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Vol. 64, No. 2

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A Foot in Two Worlds

One of the country's most prominent scholars of Plains Indian art, Janet Catherine Berlo plumbs the depths of "quilt madness" to weave new connections between her academic and artistic lives.

By Jenny Leonard

Berlo and her "Serendipity Quilt"

There are no framed diplomas, no tastefully matted art prints, no personal photographs. There are only black stars, red triangles, white squares.

The quilt, a vibrant work reminiscent of ripened cherries, hangs alone on the office wall. Asymmetrical patterns careen wildly but achieve cohesion. The office of Janet Catherine Berlo feels alive.

"The furniture is coming next week, I think," Berlo says, apologizing for making visitors stand.

Floor space and corners brim with stacks of art history books; boxes of folders, photocopies, handwritten pages; brown grocery bags of "stuff."

An example of a square from "Sisters' Quilt," by janet Catherine Berlo, 1999

Berlo, the Susan B. Anthony Professor of Gender and Women's Studies and a professor of art history, picks up a plastic bag containing yet another quilt and suggests a venture outdoors.

On the green lawn of the Eastman Quadrangle, she unties the bag, unfolds the nearly 9' x 7' "Serendipity Quilt" into the breeze, and unassumingly drapes the prize-winning quilt on the limbs of a small red oak. The corners drag through the dirt around the tree, but Berlo doesn't want a fuss.

"It's a quilt. It was made to be enjoyed," she says, sitting in the grass, wind wrapping the green and blue and brown quilt around her shoulder.

One square, she points out, is her own version of the "Pineapple"-a pinwheeling adaptation of the traditional pattern. The off-center square suggests much about Berlo's approach to quilting and to life. It could be a symbolic rendering of her academic and artistic lives-linear and abstract-blended into one.

A Native American art scholar and teacher, Berlo is a nationally recognized authority on Plains Indian art whose 2001 book, Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk's Vision of the Lakota World, has earned the Guggenheim-winning professor wide praise.

But Berlo also is a quilter and a writer. And blending her interests was a gradual and, at times, painful process that, in another 2001 book, Quilting Lessons: Notes from the Scrap Bag of a Writer and Quilter, she attributes to her "quilt madness."

During a yearlong battle with writer's block, a frightening time that left her wondering if her academic career was over, Berlo turned to quilting to reconnect with a part of herself she felt had been long ignored.

"I am an art historian, trained in pre-Columbian art and archaeology," writes Berlo. "For more than a decade I have specialized in American Indian art history, focused increasingly on women's arts, such as Navajo rugs, Lakota beadwork, and Maya textiles. So turning to quilt making is not as jarring a transformation, perhaps, as if I had been a molecular biologist turned quilt maker."

In the summer of 1992, Berlo was teaching art history at the University of Missouri in St. Louis and writing the last section of a book on the art of Native American women. Within a week, she found herself unable to look at her desk, her writing, or her research, caught in the paralysis of a scholarly breakdown.

Days later, the third-floor writing studio of her Victorian home was transformed into a quilt studio, where she worked every day, trading scholarship for texture and color.

"The way I've come to explain it to myself is the verbal, linear pathways in my brain shut down," Berlo writes early in Quilting Lessons. "The parts that were hungry for color and texture took over. Picture the way kudzu takes over roadside ditches in the South or mint colonizes the herb patch. Everything else overgrown, spindly, unreachable."

The turn to quilting also was a return for her. As a young girl Berlo had sewn and quilted. She thinks quilting is in her blood; both her older sisters are avid quilters, although their work is less abstract and more traditional than Berlo's.

She also thinks it's natural she would seek solace in an art form practiced almost exclusively by women for hundreds of years. As a scholar of indigenous and "outsider" art traditions, namely those practiced by women, she sees quilting as a shared heritage, one that draws people from all walks of life.

Last March, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an excerpt from Quilting Lessons. In the months since, Berlo has been overwhelmed by an outpouring from women who echo her story.

"Since the story ran in the Chronicle, I've been getting e-mail from all over the country," she says. "Academic women everywhere are hiding their quilting. It was totally unexpected to have all these people writing-vice chancellors and tenured professors-who say, 'I read your piece, I closed my door and started to cry. I wish I were home full time making quilts.' I've tapped something that's hard to describe.

"Perhaps when you get to a certain point in your career, almost like a midlife crisis, you want to use a different part of the brain. When I was in that quilt studio working full time, it was clear to me something was being fed that had been starved. I was using a part of my brain that was very different from the linear, analytical part-that part had shut down and the other part was thriving."

Viewing Berlo's experience from a wider perspective, parallels appear between her own "quilting madness" and the prolific bead and quill work produced by Native American women of the Great Plains during the late 19th century. Berlo suggests, in both instances, artwork served as a therapeutic way to sustain something in danger of being lost.

"The reservation period was a time of upheaval and uncertainty, and it was during this time Lakota women produced some of their most intricate and detailed artistic work," Berlo says. "It was the artwork of this period that originally drew me to the Lakota culture."

