Ren Riley

Statement: Interview with Corrine Riley, Mingei International Museum

“My personal journey of collecting began 35 years ago.  At first I began exploring antique and resale shops. With my eyes I would deconstruct the quilts I would find. Then I began to construct my own quilts. While this self-instruction was fine tuning itself in different aspects of sewing and assembling patterns, I was also taking a lot of road trips around the country, hunting passionately for improvisational quilts. I soon began to realize what I was seeing in the quilts I was collecting: they made use of familiar traditional patterns that were interpreted in unique ways. In the past, these quilts were usually disregarded because of their unconventional construction. But I believe that the decisions that were made in piecing these quilts were intentional, not accidental is with any other art form.

“In my conversations with colleagues, dealers, and quilt makers, I learned that these particular improvisational quilts came out of the African American communities. Some were made for families out of need, some were made to sell, and others were done at church gatherings. After looking at so many quilts, I began to recognize the visual language that was being spoken. I became fascinated with their bold, declarative interpretations and originality. The quilts were like pieces of written music that others could interpret in their own ways, deconstructing the cords and rearranging them to give the pieces, more complexity.

These quilts ignited my passion to search for, examine, and eventually study thousands of African American quilts. After discovering a quilt that excited me, the exultation would fuel me to keep searching. My trips were more fruitful in the southern states, so my tendency was to keep moving in these areas. Each weekend became a road adventure, as I went to antique shows, county fairs, flea markets,  church gatherings, and quilt shows., Always searching for examples and information on improvisational quilts. The African-American quilt always held the most visual declaration for me as I expand my trips to include the entire Midwest and American South…. For me, the journey has proved to be an endless, exciting probe of individuality and personal expression.

In contrast to the more orthodox quilting patterns traditionally used in European descended quilters in the eastern and mid-western U.S., those from the American South show a markedly different concept of beauty and aesthetic strength, particularly in their composition, color usage, and form breaking dynamism and extemporaneity. These quilts have simple, bold, geometric compositions – a sense of asymmetry, intense color, and a sense of movement created through the irregular stitches. With no models to work from and no repetitive reiteration, each quilt a one-time expression, African American quilts have been compared to the music of jazz, another art form with African roots. The aesthetic expressions in these quilts also find their roots in the ongoing African-American experience. The artisans, women with no formal artistic training, fashion these quilts for their families using swatches of old clothing, fabric from discarded seed and fertilizer bags, and other miscellaneous bits of cloth. Many of the quilts are made from materials that were readily available to their makers, including flour sacks, old blue jeans and, of course, fabric remnants. The materials chosen for these quilts offer reflect their intended use. Light summer quilts were frequently made from cool cotton, with heavier winter quilts dictate the use of wool, corduroy and thick batting. In the active piecing together and sewing such work, many undoubtedly discovered that do certain quiet respect from their busy daily work, house chores, and childcare responsibilities, and it is not difficult to imagine the pleasure they took in the creative creativity of selecting and arranging the cloth pieces to their liking.

Corrine collection of African American quilts at the Smithsonian:
BOLD EXPRESSIONS: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corinne Riley. Exhibited in Tokyo and San Diego