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Quilts created from the fabric of everyday life on view at the Grand Rapids Art Museum
Detail, Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. 2007.71.15. From the Collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan.

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH.- The Grand Rapids Art Museum announces The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter, on view through August 25, 2013, an exhibition of dynamic quilts from the collection of The Henry Ford. Susana Allen Hunter (1912-2005) used her innate flair for abstract design to create hundreds of colorful quilts throughout her lifetime, utilizing the fabric of everyday life—grain sacks, worn clothing, leftover fabric scraps, and more.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, Hunter lived in Wilcox County, Alabama, and created brightly-patterned quilts that reflected her life in that rural community as well as her experiences as an African-American woman. Though she did not consider herself an artist, Hunter turned the fabric of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical and often modern aesthetic.

"There are many parallels between the quilts and works of art from other times, places, and media," said Cindy Buckner, Associate Curator at GRAM. "For example, the Interpretive Gallery within the exhibition makes the connection between improvisational jazz and Hunter's quilting process."

Hunter and her husband, Julius, made their living farming, growing crops such as cotton, corn, and potatoes. Wilcox County, also home to the quilting community of Gee’s Bend, was among the poorest counties in the United States. Like everyone else in their community, the Hunters worked hard and resources were few. Hunter’s genius was in creating beautiful, functional objects from what little material was available.

Quilts were fashioned from whatever fabrics were at hand. Blankets, bedspreads, and other household textiles were often reused and incorporated into quilts as backing, for pattern or color, and even as batting (filling material) to give a new quilt more warmth.

"She repurposed sacks from cornmeal, flour, and mule feed into her quilts—and even though these sacks came with instructions on how to remove the printing, she chose to incorporate the logos and text on the sacks into her design," said Buckner. "While Hunter did not necessarily set out to create works of art, she still made the same kinds of choices painters make, for example, when composing a painting."

Hunter's improvisation required a constant stream of creativity through the entire design process. Though she was working with preexisting quilt formats, such as strip and medallion quilts, she was not following a set pattern and made design decisions as she went. She worked quickly, using 3-4 stitches per inch, a number far fewer than other precisely constructed, strictly decorative quilts. Hunter also often left her knots visible above the surface, which allowed her to create her quilts more rapidly. Since these quilts were functional items to keep her family and friends warm, she worked quickly to turn out a large number of quilts over the years.

Interpretive Gallery:
Explore the exhibition's Interpretive Gallery and immerse yourself in the creative process! Guests can experience the Quilt of Sound, an interactive website where they can create their own improvisational work of art by layering and juxtaposing sounds and images from nature. Click on different panels to develop a visual symphony combining textures and music, and discover how the musical elements respond to one another, forming new patterns and sounds.

In addition, guests can use one of the several iPods stationed in the gallery to listen to and explore spirituals and improvisational jazz, drawing a connection between Hunter's works and the creative processes of renowned jazz groups.

The Grand Rapids Art Museum presents a selection of Hunter’s colorful quilts, on loan from The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.

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