University of Rochester
Art & Art History

Wildly Enjoying the Process

Janet Berlo — art historian, scholar, quilter — finds engagement in the process of creation.
By June Avignone

If making art provides an oasis for the soul, then quilt-making has been a reliable retreat for American women of all races and classes for over 200 years, says Janet Catherine Berlo, a quilter herself and a professor of art history and visual and cultural studies.

“People just don’t cut up 1,200 pieces of fabric and put them back together again just to keep warm,” jokes Berlo, cocurator of Wild by Design, 200 Years of Innovation and Artistry in American Quilts, an exhibit of 25 quilts, many of them from the 19th century, that was on display at the Memorial Art Gallery through March 16.


‘QUILTS SPEAK’: “As objects, quilts reveal much about politics, design, life, and color,” says Janet Berlo, a professor of art and art history.

“Women were painting with fabric, for it was the only art form open to most of them,” says Berlo, a nationally recognized scholar of Native American art history and museum representation of Native peoples who also specializes in vernacular or folk artists. “It’s about artistry, not necessity.”

Selected from the collection of the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, of which Berlo is a board member, the quilts in the Wild by Design exhibit ranged in date from about 1825 to 1999. The artists are both known and unknown, but all share the desire to “push the boundaries” of their medium in their own time.

“Quilts speak,” says Berlo. “As objects, quilts reveal much about politics, design, life, and color, so they are increasingly recognized as a fundamental source for understanding American women’s history.”

Berlo’s scholarly and personal passion for quilts is related to the art form’s inherent ability to tell rich stories from varied perspectives.

“Mary Ricard’s ‘Crazy Quilt,’ made between 1877 and 1912, encapsulates women’s interests in Asia during the needlework craze of the end of the 19th century, and reveals something of her life as a New Englander married to an immigrant French-Canadian,” Berlo says, “whereas Nora Ezell’s late-20th-century quilts speak to her experiences as an African-American woman in the rural south.”

“I myself am drawn to fabrics when my academic work is driving me crazy,” says Berlo, author of Quilting Lessons: Notes from the Scrap Bag of a Writer and Quilter. In the memoir, Berlo writes candidly about her need to isolate herself in her quilting studio after experiencing a severe case of writer’s block from her scholarly writing

“There is something about both the visual and the sensual, the color and soft textures of fabrics that are soothing and calming,” explains Berlo.

Like many quilts of today and yesterday, Berlo’s own quilts are influenced by a host of cultural, personal, and environmental sources. Her newest quilts are inspired by the shapes and aesthetic dimensions of historic Japanese kimono and sashes.

“I would like people to think of quilts as global conversations,” says Berlo. “Even at the beginning of the 19th century, women were using materials from all over the world, and, of course, immigrants to the United States brought their textile traditions with them.”

Berlo is also coauthor of the recently released American Encounters: Art History and Cultural Identity, a survey text of 10,000 years of art in America. The 686-page text is receiving critical praise for its seamless inclusiveness in telling the genuine story of American art.

The term “encounters” in the book’s title was used, Berlo says, to discuss a variety of productive ways that diverse peoples met, interacted, and made art objects.

“The truth is, you have to be able to put together the fragmented pieces to see the beauty and complexity of the whole,” says Berlo.

June Avignone writes about the humanities for University Communications.