"Quilts become archetypal symbols of the women who make them.
They 'stand in' for the quilter, long after she is gone,
revealing to descendants, viewers, or new owners
the essence of the quilter—her spirit, energy, vitality, and skill."
- Jean Ray Laury
Ho for California! Pioneer Women and Their Quilts

Quiltmaking has always been an outlet for creativity and innovation. Through the manipulation of design elements, imagery, and materials, quiltmakers have experimented with their craft, often resulting in fanciful or playful work. In some instances, their playfulness is calculated. Artists Mary Catherine Lamb and Jean Ray Laury used their quilts to confront serious issues with humor. For others, their cleverness stemmed from resourcefulness—the desire or need to repurpose materials such as ties, buttons, or flour sacks. In the cases of unidentified makers, we are left to wonder about the imaginations behind such novel creations. 

Whether by the maker’s intent or a viewer’s perception, this selection of quilts speaks to our fanciful sides. The quilts make us smile, laugh, and take a second look. They draw us closer to their creators by making us want to glean more insight into the people who have created and left behind such whimsical works. 

- Curated by Carolyn Ducey and Laura Chapman

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Unidentified Maker 
Circa 1890-1910
Possibly made in Massachusetts
Foundation-pieced, machine-pieced, embroidered; silk, satin
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 1997.007.0375

Silk fan quilts were common in the late 1800s, and the motif based on these objects was popular in Crazy quilts of the same period. This example includes crazy piecing—randomly shaped fabrics—that make up the ground behind the fans, and a variety of embroidery stitches that outline seams. 

This quilt is made quirky and fun by the maker’s use of brightly colored, striped fabrics used as a background, by piecing that creates clunky circles and uneven lines, and by random starbursts embroidered throughout. 

Gambler’s Dream
Nora McKeown Ezell (b. 1919, d. 2007)
Eutaw, Alabama
Hand-appliquéd, hand-pieced, embroidered; cotton blend, chambray
Robert and Helen Cargo Collection, 2000.004.0025

It isn’t just the aces that are wild in Nora Ezell’s Gambler’s Dream. Though ties have been used in quilts since the late 1800s, Ezell offers a fresh take on the genre by transforming dozens of ties into a game of chance. These card players appear to have luck on their side as each one holds an ace. The discard pile in the middle and the card holder on the right add texture and dimensionality to the quilt.  

Ezell was one of the best known 20th-century African American quilters. She won an Alabama Folk Heritage award in 1990, and a NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 1992.

Roberta Jemison (b. 1928)
Hand-pieced; cotton blend, muslin
Robert and Helen Cargo Collection, 2000.004.0041

Planes soar in every direction on this lively quilt. Did Roberta Jemison dream of flying to exotic locations? Perhaps Jemison just liked travel-themed fabric. A bright yellow fabric at the bottom of the quilt includes images of suitcases, clothing, and destinations like New York, Paris, and Nice. Can you find a fun fabric with a red apple that reads, “I like you”?

Jemison was born in 1928 in Boligee, Alabama.  As a young girl, she learned to quilt from her mother, Anna Pearl Jackson Washington, and her maternal grandmother, Roberta Patterson Jackson. 

Original Pattern
Lilian Beattie (b. 1879, d. 1988)
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Hand-appliquéd, hand-pieced; cotton blend
Gift of Katy Christopherson, 2005.010.0001

It’s never too late to try something new. Lilian Beattie began quilting at the age of 60 after seeing an exhibit of quilts at the 1939 World’s Fair. Upon finding that none of the quilts on display featured figures, she spent the next 50 years creating her own original and imaginative designs. Using newspaper and magazine illustrations as patterns, her quilts depict fictional characters, historical figures, and more. 

This quilt includes famous figures like George Washington and his Cherry Tree, Superman, and Humpty Dumpty. Others appear to be dancing and playing musical instruments. What else do you see? 

Love Apple
Anna McGinty McNabb (b. 1851, d. 1883) and possibly Ruth Deaver (b. 1825, d. 1897)
Probably made in Sabetha, Kansas
Hand-appliquéd; cotton 
Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2007.038.0007

What was she thinking? This unique setting for a late-nineteenth century appliqué quilt makes us wonder what was going through Anna McNabb’s mind as she made it. Appliqué designs, including the Love Apple pattern, were a popular style of the time. But this spiraling design is far from ordinary.

The term “Love Apple” actually refers to tomatoes.  It comes from the French phrase pomme d’amour and may be a variation of the Italian pomi d’oro. Tomatoes can be traced to the Aztec people in North America around 700 AD. The fruit was introduced to Europe by early explorers in the 1600s, but only became a household staple in the U.S. after 1865. 

Sock Monkey Jamboree
Mary Catherine Lamb (b. 1949, d. 2009)
Portland, Oregon
Machine appliquéd; cotton, barkcloth
Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2007.043.0001

Red, gray, and white sock monkeys came to prominence in the 1930s, when Nelson Knitting Mills included a pattern for the toy with every pair of Rockford Red Heel socks. Sock Monkey Jamboree goes rogue. Artist Mary Catherine Lamb used bright vintage clothing, table cloths, and what she called “other midcentury castoffs.” 

