Powers, Harriet (1837–1911)
Powers, Harriet (1837–1911)
African-American quilter whose Bible quilts are considered among the finest ever crafted. Born Harriet, last name unknown, into slavery in Clarke County, Georgia, in 1837; died in 1911; married Armstead Powers (a farmhand); children: two born in slavery—Amanda (b. 1855) and LeonJoe (b. 1860)—and Nancy (b. free in 1866).
In 1886, Harriet Powers completed a Bible quilt which would gain her a place in American art history. She had been born into slavery in Clarke County, Georgia, in 1837. Skilled slaves could hire their labor out and make a small income with the master's permission; some built and designed houses and buildings, others sewed fine clothes and quilts, crafted boats and implements, and manufactured tools and cotton gins. While a portion of the earnings went to the slave, the rest went to the master. It is likely, given her sewing skills, that Powers hired out her labor as a slave before emancipation.
She and her husband Armstead Powers managed to acquire land after the Civil War. They owned a house, a stock of animals, and four acres, enough to grow cotton to support their family of five. It is probable that Powers continued her work as a seamstress to earn extra income. Her quilting continued a long tradition in the fabric arts which was rooted in Africa. In the West African kingdom of Dahomey, large, quilt-like wall hangings were displayed in palaces and homes. This fabric art was often appliquéd, meaning that pieces of fabric were sewn on an underlayer of fabric. Since this type of African art usually told stories, Powers' 1886 quilt consisted of 11 squares depicting Biblical scenes: 1) Adam and Eve ; 2) Adam and Eve and a son; 3) Satan; 4) Cain killing his brother Abel; 5) Cain going to the land of Nod to get a wife; 6) Jacob dreaming of the ladder; 7) the baptism of Christ; 8) the moon turning to blood during the Crucifixion; 9) Judas Iscariot and 30 pieces of silver; 10) the Last Supper; and 11) the Holy Family. Many of these tableaus incorporate animals, also a link with West African art.
This work would probably have been lost were it not for Jennie Smith , a local artist of considerable reputation. Born to a prominent family in Athens, Georgia, Smith studied in Baltimore, New York, and Paris, then taught at the Lucy Cobb school in Athens, heading the art department for over 50 years. Smith was self-supporting and not a wealthy woman, but she had a good eye for art and collected pieces when she could afford them. At a Cotton Fair in Athens in 1886, Smith saw Powers' Bible quilt and was drawn to the work. She offered to buy it for $10, a good price at the time, but Powers refused to sell. Not until several years later, when Powers' family was in desperate financial straits, did the artist decide to sell the quilt. Smith, also hard-pressed for cash at the time, could offer only $5 for the work. Powers accepted the reduced offer, and the quilt remained in Smith's possession until her death in 1946, after which it was eventually sent to the Smithsonian. Another quilt by Powers, commissioned by the women on the faculty of Atlanta University in 1898, was given to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1964. A great deal of African-American fabric art has not survived. Powers' quilts, however, have endured long past her death in 1911, earning her a reputation as one of America's finest quilters.
Adams, Marie Jeanne. "The Harriet Powers Pictorial Quilts," in Black Arts. Vol. 3, no. 4, 1979, pp. 12–28.
Fry, Gladys-Marie. "Harriet Powers: Portrait of an African-American Quilter," in Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770–1976.
Smith, Jennie. "A Biblical Quilt." Washington DC: Museum Division of Textiles, Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Spalding, Phinizy. Mrs. Powers and Miss Smith: A Film on Southern Cultural History. Maryland: Visual Press, 1990.
Vlach, John Michael. The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1978.
Karin Loewen Loewen , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia