Visit to the Allentown Art Museum 5/30/21

Our weather has been chill and pouring rain and clouds and more rain for this weekend. But my husband and I knew what to do – visit the museum. Off we went to the Allentown Art Museum in Allentown, PA, on this date.

Two new exhibits have just opened and both were of interest to me. I’ll do a quick rundown and then show you how I participated myself into an exhibit. Sort of. Kind of. If you stretch the definition…

But I digress. Let’s go.

The first we viewed exhibit is called Roots. It focuses on art or craft made by community artists and what happens when the mainstream art world discovers it and appropriates it or redefines it.

The exhibit contained quilts, furniture, sculpture, beadwork, and imagery. Pieces made by the community artists were shown along with works inspired by or derived from, or in some cases made by the community artists to fit the tastes of the mainstream art world.

Upon entering the room I imediately saw the quilts at the opposite end and I knew right away what I was looking at – Gee’s Bend works.

It’s the first time I was ever able to see a Gee’s Bend quilt in person and I took plenty of time to examine the artworks from the standpoint of how they were put together, to their composition, to just enjoying the look of them.

Coincidentally, not long ago I used the Gee’s Bend quilt community’s works, as well as a set of Allentown rowhouses, as my inspiration for a painting. Look here for the post, and here is the painting:

The accompanying mainstream works were prints made by professionals in conjunction with the original artists. They did not compare to the quilts, hands down.

The rest of the exhibit was equally absorbing. Shaker furniture compared to works of Nakashima and Esherick. Native American works compared to work produced by these same artists for tourists, or, in an interesting extrapolation, designs taken from Native American works and popular motifs of the time and printed on fabric by outside designers.

It was a thought-provoking exhibit and an interesting juxtaposition of items connected in a way we do not often think of them – how one can lead to another and what does that process mean to all involved?

More photos:

Next we went to this exhibit.

This gallery featured bedcoverings of all kinds and from all over the world, as close as the Allentown area and as far away as Asia. Various time periods from the past were also represented, as were techniques: weaving, printing, embroidery, quilting, and applique stitching.

The exhibit made the point that in the past, especially before the mechanical weaving of cloth was possible, bedcoverings were costly and a family’s wealth could have a significant portion invested in bedcovers and assorted linens and accessories. Take a look:

I was especially taken by this tiny “bedcovering” for a baby, made by a Hmong artist. It’s meant to be a baby carrier (according to the placard long sashes would have been sewed to the top to wrap up and around the baby and secure her to her mother – and I am envisioning my granddaughter in this item, as you can see).

According to the information, the extremely precise and exquisite embroidery and applique pattern was deliberately made to be complicated and elaborate so that evil spirits could not find the baby in all the distractions of the wrapping cloth. Additionally, the pompoms at the head were to make the spirits think the baby was a flower and thus camouflaged she would be left alone.

I found this touching. I resolved that when I next make a garment or item for my granddaughter I will consider these factors in my design. It can’t hurt.

Finally we took a quick trip up to the kids’ area. Since we were at the museum so early, the area had just opened and no kids had arrived yet. We had never been in here since it has always been so busy in the past.

The ramp up into the space has a display of fiber art – Cocoons. There was also a display of felted vegetation-like forms inside the kids’ area. I hear they are having a workshop later on featuring the making of such items. Hmmmm…

What a great spot for kids and families to make art and reflect on what they might have seen in the displays by creating something themselves.

That’s not a man sitting over there, it is a statue. Yes.

On our way out, my husband called me back to look at the…bathrooms. Right. Well, they are a treat. The Mens’ and Ladies’ both feature murals incorporating some of the museum’s well-known works. I saw some friends in each room.

And…here is where I became part of the exhibit myself. Kind of. Look and see if you can find me.

Sure you can! And my husband, too.

Well, that’s it for the visit. I hope to return and take another look at both of these displays this summer.

25 thoughts on “Visit to the Allentown Art Museum 5/30/21

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Yes, they were both really good. Lots to think about in both of them and a second visit will be rewarding to see details I didn’t catch the first time.

  1. msjadeli

    Very neat, thanks for taking us along on your tour of the museum. I love the Hmong baby carrier and the reasons for the decorations.

  2. Laura (PA Pict)

    Thank you for allowing me to vicariously visit this museum and see the exhibition. As someone who creates in textiles, you must have found the exhibits very inspiring. I have only passing knowledge of the Quilts of Gee’s Bend and I have not seen one in real life.

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Yes, I did really enjoy these, I was eager to get to the museum to see them. I got a lot of info about the quilts seeing them in person that is not possible from a photo. And the bedcoverings exhibit was interesting for the insights into the variety of ways people set themselves up for a night’s sleep! And what it says about their culture, living situations, or habits.

