December 2015 Briefs

An Infinite Variety

40-41_BRIEFS_Quilts_Warren_RoseElizabeth V. Warren ’72 (left) and Joanna Semel Rose ’52 sign copies of Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety.

In October, Carpenter Library’s Kaiser Reading Room was transformed into a celebration of red-and-white quilts—all from the extraordinary collection of Joanna Semel Rose ’52.

In celebration of the publication of Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety, the Carpenter show was a sampling from the major exhibition organized by the American Folk Art Museum in 2011. Curated by Elizabeth V. Warren ’72, a leading authority on quilts and a Bryn Mawr trustee, that earlier exhibition showcased Rose’s entire collection of red-and-white quilts—653 at the time—in a spectacular display that enchanted New Yorkers.

Historian and art critic Simon Schama described the show as “pure, runaway, skipping-through-the-puddles joy …Turning the vaulted space of the Armory into a vast tent of hangings, the show delivers more mind-blowing, optically smashing, time-space-altering exhilaration than anything offered by conventional museum shows right now.”

As for the book, published in September by Skira/Rizzoli, it recaptures “the excitement and passion that the show evoked,” as Rose observes. “26,000 people saw it, and I have received close to a thousand handwritten letters from viewers.”

Rose’s own passion grew slowly. “I did not set about collecting quilts,” she explains. Her first—a double wedding ring pattern—came as a gift when her first child was born. But then, “five decades ago, I noticed that quilts were being used in the country to wrap up antique purchases or as filler in packing boxes,” she says. “At flea markets I found them for sale at $5 or $10.”

With her twin interests in patterns and social history, those bargains proved irresistible. And although the book highlights her red-and-white quilts, her collection isn’t limited to those colors alone. “I have many patriotic quilts, album quilts, Thanksgiving quilts, Amish quilts, crib quilts, and other historical quilts,” she says. “I’m interested in the stories behind them. Some were prizewinners at fairs, some were made to celebrate a boy’s 21st birthday, or a pastor’s leaving his congregation for another, or a trousseau of quilts, traditionally 13, for a bride.”

A longtime member of the Friends of the Library Board, Rose credits her time at Bryn Mawr with sparking her curiosity about the past and the present. “It reinforced my feeling that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—and that women would always find some way to use their imaginations,” she says.

Her collection is a testament to that sentiment. Writing in the catalog, she explains that the quilts in her collection are “ordinary coverings, their creators largely anonymous, their provenance obscure.” Nonetheless, they represent a wealth of imagination. Made in all manner of patterns—vortex, circle in star, schoolhouse and church—each is a unique example of the infinite variety that generations of American women wrought from the simple palette of red and white.

Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety, by Elizabeth V. Warren with Maggi Gordon, is published by Skira/Rizzoli in association with American Folk Art Museum and features a preface by Anne-Imelda Radice, Ph.D., and foreword by Martha Stewart.

Visit the online gallery from the opening reception.