History upon History: “Quilting the Pandemic” at MCMA
By Camryn King, spring 2023 curatorial intern
Exhibition installation photography by Brian Weaver Photography
The current exhibitions at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art are all about textiles: in the Main Galleries downstairs is a group exhibition of textile, fiber, and multimedia art that explores identity and culture entitled Entwined; in the upstairs Mezzanine Galleries is a community quilt project entitled Quilting the Pandemic, which was completed with the help of Peggy Beaman of Roswell Quilts, the William Root House, and the Marietta History Center. Quilting the Pandemic features quilt squares provided by grade-school students, healthcare workers, and other community members of metropolitan Atlanta, all quilted together carefully by Peggy Beaman. The exhibition functions to remember how everyone was and continues to be personally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. These quilts continue the long history of quilting in the United States and of collaborative artmaking while also contributing to the history of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it affected our everyday lives.
Quilts, or three-layer bedcoverings, have for centuries been both practical and decorative in America and Europe. The first European settlers in America had limited materials and time, thus they made quilts purely for warmth. Decorative quilt making did not begin in America until fabric and other crafting supplies were more widely available and affordable, beginning in the 1750s. Many popular designs were brought over by European settlers, such as the medallion quilt, which features a central motif surrounded by multiple borders. The community quilts in Quilting the Pandemic are patchwork, or pieced, quilts. They are made by sewing together pieces of fabric that have been cut into simple squares or complicated shapes to make more or less intricate designs. The creation of community quilts began in earnest in the United States during the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) but developed more mainstream popularity during the two World Wars of the early 20th century. Women, who comprise the majority of quiltmakers in America today and historically, would create quilts to ship to soldiers overseas and were also used to raise funds and awareness. During World War II, the “signature quilt” became popular. For this quilt, businesses and organizations would pay a small fee to have their signatures embroidered on a quilt square, each square would be pieced together, and the finished quilt would be raffled off to raise money for the American Red Cross.
This type of quilting, piecing together contributions from multiple people, is most like the pandemic quilts on display at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. These quilts feature personal experiences from the pandemic and messages of hope from community members throughout Metro Atlanta. Peggy Beaman, who leads her own quilting operation called Roswell Quilts, collected and pieced together images and words to continue the legacy of quilting while also contributing to our living history of the COVID-19 pandemic.