Colorful quilts tell stories of Black history in Watkins Museum’s newest exhibit

photo by: Josie Heimsoth/Journal-World

The Watkins Museum of History opened a new exhibition, pictured June 27, 2024, in partnership with the National African American Quilt Convention.

Some family histories and community stories are written in pen and ink, but the ones in the Watkins Museum of History’s newest temporary exhibition are recorded with a needle and thread.

On June 20, the Watkins Museum opened a new exhibition called “Honoring the Ancestors: African American Textile Arts,” which features 11 quilts documenting family histories by nationally regarded textile artists, including Veronica Mays, Theresa Shellcroft, April Anue Shipp, and Lawrence’s own Marla Jackson.

“We kind of think of quilts in their utilitarian purpose, and not so much as a vehicle for recording history,” said Watkins Museum Executive Director Steve Nowak. And these quilts aren’t just historical documents, either; they’re also vibrant pieces of art.

“It’s so nice to put something that’s colorful and expressive up on the walls,” Nowak said.

The exhibition is being presented in coordination with the National African American Quilt Convention, which took place in Lawrence from June 19 through 22. The convention featured a series of textile and mixed media art exhibitions, workshops, artist talks and a panel discussion about “the roles quilts and textile arts played in the Underground Railroad and the broader context of the Civil War,” according to its website.

This year was also the first time the convention, which is always held in Lawrence, was able to be put on since the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Watkins Museum has played a role in hosting workshops for the conference in the past, Nowak said this exhibition is the first of its kind at the museum, and it not only showcases personal history, but national history as well.

“People expect to experience history in traditional ways, and that’s usually the path our exhibits follow. We use artifacts to connect to their histories, and we rely on written documents,” Nowak said. “This exhibit presented us with an opportunity to explore another way to pass down historical stories with these quilts.”

Some of the quilts’ stories are told with highly personal materials — things like photographs, written documents, drawings and men’s dress ties.

photo by: Josie Heimsoth/Journal-World

April Anue Shipp from Detroit, Michigan donated a quilt for the exhibition to tell the story of her grandfather, pictured June 27, 2024.

One quilt, made by Shipp specifically for this exhibition, tells the story of her grandfather, who was the son of a white woman and a Black man. Her grandfather and his sister were adopted by two Black couples in the countryside.

“They took them in. He lived the rest of his life with them, evidently,” Nowak said. “But another family took in (his sister) and the two lost contact. To this day, they don’t know what happened to her.”

The quilt documenting this family mystery is one of many Shipp has created.

The exhibition of quilts — and the stories behind them — is on display in the Watkins Museum’s second floor changing exhibit gallery through July 30. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission to the museum and this special exhibition is free.

“I hope (people) will absorb some of these stories and come away with a greater appreciation or a desire to learn more about their own family histories,” Nowak said. “I think history is most exciting when you can make a personal connection to it.”

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