Harriet Powers

 

Powers born a slave on a Georgia plantation, died long before her two known quilts came to embody the African American narrative quilting tradition. Now recognized as amaster of story-quilt design, Powers spent her early years working on a plantation, where she may have learned her sewing skills from the plantation mistress. Shecreated her highly original and visually compelling quilts using an appliqué technique with strong similarities to the appliqué work of the Fon people of Dahomey, WestAfrica, a style she possibly learned from other slaves. Although she could not read or write, Powers was nevertheless an effective storyteller through her vividdepictions in needle and thread of biblical stories she had heard and local events she knew of or had experienced.Powers displayed her first story quilt, comprising eleven panels of biblical stories, at a cotton fair in Athens, Georgia, in 1886, where it was seen by a white woman,Oneita Virginia “Jennie” Smith, then head of the art department at the Lucy Cobb Institute. Smith immediately offered to buy the quilt, but Powers initially was unwillingto part with it. In 1891, however, when Powers and her family were in financial difficulty, she offered it to Smith for ten dollars. Smith told her she could only affordfive, and Powers, after consultation with her husband, Armstead, agreed to sell it. She then gave Smith detailed oral descriptions of each of the quilt’s panels, which begin with her depiction of the Garden of Eden and end with a Nativity scene.Smith entered Powers’ Bible Quilt, as it is now known, in the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, where it caught the attention of severalfaculty wives from Atlanta University. They commissioned a second narrative quilt from Powers as a gift for the Reverend Charles Cuthbert Hall, president of the UnionTheological Seminary and longtime chairman of the board of trustees of Atlanta University, and it was presented to him in 1898. The fifteen panels in this quilt alsoillustrate biblical stories (Noah and the Great Flood) as well as events that occurred during Powers’ lifetime (such as “Cold Thursday,” in February 1895, when temperatures in Georgia fell below zero), and unusual incidents she had heard about, such as the “Night of Falling Stars” in 1833 that convinced many observers thatJudgment Day had come (the event is now known to have been a Leonid meteor storm). The explanations for this quilt, written on pieces of cardboard and assumed tohave been dictated by Powers, include remarkably accurate descriptions of these natural phenomena.Today the Bible Quilt is preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the quilt commissioned for Reverend Hall is at the Museum of Fine Artsin Boston. They are not only powerful exemplars of the African American story quilt tradition but also extraordinary visual expressions of a vibrant oral history.