IT’S ALWAYS PUZZLED ME that an oil painting is considered Art while a quilt is merely Craft. The American Folk Art Museum sits right on the line between the two, never more so than in a current exhibit, “Women Only: Folk Art by Female Hands” (45 West 53rd Street; through September 19). The curators point out that women were largely excluded from the male-dominated fine-art world, so they expressed themselves through alternative media like needlework, collage, or watercolor (which was perceived as more delicate and feminine than other sorts of paint). In fact, I learned at this show, the painter known as “Grandma” Moses started out embroidering her pictures and resorted to paint only when her arthritis got so bad that she couldn’t wield a needle!
The goods here—from samplers and embroidered purses to slightly creepy multimedia work using human hair—are fascinating reflections of past lives. My favorites were the bedcovers. A beauty in crewel-embroidered black wool must have been stored in a chest because the colors are astonishingly bright. A huge red and white quilt from 1848 states the maker’s name and age (79) and is thick with quotations that are tiresomely pious (“Heaven is our home”), except for one that says “If you cannot be a golden pippin don’t turn crabapple.” I guess she just threw that in. An early 20th-century Amish quilt glows like a Rothko. And the crazy quilts, asymmetrical amalgams of color, texture, and embroidery—one by a thrice-married pioneer who was among the first women railroad telegraphers—have particular force and charm. Pieces of your life stitched together into a thing of usefulness and beauty…why, crazy-quilting could be better therapy than the psycho- kind—with the bonus that it will keep you warm at night.