  3. Robin King

    Fascinating & fun & fabulous! I love the baby carrier and how it “protects” the baby. WOW! The quilts must’ve been beautiful, and all of the pairings sound very interesting. I’ll bet the cocoon area with workshops is a terrific one. The bathrooms! WOW! And, yes! I see you! ::waves:: What a great post!! πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. This museum consistently puts on exhibits that are thought provoking and enjoyable. They have a good collection of fiber arts, clothing, and so on, so that often features – and I also like how they engage the viewers with activities and events.

  4. marissthequilter

    I am very jealous — what a gorgeous museum. Thank you for sharing your visit with us through this post. Absolutely spectacular.
    PS You are a very nattily dressed pair. Pleased to meet you!

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      Thank you. This is the nicest museum to visit as far as I am concerned – they have a good permanent collection, they put on thoughtful exhibits, there are all kinds of activities and events they sponsor, and it is a good sized place to be able to see something new each time but not emerge exhausted and cranky.

  5. memadtwo

    What an interesting exhibit about what is sometimes called “cultural appropriation “. I am still puzzling it out myself. Are we allowed to be inspired by the work of other traditions? Does it take something away from the original or enrich it?
    And I love the idea of putting such meticulous thought and care into items that you use every day. It would not be a bad thing to have less and more valued possessions. (K)

    1. Claudia McGill Post author

      I felt the same way regarding “cultural appropriation”. Some things were obviously in that vein, like the fabrics designed by New York firms featuring war bonnets. But many makers had items they did for tourists and the market, and then they did their traditional work. And what about “artist” woodworkers vs. the Shakers, let’s say (whose work I preferred in this exhibit). The bed covers exhibit honed in on that idea that people didn’t have a lot of possessions so their bed things were of value, meant to last, and sort of a status symbol as well – but in all cases meant to be used as long as possible, and therefore it was worth it to have as good quality as you could. I remember this attitude in the clothing my mother made for me – good fabrics, classic designs, never wear out, hand them on to someone else – but not today. It makes me sad. There is so much waste now in our system.

    2. Leonie Andrews

      Cultural appropriation is an alive and kicking issue in Australia in relation to Indigenous culture as I am sure it is with Native American comunities. While we can be inspired by other cultures the unthinking ‘borrowing’ that our dominant colonising societies have carried out and still do is definitely not acceptable. When I see something that really appeals to me I now try to consider what is it specifically that attracts me – is it pattern? Use of colour? Simplification or even elaboration? Then I think about how that broader idea might be expressed in the context of my own work, no copying allowed.

      BTW one area which is equally contentious is the use by other indigenous communities of motifs that are not culturally owned by them. I’m not sure if this is relevant in the US context, but here motifs related to particular dreaming stories are inherited in a very complex manner. It is irrelevant if you are indigenous, if you are not in thr correct clan to use them.

      1. memadtwo

        I understand this intellectually, but in my own world, my ancestry is so mixed up I have no culture that belongs to me. I am not creative enough to be totally original, so everything I do is borrowed. Everything. Ideas, words, materials, images. Must I do nothing then? Where is the line? Native cultures have also borrowed heavily, at least here, from Western cultures. Much of what we consider Mexican art is inspired by the Catholic Church, which is definitely not indigenous. Why is that OK?

        1. Claudia McGill Post author

          I have the same thoughts as you. If I had to stay within my culture, I’d be mystified as to what that is. Maybe “suburbia???”. And even if you have a distinct culture you come from, what does that mean? Is there anyone who is all one thing? No. Are there any ideas that aren’t built on something that inspired them? I think not. If we didn’t learn and borrow and reshape, there’d be nothing that gets created. No one creates in a vacuum. I think it’s wrong when someone’s seriously felt traditions, including art, are exploited in a kind of power relationship (conqueror takes and trivializes or reduces them in some way, let’s say). But in this world there is no way anyone has a mind not filled with ideas and images that have come from somewhere else, some other era, etc.

        2. memadtwo

          I agree about the power relationship, also buying someone’s work for nothing and then making millions from it.

          But I’m not going to tell Yo Yo Ma he can’t play the cello because he’s Asian and it’s a European instrument. Nor am I going to tell him playing Bach is cultural appropriation.

      2. Claudia McGill Post author

        We have similar issues, compounded not only by the people who were native to the continent but by every group that has come since, with its own traditions and so on. Copying, or saying you are part of a tradition you aren’t, is stealing, in my mind, but being inspired by and using what you see and find in this world, to express your views, I think that is open to anyone. And I know not everyone is going to like that or agree with me. I think the word appropriation needs to be used carefully. It’s not a synonym for inspired by, for instance.

  6. Leonie Andrews

    I have no problems with inspiration and agree that it is everwhere. I suspect the way I expressed this may have not come across quite the way I intended. I was more focused on the copying aspect. Yes we are all inspired by lots of sources, but these always have to be processed through yourself not just used as is.

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