Hear What Ken Burns Has to Say About Quilts in PBS’s New Special
By Elizabeth Inglese
December 23, 2019
PBS is debuting a new episode of Craft in America just in time for any binge-watching sessions you may be doing this holiday season. Told through the lens of artists and collectors alike, the episode, which will air on PBS and online on December 27, explores expressions of American identity through quilts.
In one episode highlight, filmmaker Ken Burns, whose documentaries examine American life, takes a turn in front of the camera. As it turns out, Burns is an avid quilt collector. “I think of textiles as a kind of DNA of a culture,” says Burns. “The record of a country is not just written in the sequence of presidential administrations punctuated by wars, but in fact in the bottoms-up story of so-called ordinary people.”
One such American, and a subject of the special, is Susan Hudson, a Navajo-Diné artist who stitches the stories of her ancestors into fabric. First working in traditional star patterns, she found inspiration for a unique style in the turn-of-the-century ledger art of indigenous people. “When they put us on the reservations, Indian agents would come with ledgers, and they would draw on those to tell stories,” explains Hudson. Her work, Stars Among the Shunkaa Wakan, tells her family’s story in colorful appliqué horses and scrawling cursive lettering translating the imagery of ledger art into quilt.
But of course, Hudson isn’t the only quilt maker whom the episode explores in depth. African American experience comes to life in the works of Michael Arthur Cummings, who has quilted portraits of President Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman, and Langston Hughes. “I’m incorporating history and mythology into these quilts,” says Cummings. “I reach back to Africa.” Cummings, whose work is shown in museums and U.S. embassies around the world, taught himself to sew on a machine he bought from Macy’s. “I call it my dance partner because it knows all my moves,” he says.
Meanwhile, Jody Ipsen tells an American story from the other side of the border with the Migrant Quilt Project. The idea came to her when she saw clothing scattered in the desert along the border. “It occurred to me that maybe these fabrics could speak to the migration of people seeking a better way of life,” she says. “I started collecting materials, taking them home, and washing them.” She gives gathered clothing to volunteers who continue to grow her collection, which now features 18 quilts.
As it turns out, the episode on December 27 isn’t the only way for those intrigued by the previews to view the works included. Starting on January 11, Los Angeles residents will be able to see the quilts featured in the episode in person while they’re on exhibition at the Craft in America Center. It may just be the perfect holiday activity for any quilt lovers—or Burns admirers—out there.