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GRAM presents spectacular selection of improvisational quilts

On loan from The Henry Ford Museum, Susana Allen Hunter's colorful quilts are on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum from May 10 to August 25.
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Susana Allen Hunter quilt with Rick Beerhorst

Susana Allen Hunter quilt with Rick Beerhorst /Brenda Beerhorst

Susana Allen Hunter quilt

Susana Allen Hunter quilt /Brenda Beerhorst

Susana Allen Hunter quilt

Susana Allen Hunter quilt /Brenda Beerhorst

Susana Allen Hunter's ability to be resourceful is reflected in her quilts, now on view at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM).

Not only did she use what limited resources she had, but used them with the confidence and command of a person well-versed in the elements of design. Texture, pattern, shape, color, rhythm, balance and surprise all come together in Hunter's quilts, creating her signature improvisational quilting vision.

There was no art degree on Hunter's resume. There was no trip to Jo Ann's Fabric or an online purchase from DickBlick art supplies. Hunter was creating with old clothes, faded curtains, grain and feed sacks and even recycling her own old worn quilts. This is creativity despite lack of cash. She did not have control over her supplies, but she did have control over how she put them together.

This is where "doing the best with what you've got" mixes with vision and design-sense to become the genius of Hunter's work: making art out of rags.

On view in the exhibit is an apron that Hunter made for herself. She chose the feed sack brand logo "Red Lion" to be shown prominently- could this be a clue to her strong personality? If Hunter were alive today, how would she react to this exhibition? What would she think of DIY culture?

Hunter was born in 1912 in rural Wilcox County, Alabama. She and her husband were African-American farmers in the same poverty stricken area as the Gee's Bend community of quilters. Hunter was a valued person in her community, someone others respected and sought out in times of sickness and trouble. When in dire need Hunter was able to know what needed to be done, and do it.

This exhibit is an important reminder of a lesson we just now rediscovering in this culture: use what you have, mend, remake, up-cycle and repurpose... before you buy new products, new art supplies or new raw materials.

Making art is a human impulse. It goes beyond gender, race, class, culture and education. To see what has been deemed a "feminine handicraft" lifted up in a curated museum show, in visual art - a world still dominated by white male artists- all I can say is, it's about time! Thank you GRAM for bringing the Art of Susan Allen Hunter to us.

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