Folk artist and quilt maker Harriet Powers (1837-1910) was born into slavery outside Athens, Georgia. She was married at 18 and gave birth to nine children. Although she probably made quilts from an early age, records show that the first public display of her quilts occurred in 1886 at a cotton fair in Athens.
Nineteenth century quilt making was widely practiced by both European and African Americans, and most of the surviving quilts utilized the European style and motifs, combining British needlework techniques with German decorative traditions featuring bold geometric designs of repeating blocks in contrasting colors. Harriet Powers worked within this European American style, but she added unique features in which she depicted historical events and Bible stories using design elements resembling West African ceremonial textiles. Powers used a combination of hand- and machine-stitching along with appliqué to form small, detailed panels. She then organized these squares to unfold a larger story, much like a modern graphic novel. This “teaching style” of quilting has its roots in West African coastal communities, and her uneven edging of panels mirrored the complex syncopated rhythms of African American folk music. Through her quilts, she recorded legends and biblical tales of patience and divine justice. This use of appliqued designs to tell stories is closely related to artistic practices still carried on today in the republic of Benin, West Africa.
Only two pieces of her work have survived: Her Bible Quilt of 1886, which she sold for $5 in the aftermath of the war, now hangs in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Her Pictorial Quilt of 1888 is displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Based on these two quilts and the influence they’ve had on later artists, Powers’ work is now considered among the finest examples of Southern quilting from the 19th century.
Only one image of Powers herself survives. The photograph, made about 1897, depicts her wearing a special apron with appliqued images of a moon, cross, and sun or shooting star. Such celestial bodies appear repeatedly in her quilts and are often carefully stitched in complex ways, indicating their importance to her. These images may have related to a fraternal organization or had religious significance to her. Powers’s interpretations of both quilts have survived, though they are likely influenced by their recorders. Powers may have used the quilts as visual teaching tools for telling biblical stories.
In a rare document from a Black woman at the time, Powers wrote (or perhaps dictated) a letter in response to someone who wanted to buy one of her quilts. She actually references several other quilts that she made – indicating that she made at least five, including one in 1882: “I composed a quilt of the Lord’s Supper from the New Testament. 2 thousand and 500 diamonds.” Another “teaching quilt” was featured in 1886 at a cotton fair and is now on display in the Smithsonian:
Fortunately, Powers also dictated descriptions of both of the surviving quilts. For example, in Bible Quilt, we can see Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (first block); Satan amidst the seven stars (third block); Jacob’s Ladder, which is also related to a slave song (second row, third block); and the Holy Family (last block).
In Pictorial Quilt first row, second block, :
“The dark day of May 19, 1780. The seven stars were seen 12 N. in the day. The cattle wall went to bed, chickens to roost and the trumpet was blown. The sun went off to a small spot and then to darkness.”
Although Powers received little recognition during her lifetime, she is now considered an important American artist. She was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement in 2009, and the city of Athens, Georgia held a centennial celebration in her honor in 2010.
This post was curated by Michael Simms for Vox Populi.