Bounty of excellent news from Utah Museum of Fine Arts: Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts, salt 15: Horacio Rodriguez, acquisition of Chiura Obata works for Japanese collection

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The early spring has brought new exhibitions to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at The University of Utah, including a traveling exhibition of quilts, organized by the American Folk Art Museum, and a fascinating, unique show by Salt Lake City artist Horacio Rodriuguez. Also, UMFA recently shared news of a major acquisition for its Japanese art collection. 

Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts

Among the numerous refreshing trends that have driven recent museum exhibitions is the conscientious reconsideration of art forms that previously have been stereotyped to the point of diminishing their bona fide artistic merit as an essential branch of cultural history. Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts, featuring 18 quilts from the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York, compels viewers to see this particular medium in an elevated, enhanced perspective of serious artistic expression and credence. The exhibition is now available at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA).

Its presentation deserves the immense shift in considering the rich cultural legacies of an art form, which typically had been viewed more quaintly as a sideline or hobby of skilled craftspeople. With quilts representing the mid-nineteenth century and continuing through the present, the exhibition introduces vistas that mark a permanent shift in appreciation. These include the quilt as a patriotic expression, the quilt as a vehicle for therapy for soldiers injured in war and recuperating, the quilt as a quotation of artistic styles and genres popular during the time they were sewn (including the crazy and charm quilts). Also, the quilt as a creative repurposing of upcycled materials, the quilt as a visual counterpoint to events such as natural disaster, the quilt as consolidating the geographical aims of an expanding nation, the quilt as a sociopolitical response to contemporary issues such as labor rights, post-slavery and Reconstruction, and the quilt as a memorial to major historical events. 

Artist Unknown (India), Soldier’s Quilt (detail), 1850–75, wool, probably from military uniforms with embroidery thread, rickrack, and velvet binding; inlaid, layered-applique, hand embroidered, image courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, gift of Altria Group, Inc., photo by Gavin Ashworth.

Some of the 19th century examples stand out for distinctive reasons. The Cross River Album Quilt, which was completed in late 1861, and attributed to Mrs. Eldad Miller (1805–1874) and unidentified artists in Cross River, New York, included a bit of patriotic support for the Union in the Civil War which had begun in the prior spring. Viewers will note that in the quilt’s bottom center, a block was sewn in a flag with the label “Union” added to it. Another impressive quilt was made in India during the third quarter of the 19th century by an unidentified British soldier, who was recovering from injuries, and took up quilting during his stay in hospital. It is surprising to note the quilt’s provenance and time, given its sophisticated artistry. It features exquisite hand embroidery but also incorporates with a deftly balanced aesthetic elements from military uniforms, rickrack, velvet binding and inlaid, layered-appliqué. The idea of art as therapy certainly has existed longer than what is conventionally believed.

Social themes are captured in spellbinding ornamental needlework. A 1902 quilt from Yonkers, New York, In Honor Shall Wave Spread, represents the popular decorative embroidery tradition of the time, as exemplified by the influence of the Royal School of Art Needlework of Kensington, England during the last decades of the 19th century. Striking coal miners had put the U.S. coal supplies for the 1902-03 winter under pressure but two elements in this quilt point to the significant economic disparities that led to the walkout. The juxtaposition of two coal scuttles as depicted on the quilt have countering inscriptions: “Poor man’s empty  scuttle in December the 25, 1902” and “Rich man’s full scuttle in December the 25, 1902.” 

