The quilts of Susana Allen Hunter are filled with texture.
Wispy white tails of tied thread dot their surface. The fabric varies from flannel to corduroy to denim. The size and shape of each square of fabric is different. Her work is improvised.
“You can almost picture her with the scissors cutting and piecing (fabric) on the fly and responding and thinking, ‘OK if I do plaid here, I’ll do stripes next,’” said Jon Carfagno, executive director of the Hickory Museum of Art.
The museum has 27 of Hunter’s quilts on display in the Coe Gallery as part of the museum’s Fall into Folk exhibit. The exhibit is on loan from the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, which acquired the collection of quilts from Hunter’s grandson.
Hunter was born in 1912 and lived much of her life in Wilcox County, Ala., which was and still is an impoverished community. In her years living there from the 1930s to the 1970s, Hunter crafted her brightly colored quilts. In her lifetime, she made hundreds, Carfagno said.
“She made the quilts largely out of necessity,” Carfagno said. “She lived in a home that was a single-board dwelling without power and it gets cold. So the family would stack eight of these on the bed to stay warm.”
The exhibit tells Hunter’s story as a leader in her community, an artist and someone who worked hard to make something out of nothing. The quilts started out of necessity, but became a creative outlet, Carfagno said.
Hunter’s quilts are colorful not only out of creativity, but also need, he said.
“Every scrap of fabric that you see in this show has been repurposed,” Carfagno said. “Mainly from the family’s clothes or clothes and fabric of her neighbors in the community.”
Three quilts hang freely in the center of the gallery, allowing visitors to see their backing, often made from repurposed sugar, wheat and flour sacks. The faded labels still remain on some of the fabric.
Hunter was known for her hard work, and it shows in her quilts, Carfagno said. “One of the things you’ll learn in the exhibition is she was a leader and she’s an inspiring story in that she approached the world with the vitality and vigor that was reflected in everything she did,” he said.
The exhibit tells visitors about Hunter’s creative process with a focus on her improvisation. She created the quilts on the fly, much like improvisational jazz, Carfagno said.
The quilting style was one reason the museum got the exhibit, he said. “We like her because she’s a rule-breaker … and as an institution, we have been trying to redefine what an art museum can be and she is the type of figure that we look up to because of the energy, her willingness to do things differently, her willingness to take risks,” Carfagno said.
Hickory’s exhibition of Hunter’s quilts is the third time the exhibit has ever been on display, Carfagno said.
Along with the quilts on display, the exhibit also includes an apron Hunter made from a Red Lion wheat sack and two of her dresses. Her scissors, thimbles, broom, washtub and washboard are on display as well.
The exhibit is on display through Feb. 6, 2022. For more information, visit www.hickoryart.org.