In 1992, my family was in Wisconsin for Christmas. I was eight. We were at the part of the visit where my grandmother habitually wheeled out her cedar chest, unfurling its contents to give us the Quilt Show. A lifelong painter, in her retirement she'd adapted sewing as an artistic medium. Now she was using it to broadcast her views. Many of the "wall hangings," as she preferred to call them, told biblical stories. Not because she was religious, but because they were stories worth telling. There was Moses in the bulrushes, and Joseph with his coat of many colors. The Queen of Sheba danced nude beneath a tree, and Cleopatra floated down the Nile River. Then came a quilt of a single woman, sitting in a chair, legs crossed, facing the audience.
"This one's for Anita Hill," she announced.
The wall hanging depicted an African-American woman sitting alone in a teal dress, center stage, while a panel of white judges — all men — made a diminutive row at the top. Along the sides, women of every race, nationality, and hairdo were piled up helter-skelter, as if in conversation with one another. At the bottom, discarded high heels looked like they'd been kicked off in protest. From what I could tell, this quilt told the story of a woman whose truth was being questioned. I didn't know what crime she was being tried for, but the fact that she was pleading her case before a panel of judges suggested they didn't believe what she was saying.
Around me, family members nodded with deep understanding. "Isn't it great that Pauline made a quilt for Anita Hill?'
I nodded with them. I thought it was great. My grandma had made me scores of blankets that I loved to burrow deep beneath. This woman in a teal dress looked like she, too, could stand to be warmed.
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My grandmother knew she wanted to be a painter when she saw a black-and-white photograph of girls dressed up to dance. The contrast of the pleats in their skirts transfixed her. "I wanted to learn how to do that," she once told me. "To relate the contrast between dark and light." As a teenager, she earned a scholarship to Shurtleff College, a private school in her county, where she became known for her own ability on the dance floor and earned top marks in her class. The valedictorian was promised a full ride to the University of Illinois, but the principal refused to let it go to a girl. Instead, the prize was passed to a boy who my grandma claimed made all Bs.
When she told her father, in the 1920s, that she was going to be an artist, he said, "You're the first generation to go to college. You'll be a teacher." She began her career in a one-room schoolhouse in the countryside of Illinois and finished it four decades later teaching art to high school students in a suburb of Chicago.
As newlyweds, she and my grandfather lived in the Cabrini-Green housing for veterans on the Near North Side of the city. Soon they had three daughters. She sewed all her girls' clothing from underwear to raincoats. It wasn't until the kids had left the house, and they'd retired to the farm in Wisconsin, that she began to sew for herself.
She credited the women's movement with heralding a new era of quilt-making in America. In a homespun catalog of her quilt collection, she wrote: "Now that women have become free agents — engineers, nuclear physicists, lawyers, and such — it's freedom! So why limit oneself to the traditional materials of paint, brushes, marble, and chisels when there is the vast sea of opportunities — fibers, fabrics, needles, threads, and thimbles."