, ‘Something I’ve not seen before and something that would be a gift for New York City.’ Seeing all of these quilts at the same moment would be the ideal gift. I did not set out to collect quilts. I have the instincts of a treasure hunter, not a collector. I had no clue to how many red and white quilts I owned. They came up at flea markets in the 1950s for five and ten dollars or were often used to wrap purchases. In the latter decades of the twentieth century came the realization of their originality and graphic beauty.”

The show was presented by the American Folk Art Museum but thanks to the Rose family it was free. It has been called the largest exhibit of quilts ever in New York and that claim seems reasonable. A book is promised and there the show may travel. You can see photos of each quilt and read more about the exhibit in free apps for the iPhone, iPad, iPod touch or Android smart phone available at the Apple iTunes App Store or Android Market.

Mrs. Rose was the longtime chairwoman of Partisan Review magazine and Daniel Rose is the chairman of Rose Associates, a real estate development company. Long may they live. Exiting visitors took their place patiently in a line to leave a note to Mrs. Rose in the guest book. I thanked her for sharing her birthday with us.

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One Response to Piecing stories & quilts

  1. Jessica Klein says:

    Your story was lovely. I am a writer and have often talked about the seven basic stories. Such a perfect analogy to the quilts. The infinite variety was mind-boggling — and marvelous. Such a gift to New York.

    We saw it together, my mother and I, at the recommendation of a friend. My mother is a quilter. I can’t sew at all. But boy, were we wowed.

    Because my mom has difficulty with stairs, we entered the armory through the back door on the Lexington Avenue side, and therefore missed seeing the guest book when we left the same way.

    Do you have a link to Mrs. Rose on line so that we can express our appreciation, too?

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful review of this wonderful show.

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