Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Story Stitched In

By Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

One of the pleasures of designing an exhibit is getting to know the objects to be displayed. Behind the piece itself is usually a story about the maker and their life. Sometimes that is easy to read into a piece and other times the artist only leaves clues and little else.

One of the most intriguing pieces in Fenimore Art Museum's upcoming exhibit Unfolding Stories: Culture and Tradition in American Quilts, is the Trade and Commerce quilt. Created around 1835 the quilt is an exuberant depiction of life along a major river and truly exceptional for its conception and execution. The delightful vignettes of trade and commerce on water and on land reflect the observant eye and compositional expertise of its maker, Hannah Stockton Stiles. She clearly was familiar with the maritime trade, and her accurate depiction of the boats that formed part of the river traffic is remarkable.

Who was Hannah? She was born in Trenton, New Jersey to John and Hannah Stockton. We know she was married in 1818 to John Stiles of Philadelphia. That means the Delaware River was a familiar setting for Hannah in both her childhood and married life.

She stitched her story into the quilt with some references we can only guess at. Is it possible that the figures at the lower center of the outside border represent Hannah and her family? Perhaps she kept a cow and drove to market. Did her family own any of the boats depicted on the quilt? Whatever the answers, it is clear that life along the river was a major part of who Hannah was and how her life was shaped.

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