Fabric Expressions

The Arizona State Museum's 'Hopi Quilts' show illustrates a collision of cultures

When Edison Tootsie was a boy on First Mesa in Hopi land, he used to ride out in a horse-drawn wagon with his father.

They'd drive around the mesa, picking up other men. When the wagon was full, the group would head to the Baptist church, where they'd hold an all-day, all-male quilting bee.

Tootsie has the quilts to prove it. His fine "Hopi Deer Quilt" is one of some 20 pieces in a fascinating little show at the Arizona State Museum called Hopi Quilts: Unique Yet Universal.

Everything about the show confounds expectations. The fact that the Hopi are indefatigable quilters is as much of a surprise as the fact that men are among those doing the stitching. Hopi artisans are best known for pottery and weaving, yet Hopi women and men alike have been making quilts for generations, a tradition that for years was little noticed, nor documented by anthropologists, according to the museum's Diane Dittemore.

In some ways, the quilts look like any you'd see elsewhere in contemporary America. They're mostly made of commercially printed cotton cut into patchwork squares or rectangles, and stitched together by hand or machine. And the Hopi quilters use some standard designs and patterns, like Log Cabin and Monkey Wrench.

Still, the quilts are distinctively Hopi. Their patchworks brim with butterfly maidens and corn and katsinas. They incorporate flour sacks and corduroy cut from old pants. Most unusual of all, many of the quilters paint images onto the cloth, a quilting technique I've never before seen.

The work of Tootsie, the proud second-generation male quilter, is typical. His 2001 deer quilt is a small wall-hanging, with just two fabric blocks stitched into a cloth border of navy, red and black strips. Inside each cloth block, a deer head is painted in black and white, in the swirling near-abstract geometries of Hopi design.

Below the heads, the design returns to cloth. Each deer wears a shiny collar in silver and turquoise fabric. The unexpected media mix is exhilarating.

Likewise, Milfred Dallas Jr. of Third Mesa blends needlework and painting in his "Hopi Corn Quilt," 1997, with nine carefully hand-painted blocks set within quilted cloth borders.

Stitched onto a sage green cloth that suggests a fertile field, the paintings picture thriving green corn plants and harvested ears of corn. The kernels are painted blue, yellow, white or red, the four colors important in Hopi religious life, according to the wall text. And the ears of corn are set in painted pottery bowls, decorated with black zigzag designs.

Karen Tootsie—a resident of First Mesa like Edison Tootsie—used cloth exclusively in her charming "My Mother's House," 2005. Crafted out of cheerful yellow and green fabrics printed with tiny flowers, the quilt uses the standard School House pattern, with stitched triangles and squares coalescing into four small houses. Even so, this work has a Hopi subtext: Hopi society is matrilineal, and the eldest daughter inherits the mother's house. Karen Tootsie's quilt is an affectionate homage to home and Hopi tradition.

The missionaries who brought quilting to the high Hopi mesas in the late 19th century doubtless did not exactly anticipate these kinds of cultural adaptation. According to Carolyn O'Bagy Davis, guest curator of the show and author of Hopi Quilting: Stitched Traditions From an Ancient Community, Mormons arrived at Hopi villages as early as 1858. The Moravians followed in 1870, the Mennonites and Baptists in the early 1890s.

These missionaries all hoped to win the Hopi away from their ancient religious beliefs, but they also wanted to turn them into "proper" Americans. Needlework, they thought, was an appropriate domestic skill that all women and girls ought to learn.

Once the missionaries taught Hopi girls and women to sew, quilting soon followed, especially when it became apparent how much the communities enjoyed working together in quilting bees. But men had traditionally done the weaving in Hopi, "producing beautiful fabrics—cotton and wool blankets, robes, belts and ceremonial sashes," according to the exhibition text. Soon, the men were quilting, too, though the bees were apparently one-sex-only.

In an interesting photo on display, a dozen women and a clutch of kids pose in brilliant sunlight on Third Mesa in 1934, taking a break from a quilting bee run by a Mennonite missionary. With the children balanced in their arms or their laps, the women proudly display their handiwork.

Quilting is a practical art, and early quilters recycled old clothes into quilts primarily to keep their families warm at night. The Hopi quilts were heavily used, and as a result, few historic examples survive.

But like quilters everywhere, Hopi sewers relished the artistic possibilities of cut cloth. Beautifully made quilts soon went beyond the functional and became prized objects, given as gifts on important occasions. They quickly became an important part of the traditional Hopi naming ceremony for babies.

Pauline Coin's "Baby Quilt" from the mid-1970s is crafted in sweet colors—yellow, baby blue, white—that could be found in any American nursery. But Coin embroidered Hopi imagery in all 18 of the quilt's blocks: a child with a bow and arrow is in half of the blocks; the others feature a round shield in stitched in black, white and red.

Some of the quilts provide glimpses into reservation life. "Blue Bird Flour Sack Quilt," by the late Pearl Nuvangyaoma (1927-2007), is studded with printed blue birds cut from fabric flour bags and stitched onto commercial cloth. It seems Hopi bakers like to use the Blue Bird brand for their fry bread. (Nuvangyaoma reported that she learned her art at the Sunlight Baptist Mission, where she and her mother gathered with other girls and women to quilt and sew.)

Margaret Pacheco lives in the village of Sipaulovi, which regularly receives donations of old clothes. She and her sister both quilt, and they both love corduroy, so when a pair of corduroy pants turns up, they cut the trousers in half, and each of them brings home a leg. Pacheco's handsome "Striped Quilt" is made of luscious strips of corduroy, colored in warm browns, earth greens and blue grays.

Imogene Tewa's "Field Mouse Goes to War" is based on a popular bilingual Hopi-English children's story from the 1940s. Made in 1998, the hand-painted blocks picture a Hopi mouse who saved his village, and the hawk the mouse defeated. Interestingly, this quilt points to another Hopi inspiration: The original book was illustrated by the famous Hopi artist Fred Kabotie, who painted the murals in the Desert View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon.

Hopi quilters are as likely as any others to make quilts that commemorate events or memorialize those who have died. "Hopi Woman Warrior," 2011, honors Lori Piestewa, the Hopi woman who was killed in Iraq in 2003 at age 23, the first U.S. female soldier to die in the war. The quiltmaker, Sharon Fredericks-Batala, a U.S. Air Force vet, used an iron-on decal of a Piestewa photo that's silkscreened onto T-shirts worn in an annual Hopi race staged to honor the fallen soldier.

Banded by a ribbon in red, white and blue, Piestewa's young face smiles out from a quilted fabric printed with tanks and helicopters. The border is a pale yellow cloth, "soft like silk," given to Fredericks-Batala by a Vietnam vet. That cloth links Piestewa to U.S. military history, but the Hopi symbols wreathing her portrait—feathers, flames, birds—connect her to life in the windswept Hopi mesas.

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