Montclair Art Museum quilt exhibition has Civil Rights theme

"Rosa Parks I," by Yvonne Wells, is part of the Montclair Art Museum exhibit, "From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts From the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts."

“Rosa Parks I,” by Yvonne Wells, is part of the Montclair Art Museum exhibition, “From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts From the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.”

A tribute to Rosa Parks in cotton, polyester and plastic buttons hangs on a wall at the Montclair Art Museum. It’s a quilt — made, indeed, to be looked at, not to keep you warm — and it tells a story.

Everything revolves around a bus wheel, superimposed over the red X of Alabama’s state flag. There’s a halo over Parks’ head, protesters, a blindingly bright, hopeful sun — a favorite image of the artist, Yvonne Wells of Tuscaloosa — and many other symbols, most pretty easy to figure out, but some inscrutable.

Only some of the 29 quilts in the museum’s new exhibition, “From Heart to Hand: African-American Quilts From the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts,” have a narrative aspect. Others — such as “Lone Star,” which is attributed to Mary Duncan and features a colorful eight-pointed star that practically shimmers, even though it’s made of cotton — are more straightforward and decorative. Some of their patterns are quite simple, while other are dauntingly complex; rarely, though, are they perfectly symmetrical.

Quilt-making, says the exhibit’s curator, Gail Stavitsky, is an improvisational art form, and there’s often a “playful irregularity” to the stitching. It’s a balance between order and chaos, she says; freedom and structure.

The quilts are mostly from Alabama artists, and the exhibition is intended to honor the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Civil Rights and spirituality are two favorite subjects of Wells, whose work dominates the exhibition (on display through Jan. 4).

"Lone Star," attributed to Mary Duncan.

“Lone Star,” attributed to Mary Duncan.

Most of the quilts are from the last few decades, though a few dates back to the 1940s and 1950s. (It wasn’t until the ’70s that quilting became widely regarded as a legitimate art form.)

Wells, 74, will be interviewed by historian and Princeton University professor emerita Nell Painter at the museum at 7 p.m. Oct. 9. Tickets are $18 ($15 for members).

Also, Free First Thursday Nights at the museum this fall will feature demonstrations by the Nubian Heritage Quilters of Montclair and other quilt-related attractions.

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