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Kyra HicksThis I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces

Black Threads Press, 2009

by marshall poe on November 19, 2010

Kyra Hicks

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I’ll tell you something I’ve never really understood: the difference between “art” and “craft.” Yes, I get the sociological difference (“art” is made in New York and Paris; “craft” is made in Omaha and Wichita), but what about the substantive difference? One common way to differentiate the two is to say “art” is not functional and “craft” is functional. You can’t sit on a painting but you can sit on a chair. If that’s the difference, then the “Museum of Modern Art” in New York should be called the “Museum of Modern Art and Craft,” because it’s full of (not very comfortable) furniture. I also cannot really comprehend the difference between “insider art” and “outsider art.” Again, I get the sociological distinction (see above), but who gets to say who’s inside and who’s outside? And if there’s “insider art” and “outsider art,” is there “insider craft” and “outsider craft?”

In the world of quilting (which is much bigger than you think), Powers is a bit like Vermeer: not many pieces, but all highly valued. And like Vermeer, she’s interesting because we don’t know a lot about her.

All I know is this: there was a freed slave named Harriet Powers who made really beautiful, highly literate, and deeply religious quilts. In the world of quilting (which is much bigger than you think), Powers is a bit like Vermeer: not many pieces, but all highly valued. And like Vermeer, she’s interesting because we don’t know a lot about her. In This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces (2010), Kyra Hicks does her best to fill in the many blanks. The book is a combination detective story, journey of discovery, and guide to further research. Hicks, a master quilter herself, doggedly pursues every lead she can find regarding the mysterious Powers, and they take her to some very unexpected places (for example, Keokuk, Iowa). The picture of Powers that emerges from This I Accomplish is that of a skilled, religiously-inspired artist, confident and proud of her work, moving through a long-forgotten world of African American quilters.

If you know any quilters (and I know you do), this book would make an excellent gift. If you’d like to see Powers’ quilts for yourself, they are held by the National Museum of American History (part of the Smithsonian) in Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

historyguy November 19, 2010 at 1:37 pm

The trend of recent book choices seems to be toward the quirky and marginal. Can we expect a substantial work of history any time soon?

Marshall Poe November 19, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Feel free to suggest a title. I’m open to all suggestions.

Gaye Ingram November 20, 2010 at 10:09 am

I will suggest a few titles. Not necessarily new issues, but enlightening.

“The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, Americas Scots Irish, and the Creation of a Trans-Atlantic World–1689-1764″ by Patrick Griffin. This is not one of those “Born Fighting” books, but the real deal. Provides new perspective on the largest migration in America’s colonial history and its profound effects on the nation that it would help create. Better than anything I’ve read about this group, Griffin’s short work traces the Presbyterian Scots to Ireland, thence to America and shows that what the Ulster Scots sought in America was not an Escape to Eden, but a world where they, dissenters in a confessional state, would be guaranteed the rights of freeborn Englishmen. They did not see themselves as revolutionaries, but as a people who had been unfairly denied their natural rights in Ulster. Their strong trading ties with Philadelphia and New Castle, DE and the presence of one of their group as the Penns’ colonial administrator made the move far less dramatic than is often described. Short book, energetic prose, superb documentation, new view of a much abused subject.

“The Conservative Mind” by Russell Kirk. I note the Faber “Rise & Fall of Modern American Conservatism” has been listed. Kirk’s classic analysis of philosophical conservatism and its implications for American politics is a good reminder that many who claim the conservative mantle are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Anyone who reads this book will be forever disabused of treating political doctrinaires of any strip “conservative.” In a time when labels have become almost meaningless, Kirk provides a solid definition of an important one. And this is a very good time to look at the subject!

“The Southern Colonial Backcountry: Indisciplinary Perspectives on Frontier Communities” by David Colin Crass(ed) offers positive proof that the discovery of the past is not merely a prerogative of political historians. The essays use the tools of geography, sociology, archeology, material history, as well as the more conventional means of the historian to establish and understand the history of those early frontiersmen who traveled west from Philadelphis and New Castle, DE, then south through the Shenandoah Valley and beyond.

And for something lighter, I recommend Brand’s one-volume biography of Andrew Jackson. I’ve read many biographies of Jackson, but this one helped me understand the overarching motives that account for his varied choices. As always, Brand’s lively prose style and command of narrative technique make the read too short.

Julia November 21, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I really appreciated this interview… I’m a bit offended that the previous commentator calls it “quirky” and “marginal.” Isn’t that just a veiled way of saying it’s not about what he thinks is important? Aren’t we past the privileging of histories of wars and nations and men? It seemed that Ms. Hicks has done some substantive and original research that is of great interest to many of us out here. Kudos to you, Marshall, for the diversity and humanity of your guests. That’s why I’m such an enthusiastic listener! I also love that you delve into arcane and marginal areas, many of which may not have been of interest to me before you brought them to my attention. I may not always care about the subjects equally but I can always count on the quality of the work you present and your interview skills!

Ben November 22, 2010 at 8:34 pm

Well done Mr. Poe. What an interesting piece of history! Julia, thank you for a sensible comment on this interview. I agree!

lester ness December 2, 2010 at 5:29 am

Next year will be the centennial of the fall of the Chinese monarchy, the beginning of the Chinese republic. How about something on China? I don’t have any specific titles to suggest, since I live in China and don’t keep up with US titles, but there ought to be something. Maybe many things.

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