Harriet Powers was an African American folk artist, known for her quilts, a cultural trade made of woven cloths. She was born into slavery in 1837 in Athens, Georgia and she managed to become one of the best-known African American quiltmakers. However, only two of her quilts survived, named Bible Quilt and Pictorial Quilt. These works reflect her belief, astrological events, and local legends of the era.
Although her private life is not much known, there is a small life story. She was married young and had nine children. They become the landowners some time after the Civil war. Her husband left her in 1895 and she managed to support her family by working as a seamstress.
Harriet Powers passed away on January 1, 1910, and was buried in the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in her hometown, Athens, GA.
What is a Quilt?
A quilt is usually composed of three layers stitched together. These layers are a combination of a woven cloth top, a batting, and a woven back. The top layer can be one piece however it is usually a patchwork in most cases. The different methods and patterns to stitch these layers together varies greatly and result in diverse quilt designs. The designs were also used as art throughout history and in different cultures, different designs came up to reflect the era and the ethos. They are mostly made for gifting to celebrate big events in a community such as marriage, childbirth, and other domestic events.
On the other hand, they can tell a lot about historical events. African American quilts are therefore important in this aspect. None of them look alike however there are some similarities in the stories they are telling. Hence, they are talking about slavery, pain, freedom, power, and hope. Asymmetric designs and large-scale patterns are other common features of these quilts. African women used scraps from the actual quilts they make for their “mistresses” to create these designs.
However, the actual reason behind the variety of quilt designs may be the lack of single pieces of layers. They had to create unique designs because all they have were these little pieces of fabric. Quilts were also used to carry secret messages between slaved families to help each other escape and find safe houses. In a way, they can be seen as letters of freedom. Quilting also helps them to socialize without feeling oppressed and they turn this into a fun event accompanied by eating, storytelling, and games.
What Did Harriet Powers Do That Was So Unique?
At the time of Powers, everyone was usually using and discovering new patterns to make with quilts while she used them to tell something. Maybe this is caused by the fact that she does not know how to write so that she used her art to tell people something. Well, if art does not tell anything to anybody what is the purpose? Similar to Egyptian calligraphy, she used lots of figures and made the quilt almost like an illustrated book which made her style unique in the world at that time.
Hence, this was one of the reasons why Harriet Powers is actually known as the mother of African American quilts. She used fabrics and needles instead of pen and paper to transmit the oral stories she listened to while she was a child and she made it beautiful, she made it artful. She repurposed the quilts by giving them another purpose besides a beautiful gift. They were now telling something.
How Many Quilts Did Harriet Powers Make?
Harriet Powers made a bunch of quilts in her time but we are not sure exactly how many. From a letter she wrote to someone, we understand that she had made at least 5 quilts and the first of them was made as early as 1882 (Source: Daily Art Magazine). There could be more for sure however only two of them survived throughout history, the Bible Quilt and the Pictorial Quilt.
HARRIET POWERS’ FAMOUS BIBLE QUILT
Powers first displayed her Bible Quilt in the Cotton Fair of 1886 in Georgia and it got the attention of Onetta Virginia (Jennie) Smith, a local white artist who would become the head of the art department at the Lucy Cobb Institute. She was really impressed by the design of Harriet Powers and she admits that she never saw an original design like that although she studies in this area. She wanted to buy it but it was not for sale however Harriet and she kept in touch until four years later when Powers’ family was in a bad financial situation and had to sell it for 5 dollars to Jennie.
“I have spent my whole life in the South, and am perfectly familiar with thirty patterns of quilts, but I had never seen an original design, and never a living creature portrayed in patchwork, until the year 1886. Her style is bold and rather on the impressionists order while there is a naievete of expression that is delicious… The scenes on the quilt were biblical and I was fascinated.”Jennie Smith
An Illustrated Bible
The quilt was displaying the scenes from the bible, starting from the creation and continuing to the birth of Jesus. It is especially fascinating how Harriet Powers chose to tell the stories because she did not know how to write or read. She was only telling the stories that she heard of but it was enough for her to create a beautiful piece of art with the things she knows.
This is a good example of how women always find a way to speak their minds about the things they are capable of. They push the limits and take every opportunity to reflect on their thoughts even when it is not possible in classical ways. This is one of the things that make Harriet unique, she didn’t just want to create a quilt, she wanted to tell something with this quilt, therefore she made an illustrated and “tiny” version of the bible out of it.
