Unique treasures on display at Georgia quilt museum

"I'm Rich" by Brandon Wulff of Toronto is included in the virtual exhibition "Making It Through Sheltering in Place" on the Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum's Facebook page. Courtesy of Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Quilts are immortalizing the historic nature of the pandemic, topics about race — and more.

CARROLLTON — When it booked the touring exhibition “Sacred Threads” a year ago, the Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum had no idea it would be featuring it during a pandemic. Yet, somehow it fits perfectly for this crazy quilt of a time.

“Sacred Threads” does not emphasize a particular faith or theology. Instead, organizers of the national biannual touring exhibit say it is intended to convey “spirituality, healing and inspirational messages.”

In other words, the quilt exhibit is a perfect antidote for people experiencing the pandemic feels.

“This exhibit is terrific for the times we are experiencing,” says Marilyn Hubbard, president of the museum’s board. “During this pandemic, many have had the opportunity to get back in touch with their feelings, so perhaps that’s why people react so [strongly].”

Operating out of donated downtown space in an epic converted cotton warehouse otherwise given over to Carroll County government services, Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum has sought to stir such reactions, and to foster an appreciation for the fabric arts, since its 2012 opening. SQTM is a grassroots organization with a humble annual budget whose carefully stitched ambitions are powered by a hands-on board of directors.

With Carrollton only an hour west of downtown via I-20, the museum is an easy road trip for metro Atlantans. And to further tempt a visit, the museum has doubled down on topical exhibits with the recent opening of “Suffragist Sampler.” It presents quilts by Tennessee artist Mary Ruden honoring those, including her own family members, who worked to secure women’s right to vote a century ago.

Filling the museum’s main gallery and a newly renovated exhibition space across the hall, many of “Sacred Threads’” art quilts address issues that have commanded headlines in recent years, such as race, immigration, choice and anti-Semitism. But other pieces touch more broadly on aspects of the human condition: learning to go beyond day-to-day demands to embrace life’s wonder, the power of sisterhood, listening to an angel or opening oneself to messages from departed loved ones.

Museum visitors do not have to guess at the varied meanings. Each of “Sacred Threads’” 35 quilts is accompanied by short explanatory wall text written by the quilters. Guests wanting to know more about a piece can call a posted phone number, punch in a code, and hear its maker discuss it.

Just one example of a quilt with a strong message that visitors encounter is “Visa Denied” by Phyllis A. Cullen, a physician from Ninole, Hawaii, who speaks of her volunteer work in numerous Third World countries to aid “the oppressed, lost, poor and dispossessed.” The composition shows a woman in a head-wrap facing what appears to be a city combusting into red and orange flames. Her dark outfit is set off by the brightly colored bag she carries, quilted of sewing scraps, suggesting the beginning of a forced journey with precious few possessions.

"Visa Denied," a quilt by Phyllis A. Cullen, Ninole, Hawaii, is included in the exhibit “Sacred Threads” at the Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum in Carrollton. Courtesy of "Sacred Threads"

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“We have a moral, if not a legal and economic, obligation to help,” Cullen says in the phone narration.

Building a quality schedule such as represented by the two current exhibitions hasn’t always been easy, says Cyndi Hilliard, board vice president.

“We’ve come a long way,” she says. “Marilyn and I both remember the days when we’d be sitting here [at the end of summer] wondering what exhibit we were going to hang the first of October. But now we have them planned at least a year in advance.”

Now, instead of having to search for needles in a quilt stack to organize exhibits or to find affordable touring ones, SQTM has credentialed quilters and curators contacting Carrollton. “When you talk to those [artists], they’ve shown at every other big quilt museum in the nation,” Hubbard says. “It’s like, ‘We want to be on that list!’”

Little by little, the Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum is getting there. ”The Manhattan Quilt Guild left a message, and I thought, ‘Is that Manhattan, Georgia?’” recalls Hubbard, an artist and former teacher and small-business owner, with a just-joshing smile. “And my husband said, ‘No, it’s probably Manhattan, Kansas.’ And I called the lady, and it was Manhattan, New York City!

