Friday, April 12, 2013

Get off the bus! - "Quilt Art" at the Mona Bismarck American Center in Paris

Baltimore Album Quilt (Circa 1847). ©American Museum in Britain

"America is not like a blanket - one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same size. America is more like a quilt - many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes all woven and held together by a common thread ... " -- Jesse Jackson (The Rainbow Coalition Speech)

Bus 72 is my bus. On its way into town, it passes the Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde, Tuileries Garden and the Louvre before reaching its terminus at the Hôtel de Ville. It also passes the Mona Bismarck American Center, located in a discrete Parisian townhouse on the bustling avenue de New York. Being an American in Paris, it would seem rather logical that I would have felt compelled to venture inside. But day after day, month after month, year after year, I kept riding the bus to and from town without stopping. When I noticed a brightly colored banner proclaiming "Quilt Art: February 13 - May 19", I told myself that I should make an effort to go to the exhibition. After all, I had read rave reviews about it in the newspapers. But I doubted that it would happen because I had also instructed myself to go to the exceptional Mary Cassatt exhibition before it ended in January.

Riding the empty bus home on Wednesday afternoon, I rather inexplicably found myself pushing the red "stop" button as we approached the Mona Bismarck American Center. Perhaps it's because I had been thinking about my paternal grandmother's quilts, the ones that are lovingly stored in a large wooden trunk in Annapolis, or perhaps it's because I was searching for a reason to avoid going home to the piles of post-vacation laundry. Whatever the reason, I'm thankful that I finally got off the bus.

Lafayette Orange Peel Quilt (1830-75). ©American Museum in Britain.

Not only are the 25 quilts on display a metaphor for the United States, they also provide unique links with American history – the Civil War, life on the frontier, relationships with Native Americans, Amish traditions and Hawaii. As a fan of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French aristocrat who fought in the Continental Army under George Washington during the American Revolution, I spent quite a bit of time admiring the intricate stitching and design of the "Lafayette Orange Peel Quilt". According to popular myth, when Lafayette quartered his orange before eating it at a celebratory banquet in Philadelphia, one of the female guests was so enraptured that she took his orange peel segments home and designed a quilt block with them.

In addition to exhibitions, such as "Quilt Art" and the upcoming "Little Black Dress", the Mona Bismarck American Center also hosts musical and theatrical performances, seminars, workshops,  artistic demonstrations and educational programs, like art classes in English. The recently opened Mona Café, with a view of the beautiful private garden, is a quiet spot where visitors can sample American treats.

Mona Bismarck American Center
34, avenue de New York 75116 Paris
Tel: 01 47 23 38 88

Just as quilts are made from scraps of fabric, family lore is created from snippets of stories passed down from one generation to the next. For as long as I can remember, I've always thought that my grandmother had stitched the quilts that I inherited. Wanting to learn more about them after seeing the "Quilt Art" exhibition, I flipped through a book that my aunt had written about our family only to discover that our quilts were purchased at the annual Thanksgiving Day bazaar at the Lutheran Church!

... Afterwards, a bazaar was held and handicraft that the women's aid society donated were auctioned to the people in attendance. Gorgeous handstitched quilts were their speciality and they would sell from fifty to well over a hundred dollars*. As we could always use an extra quilt at our house, Dad would bid on the one he and Mother thought the most beautiful. Usually, he would have a lot of competition ... but usually he would secure the quilt he wanted regardless of what he had to pay for it. He thought of it as a contribution to the church, which it was, but it was also a status symbol in our town to be a "big buyer" at any of the church bazaars ...

*As my grandfather was born in 1888, I would imagine that this was the price of handstitched quilts in approximately 1918.

A fascinating piece of social history, the Redwork Quilt Top (after 1881) juxtaposes domestic scenes with those of a military and patriotic nature, including a portrait of George Washington. ©American Museum in Britain

3 comments:

  1. Great post as always. Thanks for sharing. And that is a fabulous bus, the #72. I have a book - Paris vu du bus - that has 10 routes to ride with lots of interesting stuff. I'll ride one with you one day!!

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  2. Had read about Mona Bismark on another blog and visited recently myself. I was sadly disappointed however that the house is not open for touring. Bus #72 sounds fantastic! : )

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