Food for Thought 

Artist's quilts offer an entertaining look at Southern tradition

Artist's quilts offer an entertaining look at Southern tradition

Food and Ritual in the Southern Experience: Quilts by Betty Bivens Edwards

Through Aug. 1

Sarratt Gallery, 25th Ave. S. & Vanderbilt Pl.

Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat.

For information, call 322-2471

Just in time for those family reunions, summer weddings, and church picnics, Sarratt Gallery serves up a satisfying selection of narrative quilts exploring food and tradition in the South. From an elaborate wedding reception to supper at the local catfish joint, Betty Bivens Edwards’ three-dimensional quilts capture familiar slices of Southern life and Southern delicacies that delight, amuse, and subtly challenge the viewer.

“The Reception” is Edwards’ fabric invitation to a typical Southern wedding feast, appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted in delectable detail. The bride, replete in a white satin gown and frothy veil, oversees the cutting of a three-tiered cake, decorated with real pink silk flowers and antebellum columns. Elsewhere on the table, which is draped with a real Battenberg lace cloth, there are cheese sticks, tomato and cucumber canapés, pink and blue iced petit fours, a bowl of mixed nuts, and a silver punch bowl brimming with lime sherbet punch topped by a frozen fruit ring.

The perspective is a giddy one, with cakes and candelabras tilting wildly and spilling toward the viewer in a headlong rush while the bridal party looms large and cartoonish behind the nuptial feast. Seven bridesmaids, surrounding the bride and groom in a profusion of pink and mauve moiré, bare sets of gleaming white teeth framed by bright red lips. Real jewelry twinkles at every ear, finger, or neck. Even the ladies’ manicures are perfectly observed in precisely stitched candy-cotton pink embroidery thread.

The only things marring this display of matrimonial perfection are a plastic housefly making its way toward the cucumber sandwiches and a young flower girl and ring bearer who look like they’d rather be anywhere else. Whether this sort of wedding is your thing or not, odds are, if you’ve been in the South for any time at all, you’ve been to a reception just like this one.

Other works in the show also evoke a strong sense of “déjà view.” In “And the Colonel Came to Grieve,” a familiar red-and-white bucket full of traditional recipe and extra crispy chicken is the guest of honor at a funeral spread. In “Monthly Meeting at the Catfish House,” fried fish, French fries, hush puppies, and tall glasses of iced tea are on the menu. In “Sunday School Social,” the cafeteria-style tables are laden with pecan pies, chocolate and coconut cupcakes, watermelon wedges, homemade pickles, Jell-O molds, and casseroles. Again, the rush of been there, eaten that is overwhelming.

Yet Edwards’ portrayals of treasured Southern traditions serve as quilted satires too, born of love and over 50 years’ experience as a Southerner. “I grew up in a very small town near Milledgeville, Ga., which is known as the home of Flannery O’Connor,” says Edwards in her artist’s statement. “I’ve lived in the South all my life and I have a deep-rooted respect and love for it. Yet I also see much that is hypocritical and narrow-minded. Humor is one way to illuminate that.”

In “After Saturday’s Supper,” for example, a group of men gather around a truck outside a house. Smiling, swapping tales, and cleaning their nails with hunting knives, they have just enjoyed a satisfying evening meal. We know this because through the open doorway, we see a woman in the kitchen cleaning up the mess. She isn’t smiling at all. In “Yearly Reunion at Grandmother’s House,” an elderly woman serves up chalices of iced tea to a table of 13 male “apostles” while a small table in a room nearby is set for the women. In these and in other works, it’s hard to miss Edwards’ observations on gender roles in the traditionally patriarchal society of the South. “Most of my pieces explore the roles of women in Southern society,” Edwards admits. “I think it’s fitting to use quilts as the vehicle for that exploration because for years quilting was the only acceptable creative outlet for women.”

Edwards’s quilts also showcase the creativity—and excess—inherent in Southern cooking. After all, Southern women don’t just put on a spread at social gatherings; they also put on a show. Likewise, Edwards’ quilts are luscious to behold. Golden fried chicken, pies studded with pecan halves, pimento-cheese-stuffed celery, and tender asparagus criss-crossed with red pimento all look almost as mouth-watering as the real thing. The works are also as oversized as most servings at a Southern table, with measurements as grand as 9 feet tall and 5 feet wide.

Edwards’ use of fabrics, beads, thread, and other materials is equally impressive: silver metallic cloth defines a tea set, crystal flecks sparkle on a coconut cake, brown flannel cloaks a roast turkey, tiny costume pearls look just like salt, and nylon stockings wrinkle uncannily like human skin. It’s easy to see in both scale and detail why it takes Edwards as much as six months to create a single quilt and why the works sell for $9,000 to $12,000.

“Fabric is life and history itself,” she says of her medium. “My father was a grand storyteller and I grew up listening to tales of our family who settled in this area in the early 1800s. All of my father’s narratives are emerging in my work, though the perspective is quite different. As I explore and celebrate life in the narratives of my quilts, I’m recording the history and mythology of the South.”


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