Black at Work: The Color Black in Quilts from the Collection

Black at Work: The Color Black in Quilts from the Collection

Black at Work examines how quiltmakers represented in the International Quilt Museum collection have utilized the color black as a visual or conceptual element in their textiles. It positions black as a serious and active representational tool with the power to change or enhance the way we see, perceive, and understand the world around us.

Whether black is used to generate contrast, to create borders, or to render illusions of dimensionality, it is essential to our experience of objects and space. In addition to analyzing how black engages the eye, this exhibition asks viewers to reflect on black as a concept that shapes social thoughts and categorizations. Within popular culture, black is symbolic of sophistication, darkness, mystery, and evil. Black can unify a group, as in “black tie affair”, or can segregate as a marker of racial difference. 

In its varied presences, black invites a meditation on the complexities of our visual, psychological, and intellectual world. Concerned with more than just the appearance of the color, Black at Work asks, what does black do?

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Illusion

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Illusion

Plain Quilt
Maker Unidentified
Possibly made in Ohio, United States, 1920
Cotton broadcloth/muslin; machine pieced
Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof Collection

Log Cabin
Maker Unidentified
Possibly made in Southern, Illinois, United States, 1900-1920
Wool suiting, serge, gabardine; foundation-hand pieced
Ardis and Robert James Collection 1997.007.0190E

TVA #1 – Man with a Guitar
Hortense Beck
Made in Topeka, Kansas, United States, 1992-1997
Cotton broadcloth/muslin; hand appliqued
Hortense Horton Beck Collection 2008.041.0033E

Log Cabin
Maker Unidentified
Probably made in United States, 1900-1920
Wool suiting, serge, gabardine; hand pieced
Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection 2008.040.0258E

Sheepfold
Maker Unidentified
Possibly made in Missouri, United States, 1880-1900
Wool suiting, serge, gabardine; machine pieced
Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof Collection 2003.003.0068

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Illusion

Black as Illusion

We may not always be aware of it, but black is continuously influencing and manipulating our perceptions of what is real and what is not.

Grouped with the white and blue shapes, the black rhombuses in Tumbling Blocks create the impression of stacked cubes. Although we know the image is flat, black in this context suggests dimensionality. The diamond shapes in Log Cabin (Light and Dark setting) do different illusory work. Dark-colored strips of fabric come together to trick the eye, rendering shapes that appear veiled by a translucent black—yet in reality, they are not.

Whether creating the appearance of depth, obscuring details from our view, or inviting us to imagine what lies within impenetrable shadows, black creates illusions that shape our visual world. What illusions reveal themselves through the use of black in the other quilts in this section? 

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Concept

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Concept

Schoolhouse
Maker Unidentified
Made in United States, 1920
Cotton calico; machine pieced, hand pieced
Miller-Lerman Collection 2007.041.0004E

Black Boy
Hortense Beck
Topeka, Kansas, United States, 1982
Cotton calico; hand pieced, embroidered
IQM Education Collection 2019.012.0031E

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Concept

Black as Concept

The color black evokes a multitude of ideas and emotions. Depending on context, it can symbolize anything from our deepest angst, a powerful authority or an ominous threat. When black is added or attached to individuals or objects, we are flooded with social and cultural cues that help us make sense of our surroundings.

Black Boy can be read in two interpretations at once – as both an image of a repeated black figure and as a representation of racial blackness. Assigning the latter meaning reveals a brutal and unjust past, as well as the lingering stereotypes that continue to be assigned to black bodies in the present moment. The quirky Schoolhouse may challenge our expectations and conjure our curiosity, as black is such an uncommon color for a dwelling or institution. How do you “read” the quilts?

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Contrast

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Contrast

Shoo Fly
L. Miller
Probably made in Wayne County, Ohio, United States, 1975
Cotton broadcloth/muslin; machine pieced
Ardis and Robert James Collection 1997.007.0514E

Log Cabin
Barbara Caron
Made in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States, 2009-2011
Cotton; machine pieced
IQM Education Collection 2019.012.0027E

Thousand Pyramids
L. Miller
Probably made in Wayne County, Ohio, United States
Cotton broadcloth/muslin, hand pieced
Ardis and Robert James Collection 1997.007.0501E

Roman Stripe
Barbara Caron
Made in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States, 2009
Cotton; machine pieced
IQM Education Collection 2019.012.0010E

Chinese Coins
Barbara Caron
Made in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States, 2009
Cotton; machine pieced
IQM Education Collection 2019.012.0002E

Bars
Maker Unidentified
Made in United States, 1920-1940
Wool; machine pieced
2014.002.0001E

Herringbone
Barbara Caron
Made in Lincoln, Nebraska, United States 2012-2015
Cotton; machine pieced
IQM Education Collection 2019.012.0021E

Works in the Exhibition | Group: Black as Contrast

Black as Contrast

As the darkest possible color and literal absence of light, black is often used to create brilliant contrast with other colors. It is fascinating to explore how black works in multiple ways. When juxtaposed with other colors, black can recede out of focus and enhance the colors it borders. This is apparent in Roman Stripe where the black fabric works to amplify the intensity of the other hues, especially the red. Alternatively, when juxtaposed with white, black appears deeper, richer, and becomes more pronounced. Bars and Herringbone, when viewed together, represent a classic example of high contrast where black stands out as strikingly dark against its bright opposite.

Take a moment to examine the Bars quilt (above) on its own. Does the faded fabric and lower contrast in this quilt change the way you experience black?

Gallery Photos

Gallery Photos
Gallery Photos
Event Date
Tuesday, November 22, 2022 to Saturday, March 25, 2023