Harriet Powers was born as a slave on October 29, 1837. We know very little about her early life, but are certain that she like many young women of her time, learned to sew and quilt at a young age, with the techniques passed on to her by her mother and the women around her. She was the mother to 11 children and two story quilts which are now housed in museums because of their exquisite execution and the history they represent, the stories they tell.
Harriet Powers’ first quilt, her Bible quilt, is made of 299 appliquéed pieces of cloth depicting scenes from the Bible. Although very little is known about Mrs. Powers’ life, we learn of her through her autobiographical quilts. She was a very spiritual woman, and religion was very important to her. She was very skilled in making her people look as though they were in the midst of action. Their gestures come alive. Her animals are abstracted, symbolically representative, in a style very similar to the banner appliqués of the Fante group of the Akan people of West Africa.
In 1886 in Athens, Georgia, Harriet Powers exhibited her Bible quilt at the Cotton Fair, an important event for the citizens of Clarke County. At this fair Oneita Virginia Smith saw Harrier’s quilt for the first time. She was an art teacher at a local girls’ school and saw in Harrier’s quilt a work of art. She offered to buy it from her. But Harriet felt about this quilt as though it was her child and could not part with it at any price. But four years later she and her husband were in dire need of money and she remembered the woman who wanted to buy her quilt. She found her and sold it to her for five dollars. Jennie Smith told her she could visit her “child” any time and promised to save all her scraps of cloth so that she could make another quilt.
Harriet Power’s second story quilt came about because of Jennie Smith’s desire to exhibit her work of art at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1891, in the Colored Building. There, it was seen by the faculty wives from Atlanta University and they arranged to have Harriet make a quilt for the Reverend Charles Hall, chairman of the board of trustees of Atlanta University. Mrs. Powers second quilt incorporates both Biblical stories and depictions of folktales about actual events during her time. She knew of these events through oral history. As slaves, they were not allowed to read or write. The first public school for African Americans in her county didn’t open until 1886. So if folks wanted to remember something, they turned it into a story. Harrier’s quilt is a retelling of these stories.
We don’t know how much Harriet was paid for her second quilt. We do know that she was living alone at the time of completing it and managing her own affairs. She finished the quilt in 1898 and presented it to Reverend Hall. Four years later in 1902, Atlanta University held a conference called “The Negro Artisan.” We can imagine that it was Harrier’s beautiful quilt that inspired this event.
Section III—Art Activity
1. Students will make a collage which tells a story
old cut-able magazines
Students will be shown various art works by Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Malvin Gray Johnson, Alma Woodsy Thomas, Charles Searles and others, which tell stories, some clear and some more abstracted. We will discuss the process of telling a story visually, what are the elements necessary, how can the artist get the message across. We will look at the collage techniques of Romare Bearden especially Quilting Time 1986. We will read and discuss Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach. We will also discuss how artists use symbols and colors to express ideas.
Students will sketch in pencil their story on paper. Then they will cut out of paper images which will depict the shapes and figures of their story. Other possibilities are using words, photos, or magazine images to tell their story.
Students will exhibit their work and their classmates will read the stories told.