From 1977, Nora McKeown Ezell’s Star Quilt (1917–2007) underscores her long career as an artistic master of embroidery and appliqué, which became a memorable visual medium for the African-American storytelling tradition. A self-taught artist, Ezell was especially adept at upcycling all sorts of materials for her work, including bags that were used for livestock feed and fertilizer, thread seams, old fabrics, neckties, costume jewelry and beads, feathers and other items. As displayed in the Star Quilt, the eight-pointed Star of Hope pattern was a foundational element for her capacity to create complex, abstract patterns that elevated the crazy quilt and folk art genre to a fresh appreciation of its artistic expression. Other works would become embroidered riffs off patterns that were well known in the Deep South, including the Log Cabin, Dresden Plate, Bear Paw and Drunkard’s Path. In the 1990s, she produced quilts or contributed to collaborative quilts commemorating the work of civil rights activists in Alabama. When she died in 2007, The New York Times. for her obituary, interviewed Joey Brackner, then a folklorist for the Alabama arts council, about Ezell’s legacy. “She was a very important representative for the African-American quilting tradition,” he said, adding that  “her fame preceded the Gee’s Bend quilters, who in recent years have become the most celebrated group of African-American quilters.” The Gee’s Bend quilters, who came from a community near Selma, Alabama, appeared on network television shows with their quilts which used bold swatches of color, building upon a style that Ezell had explored widely for decades in her own work.

Bao Lee, Hmong Story Cloth, ca. 1985, cotton and embroidery. Purchased with funds from Friends of the Art Museum, from the permanent collection of the Utah Musem of Fine Arts, UMFA1991.024.001

In addition to the American Folk Art Museum items, there are three quilts representing Utah, two of which come from UMFA collections and the third on loan from the state’s folk arts collection as maintained by the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.

Completed in 1985, Bao Lee’s Hmong Story Quilt, is astounding in the extent of fine details. The story quilt chronicles the impact and outcome of war, as Lee visualizes the circumstances and events of her homeland during the 1970s as the Vietnam War came to its climax. The Hmong people had aided the American war efforts but as the inevitable collapse of South Vietnam neared, and the fighting had spilled over into Laos, they had no choice but to flee. Many refugees learned to embroider during the time in camps as they awaited decisions to leave Asia and come to the U.S. Lee’s quilt achieves an extraordinary rendering where the storyline has been compacted without sacrificing clarity of details to give the viewer a representative sense of what Lee and her fellow Hmong community members were experiencing during the upheaval of their lives and homes. There is a strong energetic sense that emerges while viewing the work, a genuine empathetic connection to the human impact and consequences of conflict and dislocation that might not be necessarily as immediately evident in reading a historical text. 

The Salt Lake Valley’s first Mormon generations also had displayed their own proficiency in the art of quilting. From the 1880s, there are three quilt designs, presented in graphite on paper, which were sketched by Albert Tissandier during his travels to the western U.S. Quilting bees were regularly organized by women of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, formulating their own cultural branch of quilting traditions signifying their Mormon communities.

Artist Unknown (Virginia), Map Quilt, 1886, silk and cotton velvets and brocade with embroidery, image courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum, gift of Dr. and Mrs. C. David McLaughlin, photo by Schecter Lee.

The third Utah quilt, on loan from the state’s museum division, is Bird of Paradise Hawaiian Quilt by Moani’ke’ala Revoir, which was completed in 1983. The quilt features an abstract leafy form of the Hawai’ian Bird of Paradise plant, set against a white background. Revoir, who is nearly 70, began quilting as a teen in Utah and then perfected her craft in Hawaii. She travels across the country as an expert and master teacher of Hawai’ian quilting art.

The exhibition continues at the UMFA through May 15. UMFA is the third stop for this traveling exhibition, which will move eastward to other museums through the spring of 2024.

UMFA has scheduled free several activities relating to Handstitched Worlds including Open Studio: Community Quilting on April 6, and May 4, from 5-8 p.m., in partnership with Utah Quilt Guild and the Holiday Quilt Show and Auction. Another for K-12 teachers will be Evening for Educators: Stitching Together Subjects with the Arts on March 16 at 5:30–8:30 p.m. An ACME Session titled Bees & Botanicals: Quilting Techniques from Hawai’i to Utah on April 14 at 6:30 p.m. with Moani’ke’ala Revoir and Craft Lake City. School exhibition tours also are available.

