New Exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Examines Traditional and Innovative Designs by Amish Women Quilters

Presentation Features Recent Gift From Collectors Faith and Stephen Brown

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum explores the creative practice of Amish quilters in the United States. “Pattern and Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women” looks beyond quilting as a utilitarian practice. It reveals historical quilting among the Amish as an aesthetic endeavor that walked a line between cultural and individual expression. The quilts paradoxically twin the plain with the spectacular, tradition with innovation, and a dismissal of personal pride with objects often seen as extraordinary artworks.

The exhibition is on view from March 28 through Aug. 26 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s main building in Washington, D.C. It is organized by Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art, and Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator, with support from Anne Hyland, curatorial assistant. Janneken Smucker, cultural historian and professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, is the primary author of the exhibition catalog and contributed to the exhibition; she is a fifth-generation Mennonite quilt maker of Amish Mennonite heritage.

The exhibition celebrates a major gift announced in 2021 of Amish quilts to the museum by Faith and Stephen Brown. They began collecting quilts in 1977, four years after encountering Amish quilts for the first time at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in the exhibition “American Pieced Quilts.” The 50 quilts featured in “Pattern and Paradox” include 39 from the museum’s collection and 11 promised gifts. Around 100 additional quilts from the Browns’ exemplary collection are promised to the museum as a bequest.

“Faith and Stephen Brown assembled this extraordinary collection with care and devotion over some four decades after a revelatory visit to the Renwick Gallery. It comprises the largest and most widely representative group of Amish quilts ever to be acquired by a major art museum,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director. “Their generous gift reaffirms SAAM’s long-standing commitment to equity in representation for art and artists and brings sharply into focus the complexity and importance of exhibiting diverse cultures in the museum setting.”

In the late 19th century, Amish women adopted an artform already established within the larger American culture and made it distinctly their own, developing community and familial preferences with women sharing work, skills and patterns. The quilts in “Pattern and Paradox” were made between 1880 and 1950 in communities united by faith, values of conformity and humility and a rejection of “worldly” society. No specific guidelines governed quilt patterns or colors, so Amish women explored uncharted territory, pushing cultural limitations by innovating within a community that values adherence to rules. Styles, patterns and color preferences eventually varied and distinguished the various settlements, but it was the local quilters who drove and set the standards.  

Today, Amish quilts present a particular quandary for art museums and audiences. By the mid-20th century, Amish quilts were increasingly being shown in museums. 

“‘Pattern and Paradox’ invites viewers to consider the dual identity of Amish quilts,” Umberger said. “These objects traveled into the art world in the late 20th century, but the Amish women who made them never intended them to be seen as artworks. Audiences and collectors responded to the striking color combinations and inventive abstract patterns, but the Amish were uneasy with the idea of having made and possessing museum-worthy, valuable artworks and began divesting of these quilts. Seen here, hanging on the gallery walls like paintings, they prompt us to consider the subjectivity of words like ‘artist’ and ‘art’ and consider how cultural perspective can transform one’s understanding of an object.” 

Although vintage quilts remain among the most recognized manifestations of Amish culture, they represent the historical, localized trends of only a finite period from a living and changing culture. The exhibition celebrates the quilts, the women who made them, the collectors who preserved and donated them, and considers the unique role of Amish quilts in American art today, roughly a century after those in this collection were made.

Book
The accompanying catalog, published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in association with D Giles Limited, is written by Smucker with an introduction by Umberger. It will be available for purchase ($34.95) in the museum store and online.

Free Public Programs 
A series of free public programs will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition. Umberger and the Browns will tour visitors through the exhibition Friday, April 12, at 11:30 a.m. A second gallery talk with Umberger and Smucker will be held Friday, May 24, at 11:30 a.m. Smucker will give a lecture Thursday, May 23, at 6:30 p.m.; registration is required. Details about these programs and additional events are available on the museum’s website.

Credit
“Pattern and Paradox: The Quilts of Amish Women” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by Faith and Stephen Brown, Billings and John Cay, Barbara Coffey Endowment and the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation. This exhibition received federal support from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, and from the Smithsonian Collections Care Initiative, administered by the National Collections Program.

Note to editors: Selected high-resolution images for publicity only are available through the museum’s Dropbox account. Email americanartpressoffice@si.edu to request the link.

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the flagship museum in the United States for American art and craft. It is home to one of the most significant and inclusive collections of American art in the world. The museum’s main building, located at Eighth and G streets N.W., is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The museum’s Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Check online for current hours and admission information. Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Website: americanart.si.edu.

Press Images

Detail of a multicolored quilt with a blue center star design.
Exhibition - Pattern and Paradox, key image, Crazy Star_detail

Unidentified Maker​​, Crazy Star; ca. 1920​​, Arthur, Illinois​​, cotton and wool; 74 x 63 ½ in. (detail), Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown, Promised gift to the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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