To many of us on the outside, Amish culture seems so quaint as to border on dull.
Among the Amish, no member of the community should be seen to show off, to dress differently, to appear superior to any other member. Even today, the Amish wear pocketless shirts so that the contents of the pocket can't differentiate the co-religionists.
While theirs is a stern and difficult path to follow, it's wholly admirable. The Amish revere and protect the earth that nourishes them and live a simple, modest, sustainable life that has hardly changed since the 18th century.
Amish Quilts: Kaleidoscope of Color, currently on view at the Denver Art Museum, is an interesting and revelatory exhibit. Interesting because these magnificent spreads, created by Amish women during the first four decades of the 20th century, are unfamiliar to most of us and deserve to be displayed as fine art. Revelatory because they're still treated as artifacts of a folk tradition rather than stand-alone works, as powerful and pleasing as any craft from the era.
Given the outward simplicity of Amish expression, what are we to make of these quilts? Many of the pattern motifs -- tumbling blocks, railroad crossings, double wedding rings, log cabins -- were common throughout the Midwest. The difference is in the planning, execution and artistic sensibility the quilt makers brought to their works.
Amish quilts also have a very different palette than others of the period, commonly employing black as a ground color. Other hues tend to be muted and subtle, emphasizing both the sophistication of the design and the quilting itself. Every piece displays bravura needlework, incorporating complex stitching that binds each quilt together -- an acorn-laden, sinuous branch, for example. Some, however, are much bolder. At least a dozen marry the black ground with vibrant, saturated colors and deliver designs as powerful and concentrated as any mandala.
Many of the quilts hail from Holmes County, Ohio, home to the country's largest Amish community. Yet we know little about their creators, the anonymous women who made these beautiful quilts never expecting their eventual display a near century later. Many pieces, no doubt, were communally made, as wedding gifts or crib blankets for an expectant mother. Yet these luminous, deeply moving works of art are not folksy artifacts any more than the sculptures and stained glass of medieval cathedrals.
Take "Broken Star" from Holmes County, circa 1930. Watch it shimmer and change, pulling you into another reality. You begin to recall the works these quilters anticipated by half a century -- such greats as Mark Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Andy Warhol. I imagine mounting a Rothko next to an Amish quilt and watching the Rothko fade into the wall.
Though the long-deceased quilters would be surprised to find their works in the company of Picassos, that's precisely where they belong.
-- John Hazlehurst
Amish Quilts: Kaleidoscope of Color
Denver Art Museum, 100 W. 14th Ave. Parkway
Show through June 19; Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m.
Call 720/865-5000 or see www.denverartmuseum.org for more info.