June 21, 2022
America’s storyteller – documentary filmmaker Ken Burns – has collected handmade quilts since the 1970s. On loan from his private collection, “Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection” showcases 26 historic American quilts, dating from the 1850s to the 1940s. These delicate artifacts not only tell stories from our history, but share the spirit of people who lived it.
You can enjoy this exhibit at the 2022 Great Wisconsin Quilt Show, Sept. 8-10 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison. Tickets go on sale July 11.
Ken Burns talked with PBS Wisconsin about his quilt collection and how he hopes they will inspire people as much as they inspire him.
PBS Wisconsin: There are so many things that you could collect. Why quilts?
Ken Burns: It’s a mystery to me. I’m not really sure that there is an intellectual answer that my head can say. My heart can say. I’ve just, for as long as I can remember, been passionately drawn to these implied stories that each quilt represents.
I’m in the business of telling stories. I’m a director. I’m in control. And there’s something about a quilt in which control is just relaxed, and I just accept the beauty of the implied story. That is to say, in most cases, I don’t know who made it, I don’t know exactly when it was made or where it came from. And so what you have is, to my mind, a great work of art.
PBS Wisconsin: Do you remember the first quilt you were drawn to?
Ken Burns: The first quilt is one my grandmother made for me and was very heavy and filled with fabric from jackets and skirts and things like that, that she had collected and saved during the ’40s. As the oldest of my generation, I got the first of these quilts, which she then made for every subsequent grandchild. But it’s still in my room and it’s heavy and it’s wonderful and I love it.
PBS Wisconsin: Do you think that quilt you got from your grandmother was a big influence in being drawn to quilts later in life?
Burns: It’s probably safe to assume that it was. I see that quilt as an association with my grandmother who was one of the most incredible human beings I have ever met and who was a huge influence in my life. A tiny, diminutive woman — not five feet — she was very active until the day she died and very, very interesting. She got a PhD from Yale in 1919 in zoology and marched against the Vietnam War in 1957. And you wouldn’t see her for all of that. There’s a ferocity of those accomplishments, but she was the opposite of that. She was always the last to speak, always listening, always generous. Just a really pure spirit.
When I look at that quilt, I think of her. And I also think of my dad and his brothers and my grandfather because all of the material in the quilt was all of them — they were just in the stuff of what’s in that quilt. And if my grandmother was alive, she could say, “Oh, that came from that skirt, and this came from that.” And like an idiot, back then I did not take notes because it just made me happy to hear her say, “Oh, this is that shirt, or that’s a jacket that I cut up after it was out of use.”
PBS Wisconsin: What draws you to the quilts you collect today?
Ken Burns: Frankly, I’m not a student of quilts. This may sound kind of like an odd admission. You know, like people say, “Oh, that’s a lovely log cabin,” and I’ll look and go, “Oh yeah that is a log cabin.” But I just look at them and they hit me as design. You know, I just say, “Yes!”
My usual rant about quilts goes like this: I’ve got an Amish quilt, probably from the 1830s, that has bold, loud red and blues in it. You know, almost psychedelic. And if you jumped ahead a century and thought about what painter was the epitome of Modernism in 1930 with those kinds of abstractions and bold colors and shapes, it would be Piet Mondrian.
And, here you have in the Amish — they’re quaint, antiquated Amish — an epitome of modernism that Modernism itself wouldn’t get to for 100 years. And I find that just terrifically thrilling.
PBS Wisconsin: So it’s art and a bit of history, as well?
Ken Burns: You know the great arrogance we in the present feel is that because we are alive, survived, that we somehow know more than the people in the past. And it’s just not true. So we honor the past when you realize that there have been people for, you know, 10,000 years who have had conversations as complex, indeed much more complex and nuanced than the one you and I are having.
Everybody’s grappling with essential questions of who am I and what am I here for? Quilts are essential, in that they do keep people warm. That’s an important problem. But the fact that they quickly got elevated to something more than just keeping people warm is just a perfect example of human striving. When you do something else to it, it’s art. Tolstoy said that art was the transfer of emotion for one person to another. Well, these quilts make me feel things profoundly.
PBS Wisconsin: What do you hope people will take away from this exhibit?
Ken Burns: I want them to be less concerned with any notoriety that I might have, you know. I mean, the only thing that gives me pause is that, “Oh, these are Ken Burns’,” and you know, that doesn’t matter.
For some person that quilt might be a two on a scale of 10. For another person that might be 12 on a scale of 10. And that’s OK, that’s the variety of human experience.
I just hope that the quilts themselves, like art, give people a chance to wake up, to be just a little bit bigger than the ordinary, which is what we ask of art, what we ask of literature, what we ask of our faith , what we ask of our deepest and most important relationships and you know — what more? If one person in one exhibition is touched, that’s great.
PBS Wisconsin: What do you see as the legacy for your quilt collection?
Ken Burns: My first film was called Brooklyn Bridge. And at the very end of it, I’d interviewed Arthur Miller, and he said, “You see, the city is fundamentally a practical, utilitarian invention … and suddenly you see this steel poetry sticking there, and it’s a shock … So it makes you feel that maybe you too could add something that would last and be beautiful.”
And I remember when he said that I just burst into tears. I got the transcript of it, and I put it up on my office wall. It’s the last word of my first film.
I’m very excited that I’ve got a set of objects that were made by women — I’m almost absolutely certain in every case — and that they represent something that is beautiful and lasting. There’s immortality in that for those anonymous women that we sometimes get from art and faith and love. That’s a good thing.
Photo credit: Evan Barlow