Otherwise known for quilts depicting medieval religious iconography, here Lamb commemorated her personal sock monkey collection. Describing the scope of her work, Lamb said, “It could incorporate playfulness and irreverence. But it also has a little bit of grief and yearning for the security of the past.” 

Watermelon Pickles
Jean Ray Laury (born 1928, died 2011)
Fresno, California
Machine-pieced, painted; cotton blend, muslin
Gift of Jean Ray Laury, 2010.014.0013

Trained in the fine arts, Jean Ray Laury was a leader in the early art quilt movement. She frequently combined humor with familiar images to create bold, often satirical, designs. “I like making quilts that grow out of everyday life, so politics, women's issues, major earthly shake-ups and humor are always part of my work,” she said in 88 Leaders in the Quilt World Today (Nihon Vogue, 1998). 

What is pickled watermelon? The dish has links to Germans from Russia—ethnic Germans who emigrated to North America from the Russian Empire in the late 1800s. While we do not know Laury’s own connection, this quilt illustrates the graphic and often playful nature of her work.

Gambler’s Rest
Alice Purviance (born 1905, died 2012)
St. Louis, Missouri
Hand-appliquéd, machine-pieced; cotton, muslin
Gift of Evelyn and Jack Thiel, 2011.008.0001

Alice Purviance went all-in when she made Gambler’s Rest as an entry for the 1933 World’s Fair quilt contest sponsored by Sears, Roebuck and Company. A factory worker earning $14 a week, the $1,000 prize could have been life-changing. “A deck of cards was sitting next to me,” she explained in Quilters Newsletter. “I don’t know—it just came to me to make a quilt using those 52 cards.” 

Purviance made the quilt on a frame built by her brother Ray with four kitchen chairs for legs. Though she missed the contest deadline, her quilt was later displayed at a Sears store in North St. Louis. 

Friendship Quilt
Mary Elizabeth Shelby (born 1880, died 1962)
Kansas City, Missouri 
Hand-stitched; cotton, buttons 
Donated in memory of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Shelby by the William J. Shelby family, 2014.022.0001

What to do with all those buttons? Mary Shelby’s fascination with buttons began after seeing her mother’s button box. As her own collection grew, along with an interest in quiltmaking and design, Shelby imagined a quilt made entirely of buttons. Using 11,923 flat buttons instead of pieced fabric, she adapted a Friendship Quilt pattern published in the Kansas City Star in 1938.

The result is staggering. Shelby’s quilt placed fourth in a novelty quilt contest at the Missouri State Fair and appeared in numerous venues through the years. It also tips the scales weighing more than 40 pounds. See also, in the related photograph, a number of Shelby’s small button projects.

Unidentified Maker 
Circa 1975-2000
Jaipur, India
Hand-pieced; cotton
Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2015.001.0001

One might consider a motorcycle or dirt bike on an Indian quilt unusual.  However, according to a 2017 article in New Atlas, India is now the largest motorcycle-producing country in the world. In India, motorcycles are everyday transportation.

This is a traditional Indian lassi ralli—a simple quilt generally constructed from a limited number of fabrics, usually just one or two. This ralli is made with two fabrics, including an unusual silver print featuring motorcycles. Patches or repairs are made throughout.

Crossword Puzzle
Unidentified Maker 
Made in United States
Embroidered, hand-appliquéd; cotton, muslin
Gift of Willa Felzien, 2015.087.0001

Doing a crossword puzzle in ink is a mark of confidence. But what does it mean to do a crossword in thread? A lot of embroidered details! Was the maker of this quilt trying to share a specific message? Some phrases—“Evil to Him who Evil Thinks,” and “Fortune Aids the Bold” are cryptic, at least to contemporary viewers.  

It seems likely that the maker designed the puzzle herself; the letters of some sequential squares don’t spell real words. 

Chimney of Smokes
Marian Grace Barkdoll Waters (b. 1909, d. 2006)
Glendo, Wyoming
Hand-pieced; cotton 
Gift of Dolores Waters Mossler, 2017.088.0001

M. Grace Waters used the whole kit and caboodle to make this quilt. As a teacher and cook, she spent years working on and around ranches. While on the Y6 Cattle Ranch in Wyoming, she saved cotton bags left over from the ranch hands’ Bull Durham tobacco. Taking the bags apart, Waters dyed part of the fabric a golden yellow. She cut smaller strips from the undyed bags to create the mortar for these “bricks.” 

Waters’s creativity did not go unnoticed. According to family records, she received an award for this quilt at the Wyoming State Fair.

Works in the Exhibition

Gallery Photos

Gallery Photos
Gallery Photos
This exhibition was made possible through funding from the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov for more information. Additional support provided by Friends of the International Quilt Museum, World of Quilts Travel and Nebraska State Quilt Guild.
Event Date
Friday, June 21, 2019 to Saturday, November 30, 2019