Berlo has spent years traveling, researching indigenous art traditions from Mexico to the Arctic. She recalls the first time she saw the work of a Plains Indian artist, "It was an amazing drawing in its metaphorical and literal depiction of an Indian with a foot in two worlds: the white man's world and the native man's world. And I thought 'What is this? I have to know more about this.'"

From that initial inroad in the early '80s, Berlo's professional and personal lives have meandered through a winding pattern of interconnection. Coming full circle, she published Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers last year.

Drawn from the most complete collection of a single Lakota artist-the ledger drawings of Black Hawk-the book is a cultural and historical exploration of the work of a 19th-century "outsider." A Lakota of the Sans Arc band who lived on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, Black Hawk is believed to have been born in the 1830s and to have died in 1890 at the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Gilbert Vincent, director of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where the full collection is housed, says Berlo focuses unprecedented attention on Lakota art.

"Berlo is a first-rate scholar with the trained eye of an art historian and firsthand knowledge of Lakota culture gleaned from field work and interviews with native experts and artists," he says. "This combination bridges the gap between the Western art world and the native art world and brings to the forefront an artistic tradition long neglected by Western art scholars."

Discovered in a file cabinet donated to Goodwill, the collection of 76 drawings bound in leather had made its way to Sotheby's in New York City in the early '90s. When the auction house contacted Berlo, who was conducting fieldwork in South Dakota, she flew to New York to photograph the collection, concerned it would be broken up and sold as individual pages on the art market.

The collection was eventually auctioned, bringing the second largest price ever paid for a piece of Native American artwork. But within a month of the sale, private art collector Eugene Thaw acquired the entire collection from the winning bidder and donated the drawings to the Fenimore Museum.

Black Hawk's drawings were commissioned by Cheyenne Agency trader William Edward Caton in 1880. Caton furnished the paper and pencils, and Black Hawk was paid 50 cents a sheet for each drawing-a notable sum considering a carpenter or blacksmith was making the equivalent of $2.25 a day.

"Black Hawk is an interesting case because he was a medicine man," says Berlo. "Many other people doing drawings at the same time were chronicling interactions with whites, drawing soldiers and forts. He deliberately ignores all of that. He wants to give you a view of the Lakota world. He shows in some of the drawings that people are wearing cloth and other things that come from the white man's world, but he has no interest in this outside world."

Seen in the context of a broader tradition of Plains art, Black Hawk's work shares characteristics with other Lakota artwork of the period. Rendered without background or ground line, drawings emphasize fine details in dress and ritual. In other ways, Black Hawk's work stands alone, offering the voice of one man recording the traditions of a culture vying for survival.

Berlo writes: "Black Hawk was both a medicine man-an intermediary between Lakota and non-Lakota realms-and a cultural interlocutor between this world and the spirit world. He sold his drawings to an outsider, not only as a way of earning money, but as a way of explaining his world: the potency of its ceremonies, the complexity of its spiritual traditions, the valor of its warriors, the strength of its young women, the richness of its natural world. His drawings ensured that that eloquent world, with all of its mystery, poetry, and beauty, would be remembered."

Arthur Amiotte, a Lakota educator and artist who has been appointed to the advisory committee for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, praises her scholarship: "Berlo's treatment of Black Hawk's drawings highlights her acuity, bravery, and impressive command of both the classic literature and contemporary scholarly works of comparative religion and ethnography now being published by native scholars."

Berlo's exploration of Native American art and her own experience as a female artist practicing in a folk tradition have influenced her scholarship and teaching. She encourages students to contemplate artists outside the art establishment and to question what "outsider" art is and why such distinctions exist.

"Contemplating the 'other' in art history brings up interesting theoretical and anthropological issues in my field and crosses over with women's studies. Why are some things mainstream and some things outside the mainstream? What's that about? Who calls those shots? Perhaps it has more to do with the blinders of the people making the designations. All of those categories should be thrown out because they are arbitrary and ridiculous."

Marissa Pernisi '02, a health and society major who has taken both Berlo's women's studies and art history classes, is impressed with Berlo's approach to teaching art history and with the perspective she brings to class as a quilt artist.

"The classes in quilting and art history opened my eyes to the different forms of art around me," Pernisi says.

For the fall semester of 2002, Berlo has accepted a visiting professorship at Harvard to examine how museums have treated the so-called "other"-American Indians or self-taught artists. She also is collaborating on an art history textbook that promises to be unlike any other, spanning the full spectrum of 10,000 years of American art with more than 600 illustrations and a thousand manuscript pages.

The irony not lost on her, Berlo laughs when reminded that her scholarly breakdown and quilt madness have prompted one of the most creative and prolific times in both her academic and artistic lives. In Lakota terms, she has become iyeska, one who moves between two worlds-worlds becoming seamless with every pattern stitched.

Jenny Leonard, assistant director in the Office of University Public Relations, is a former assistant editor of the North Carolina Folklore Journal.



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