Marilyn Hubbard, Carrollton’s Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum board president, shows off a Mariner' s Compass quilt from 1834. Howard Pousner/For The AJC

Credit: Howard Pousner

Credit: Howard Pousner

Carrollton found its way onto the quilt circuit as something of an underdog, after the Georgia Quilt Project and Georgia Quilt Council sought to establish a museum starting in 1998. Some figured that metro Atlanta had the deal sewn early. But it went to Carrollton, which, with the backing of the late Carroll County Commission Chairman Bill Chappell, came up with the rent-free municipal space. SQTM is steps from the heart of downtown, situated close to the AMP on Adamson Square amphitheater, the Carrollton Center for the Arts (a performance and visual arts venue), coffee shops and a juice bar, pubs and restaurants, a popular used book store (Underground Books) and the Carrollton GreenBelt, an 18-mile recreational path circling the city. It’s a nice artsy nexus for a city of less than 30,000, befitting the University of West Georgia’s hometown, which skews young (where the median age is 26).

Still, getting local folks through the doors can be a challenge, not helped by a tight annual budget of less than $35,000 that allows for little paid promotion and only one paid employee.

”It disappoints us when we run into people from Carrollton now and then who still don’t know there’s a museum in town,” says Hilliard, a semi-retired senior living consultant. "And yet someone from Germany finds out about us and comes to visit.”

In fact, the museum had hosted visitors from all 50 states and 15 countries. Some of those guests obviously appreciate the role SQTM plays as a repository of quilts and textiles of different types and vintages. Among them in 2013 was Georgia Elizabeth Moon, 98, who showed up without an appointment one day with her son, seeking to donate a crazy quilt with briar stitching that was crafted by her grandmother, Georgia Ann Summers Godwin of Cedartown, around 1890.

“Summer Solstice,” a quilt by Karen King-Giles of San Antonio, Texas, is included in the exhibit “Sacred Threads” at the Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum in Carrollton. Courtesy of Sacred Threads

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Moon’s family believes that the quilt’s patches of gray wool were repurposed from the Confederate cavalry uniform of Godwin’s husband, William Barnabas Godwin. Hubbard was touched that Moon said, “I want to give you this before I die, because I think it needs to be taken care of in a museum where it will be safe.” It’s now a prized piece in SQTM’s permanent collection, which has grown to 200 works.

Its oldest quilt is a Broderie Perse from 1790 created of English chintz fabric embroidered onto a neutral background, with a border featuring a smaller chintz print. Even after conservation work, it’s so fragile that it has only been shown a handful of times, laid out on a table for a day or two, when it’s time for the quilt to be refolded to keep its fibers from breaking.

”It was found in a closet in Georgia, and brought in, in a dilapidated box from a Rome, Georgia, dress shop, by a woman who said she was going to throw it in a dumpster if we didn’t want it,” Hilliard recalls. “And we said, ‘Oh, no, don’t do that! Glad you made a stop here.’”

A more recent donation also was a back-of-a-closet find, the result of a sheltering in place clean-athon by a Maine resident. The Chimney Sweep-pattern quilt was made in Coweta County between 1860 and 1870 by Nancy Lavenia Lyle Dalton. Her descendent decided it belonged in the Southeast and searched out the Southeast Quilt & Textile Museum online.

The quarantine also helped SQTM gather content for an ample virtual exhibit titled “Making It Through Sheltering in Place,” recently posted on the museum’s Facebook page. It also will be the basis of a gallery exhibit in fall 2021.

Marilyn Hubbard says she hopes by then the pandemic will be behind us. “Hopefully the exhibit will be looking back on all that mess,” the Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum president says. “Remember it?”

"Lessons Learned," a quilt by Pauline Salzman of Gulfport, Florida is included in the exhibit “Sacred Threads” at the Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum in Carrollton. Courtesy of Sacred Threads

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

EXHIBIT PREVIEW

“Sacred Threads”

Through Oct. 24.

“Suffragette Quilts”

Through Oct. 3.

10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays. $5. Masks required.

Southeastern Quilt & Textile Museum, 306 Bradley St., Suite C, Carrollton. 770-301-2187, southeasternquiltandtextilemuseum.org.