TUCSON, Ariz. - Arizona State Museum's (ASM) newest exhibit is a cozy one, featuring 20 Hopi quilts from the 1970s to the present. Hopi Quilts: Unique Yet Universal will run at ASM from Jan. 21 through Aug. 20.
While quilts and quilting are almost universally known in general American society, likely less familiar is the quilt-making tradition among the Hopi of northern Arizona. This small exhibit offers the opportunity to experience a familiar art form through a culturally unique lens.
American quilting goes back to colonial times. As settlers and soldiers moved west, they brought quilts and quilting skills with them, introducing some Native American communities to the craft. Christian missionaries, particularly Mormons, introduced quilting along with other European homemaking skills to the Native people they were hoping to convert.
The best known quilters in the southwestern United States are the Hopi, who have a long history of producing beautiful cotton and wool blankets, robes, belts, and ceremonial sashes. Traditionally, men were the weavers among the Hopi, their looms set up in kivas, or ceremonial chambers.
From the 1880s on, quilting was embraced by both Hopi women and some men, and over the past century it has become a fixture in Hopi society. Hopi women quilt for many of the same reasons as other women - for wedding and baby gifts, for family use, for personal satisfaction, and in some cases, to sell. While many typical American quilt patterns are evident - "crazy quilt," "log cabin," "nine-patch" - a uniquely Hopi aesthetic is expressed through the use of katsina or butterfly imagery, for example, and pottery and basketry motifs.
"Quilting has become a popular activity on the mesas," said ASM Director Beth Grindell. "In fact, creating and giving of quilts has become such an important part of Hopi life that quilts are now integral to traditional ceremonies such as baby namings and other important family occasions."
Beatrice A. Kabler, a quilter and a friend of ASM, has loaned Hopi quilts for this exhibit. Other quilts are on loan from Carolyn O'Bagy Davis, author of a book on Hopi quilts and guest-curator for the exhibit. Quilts from the museum's permanent collections round out the presentation.
A quilter herself from Madison, Wis., Beatrice Kabler lives in Green Valley. Of her interest in Hopi quilting, she said, "Up until about 10 years ago, I had never heard of Native American quilting. One day I read in the newspaper about a talk being given by Carolyn O'Bagy Davis. Carolyn's talk was on Hopi quilts, the topic of a book she had just written."
Kabler attended that lecture with two quilter friends and learned not only that Native Americans enjoyed quilting, but that Davis periodically delivered fabric and sewing supplies to the Hopi Mesas.
On one of Davis' subsequent trips north, Kabler accompanied her.
"Then, as I would go back to Madison each summer, I'd invite my friends to parties and stipulate that their admission was fabric and sewing supplies, which I would to take to Hopi. Over time, I didn't even have to ask, supplies just came and came and I'd be driving back to Green Valley with the back of my suburban full of supplies in addition to shipping additional supplies via UPS. Soon, my Madison friends were buying Hopi quilts, walling hangings, and blocks, and on and on."
When asked about the quilts she is loaning to the museum for the exhibit, she explains, "I'm not a collector; I don't buy just to have. The pieces I do have I bought because they have special meaning to me. My favorite is a little green and yellow quilt titled "My Mother's House" by Karen Tootsie. I found it at a quilt show in Window Rock, Arizona. Karen is my friend and I was familiar with her very personal story of her mother's house. I called her as soon as I bought it."