The Bible Quilt consists of 299 separate pieces of fabric which were stitched together by hand and machine onto a watermelon pink-colored bigger piece. It was divided into eleven panels with vertical strips to show different scenes from the bible stories. Unbroken lines were used in West African quilt designs to frighten spirits and prevent evil from moving in straight lines. When she sold her quilt to Jennie Smith she described every panel to her to make her story clear. And Smith took note of these stories in her diary. There were stories from the Bible that Powers heard when she was growing up which includes Adam and Eve, Satan among the seven stars, Cain killing Abel, the Baptism of Christ, and the Last Supper.
Bible Quilt’s Story
1. Adam and Eve in the garden of Paradise, at the moment when the serpent is about to tempt Eve.
2. Eve has given birth to a son.
3. Satan amidst the seven stars.
4. Cain kills his brother Abel, and blood pours from his neck.
5. Cain goes into the land of Nod to get a wife.
6. Jacob dreams about the angel on a ladder.
7. The baptism of Christ; the Holy Spirit is present in the brown bird-like object.
8. The crucifixion, with the sun and moon turning into blood.
9. Judas Iscariot and the thirty pieces of silver. The large star at the bottom refers to a star that was seen in 1886 for the first time in 300 years.
10. The Last Supper, as seen from above. Judas is dressed differently from the others who are all in white.
11. The Holy Family and the Star of Bethlehem.
WHAT DOES HARRIET POWERS’ PICTORAL QUILT DEPICT?
In her second quilt, the Pictorial Quilt, she did not stick only to the bible stories but also added some astrological and social events to the panels. It consists of fifteen blocks where four blocks display non-biblical stories and she also described the panels. The quilt was gifted to a retiring trustee of Atlanta University.
Pictorial Quilt’s Story
1. Job praying for his enemies. Job crosses. Job’s coffin.
2. The dark day of May 19, 1780. The seven stars were seen 12 N. in the day. The cattle wall went to bed, chickens to roost and the trumpet was blown. The sun went off to a small spot and then to darkness.
3. The serpent lifted up by Moses and women bringing their children to look upon it to be healed.
4. Adam and Eve in the garden. Eve tempted by the serpent. Adam’s rib by which Eve was made. The sun and the moon. God’s all-seeing eye and God’s merciful hand.
5. John baptizing Christ and the spirit of God descending and resting upon his shoulder like a dove.
6. Jonah cast over board of the ship and swallowed by a whale. Turtles.
7. God created two of every kind, male and female.
8. The falling of the stars on Nov. 13, 1833. The people were frightened and thought that the end had come. God’s hand staid the stars. The varmints rushed out of their beds.
9. Two of every kind of animal continued…camels, elephants, “gheraffs,” lions, etc.
10. The angels of wrath and the seven vials. The blood of fornications. Seven-headed beast and 10 horns which arose of the water.
11. Cold Thursday, 10 of February, 1895. A woman frozen while at prayer. A woman frozen at a gateway. A man with a sack of meal frozen. Icicles formed from the breath of a mule. All blue birds killed. A man frozen at his jug of liquor.
12. The red light night of 1846. A man tolling the bell to notify the people of the wonder. Women, children and fowls frightened by God’s merciful hand caused no harm to them.
13. Rich people who were taught nothing of God. Bob Johnson and Kate Bell of Virginia. They told their parents to stop the clock at one and tomorrow it would strike one and so it did. This was the signal that they had entered everlasting punishment. The independent hog which ran 500 miles from Georgia to Virginia, her name was Betts.
14. The creation of animals continues.
15. The crucifixion of Christ between the two thieves. The sun went into darkness. Mary and Martha weeping at his feet. The blood and water run from his right side.
Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Where are Harriet Powers’ Quilts Now?
The Bible Quilt (1886) and the Pictorial Quilt (1898) are the ones remaining from Powers. The Bible Quilt can be found at the Smithsonian Institution while the Pictorial Quilt is being displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The way the second quilt was made has speculations but the most popular one is that it was commissioned by the wives of faculty members of Atlanta University.
Before closing up, if you want to learn more about Harriet Powers and her quilts, I recommend you to read “This I Accomplish: Harriet Powers’ Bible Quilt and Other Pieces“ by Kyra E. Hicks,
So, that’s it on our review on Harriet Powers, a unique folk artist from the late 19th century, hope you enjoyed it!
Read about out another unique female artist, here.
Until next time, stay with art. ✌????