I would like our readers to pay close attention to this piece as it is indicative of a loss of a natural resource of a different kind-our cultural protectors and experts. Perhaps you have noticed that sometimes we give off an almost a feverish impression of desperation when the subject of cultural misappropriation or loss is discussed. That's because the denigration of the African American tradition appears to be occurring in conjunction with our artists and standard bearers dying-possibly without heirs apparent to continue their work. Check out the latest from the NY Times pertaining to the death Quilting historian Cuesta Benberry:
Cuesta Benberry, 83, Historian of Quilting, Dies
By DENNIS HEVESI
Published: September 10, 2007
Cuesta Benberry, one of the leading historians and archivists of American quilting, whose research made it clear that the contribution of black artists to the form reflected more than patterns drawn from their African roots, died on Aug. 23 in St. Louis. She was 83.
Her death was announced by the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, to which, in 2004, Ms. Benberry donated her vast collection of research papers, historical books, museum catalogs, periodicals and original patterns that covered more than two centuries of quilting history.
Her collection included an array of patterns, from those typical of Colonial America, with their large single images like a Tree of Life or a medallion centered on a sheet of hand-woven whole cloth, to the variety of fabrics pieced together in blocks that became available as the nation’s textile industry blossomed in the 1800s.
The patterns of these blocks — with names like Ocean Waves, Schoolhouse, Flying Geese and Carpenter’s Wheel — were a focus of Ms. Benberry’s studies. They are often just starting points for quilters, most of them women, who then bring their own creativity to the work.
“There are thousands of block patterns, but the same pattern can have different names depending where in the country a quilt was made, when it was made and by whom,” said Stacy Hollander, senior curator at the folk art museum. “Over 50 years, Cuesta Benberry did an enormous amount of work tracing the derivation of block names and how they were diffused around the country. It was groundbreaking in the area of quilt research.”
Ms. Benberry, who was African-American, was particularly interested in the contributions made by black quilters. She surveyed their work from the days when slave women stitched bedcovers — both for their own families and for their white owners — to modern-day creations. In 1992 she published a book, “Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts,” and organized an exhibition with the same name that traveled around the country. This was one of several books for which she was author, co-author or editor.
At the time, some quilt scholars and African-American studies professors were contending that, for the most part, quilts made by blacks shared traits derived from African traditions: for example, the choice of textiles and colors and the use asymmetrical patterns. Ms. Benberry, however, knew that many African-American quiltmakers had always created in the styles that were generally popular in their day. That was particularly true in the 20th century, when quilts went from bedcovers to artwork hanging on walls.
“She wanted the larger picture understood,” Ms. Hollander said, “and her exhibition and book really opened the door for following generations of quilt historians to delve into this aspect of quilt history.”
Ms. Benberry was born in Cincinnati on Sept. 8, 1923, and was reared in St. Louis. She earned a degree in education in St. Louis and taught public school in the city for 40 years; she also worked as a librarian. In 1951, she married George Benberry, and soon became fascinated by his family hobby — quilting.
In addition to her husband, Ms. Benberry’s survivors include a son, George Jr., of Elgin, Ill.; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In 2004, Ms. Benberry received a Distinguished Scholar Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anyone Can Fly Foundation, an organization that promotes the work of African-American artists.
In an interview for the foundation, she said: “I believe that African-American history should be as complete as the history of the dominant or the mainstream population of the country. So when I saw that African-American quilt history was becoming the property of a group of scholars that had a very limited outlook on what African-American quilters have done over the years, I believed it was my task to try to give a more accurate and varied picture.”