For reserving advance tickets, which are currently required for all in-person events and gallery visits, see the UMFA website

salt  15:  Horacio  Rodriguez

Setting aside momentarily the inventive resourcefulness of Horacio Rodgriuez’s process as a ceramic artist that culminates in his UMFA exhibit , the presentation raises many compelling questions that museums and patrons as well as dedicated and new lovers of visual arts have contemplated with a broader, more sensitizing consideration of cultural legacies and historical preservation from a perspective emphasizing dignity and respect. And, in Rodriguez’s body of art, which also has been featured recently in shows at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and Ogden Contemporary Arts, such questions lead to others of even more urgent sociopolitical relevance, including immigration, the functions of our southern borders and the potential of liberalizing reforms to shift our thinking about borders and their purposes, cultural appropriation, commodification and art appreciation, in general.

The outcome of this exhibition signals a fresh, enlightened perspective about the relationship between the artist and the museum, particularly as it relates to the questions and issues that spring from the works being displayed and the process that manifested their creation. As visitors will note, the pieces Rodriguez has created are based on pre-Columbian artifacts. From the original pieces, which are housed at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts but were in storage, he used advanced digital scanning, 3-D printing, traditional plaster mold-making, and slip-casting ceramic techniques to create these pieces. 

Horacio Rodriguez ( American, b. 1974), Colossal Head Series: Bad Hombre (2021), slip-cast terracotta, ceramic decals, underglaze transfers, gold luster and glaze.

In an interview with The Utah Review, the Salt Lake City-based artist recounted the process and how the museum helped facilitate it, as Rodgriuez created the works for the show. “It turned out to be a good time for research when I started my fellowship at the UMFA,” he says, adding that he also was co-teaching an architectural course at the time. Rodriguez says he did not know initially if the museum would be open to his suggestion about digitally scanning seven objects from the UMFA’s Meso-American collection but then executive director Gretchen Dietrich agreed. With the help of the staff at the Digital Matters Lab at The University of Utah’s Marriott Library, he scanned the objects, which are nearly 2,000 years old in most instances. For example, one of the art objects he scanned and generated a 3-D print for his work was the earthenware Seated young woman, which is dated to the Remojadas culture, somewhere between the third and fifth centuries A.D. and based in Veracruz, Mexico.  

This led to the exhibition pieces, which as viewers who have seen his work elsewhere at UMOCA and Ogden will recognize, that have amplified the artist’s unique approach bridging the unparalleled treasures of the ancient historical artifacts to a respectful yet dramatic interpretation, thanks to the proper digital technology, which makes his art possible. The results include slip-cast ceramic pieces such as Colossal Head Series: Bad Hombre (2021), Prototypes for a Border Wall Mitigation Device (2018), which includes customized ceramic decals he created, and the similarly adorned Hello My name is……Boombox (2016).

Unmistakably, the experience that made this show a reality, as Rodriguez says, has opened a “Pandora’s Box” of questions and aspects in considering the original art objects, their provenance and the relevant ways in which they inform us about how we might approach and reconcile many unresolved questions. These questions are not just limited to the world of art and art history. They also reverberate about art’s potential to shape our considerations of topics such as immigration and how we could conceptualize anew borders as we become motivated with the political will to reform and adopt more humane, affirming policies. In his UMOCA show last year, Radicalized Relics, the result, as The Utah Review mentioned at the time, was a sharp tantalizing offering about the simultaneous commodification, marginalization and exploitation of the people and culture along the southern borders. The decals he customizes with contemporary cultural references and applies to his pieces literally stun the viewer into thinking more critically about the sociopolitical, commercial marketing and cultural media dynamics in play. Soda pop bottles and Lady Guadalupe candles, for example, become Molotov cocktails and guns as artifacts of resistance. 

Seated young woman, Mexico, Veracruz region, Remojadas culture, 250–450, earthenware and pigment, purchased with funds from Friends of the Art Museum, UMFA1986.059.

This latest exhibition consolidates how Rodriguez creates a clarifying hybrid of contemporary cultural impulses and archaeological memories in his work. Also, at the UMFA show, viewers will notice a collection of objects that were discarded and recovered along the southern borders. Rodriguez volunteered to join Battalion Search and Rescue, a humanitarian group which searches heavily trafficked areas along the southern borders in the Arizona desert to look for missing and lost migrants. One of the works featured, and based on the aforementioned Veracruz earthenware piece of the seated woman, El Camino del Diablo, The Devil’s Highway: The Yuma 14, honors the memory of the 14 migrants who did not survive the border crossing among a group of 28. The tragedy occurred in May 1991, after smugglers had abandoned the migrants with barely any food or water in the desert where temperatures had exceeded 110 degrees. The smugglers told the group that the highway was only a few hours away, easily reachable by foot. In fact, the nearest highway was more than 50 miles away. Many of the survivors ended up hospitalized for severe hydration and long-term damage to their kidneys. Rodriguez says in his experience with Battalion Search and Rescue, finding someone who is still alive occurs far less frequently than discovering the remains of those who had tried to cross the desert. 

At UMOCA, some of his exhibited pieces included Brown Boys for 45, the red MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats atop the artifacts he recreated to signify the attempt to understand why some Mexican community members in Houston’s east side could support a politician who unreservedly demonizes Mexicans and immigrants. Meanwhile, in 545, based on a Mesoamerican sculpture that was taken from a burial site, the cage represented carries dual meanings: one about how museums often present such objects without comprehensive cultural contexts but often place it under a pristine display case and the other about the abusive treatment that children who have been separated from their Mexican migrant families have endured at the border.

Rodriguez’s latest show at the UMFA brings all of these issues to their full circle, reinforced with a richly, resourceful aesthetic that is etched into the minds of the viewers who should take more than a moment to absorb the many layers of meaning evoked by his art. The exhibition is available through June 26. 

UMFA acquisitions of Chiura Obata works

UMFA’s outstanding Japanese art collection recently acquired 35 works by Chiura Obata (1885-1975), one of the most significant Japanese American artists of the twentieth century, thanks to a generous gift from the Obata estate.

“We are thrilled that art lovers will have the opportunity to appreciate and study these works by our grandfather,” Kimi Hill, Obata’s granddaughter, said in a prepared statement. “Because many of these artworks were created in Utah, we hope people will be inspired to learn the history of wartime incarceration and go visit the actual camp site in Delta as well as the Topaz Museum. Obata never wavered from the inspiration he found in nature and his faith in the power of creativity. The solace that Obata found in the beauty of the Utah desert landscape was profound. We appreciate UMFA for wanting to share his vision with the people of Utah.”

The gift consists of drawings and watercolors Obata created from 1934 to 1943, including many he made to record his incarceration at Topaz in Utah during World War II. 

In 2018, UMFA hosted a traveling show of Obata’s work, which was magnificently received by many visitors and patrons. That show covered more than 70 years of Obata’s prodigious output, featuring more than 150 watercolors, paintings, prints, and screens, from intimate ikebana (floral arrangements) studies to the majestic landscapes of the American West.

Chiura Obata, Topaz War Relocation Center by Moonlight, 1943, watercolor, gift of the Estate of Chiura Obata, from the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts

At the time of the 2018 show, The Utah Review noted, “Obata’s art and life comprise the epitome of resilience, an artistic meta-narrative of the immigrant’s faith in the American experiment that still remarkably supersedes generation after generation of ugly xenophobic and bigoted expressions and actions. Emphasizing the creative impetus for a 1965 work titled Glorious Struggle, a sumi-e Japanese ink painting on silk, Obata recalled the struggles of the Japanese Issei in an interview, especially after the crushing “burst” of Pearl Harbor. “I heard the gentle but strong whisper of the Sequoian gigantean. ‘Hear me, you poor man. I’ve stood here more than 3,700 years in rain, snow, storm, and even mountain fire still keeping my thankful attitude strongly with nature – do not cry, do not spend your time and energy worrying. You have children following. Keep up your unity; come with me.’ So, in the past, all such troubles moved like a cool fog. In deep respect I present my painting to our Nisei and the future generation.”

UMFA also purchased three pieces showing The University of Utah campus that the Obata estate donated in  2018—drawings that Obata made after delivering a talk at the University, on a rare occasion when he and his wife were allowed to briefly leave Topaz. The latest works could be available for public viewing as early as this fall. Obata’s work also can be found in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Smithsonian, and other institutions. 

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