Tuesday December 29th 2015

The most famous quilter you never heard of

Recently, thanks to the wonders of the social network, I learned some sad news. Anna Williams died. Anna was Gee’s Bend before Gee’s Bend. By that I mean she was perhaps the first African American quilter whose improvisational quilts were publicly recognized as art – discovered, applauded, and promoted by the mainstream quilt world. During the 1990s, Anna enjoyed an international reputation as an art quilter.

My first clue that people might not know about Anna came this spring. A friend attended a fundraising auction where she scored a small, framed Anna Williams quilt for a song. Practically stole it. While delighted to have gotten the piece, she felt badly, too. The quilt really should have made more money for the organization. But also, nobody else seemed to know who Anna was, or why the piece was so special.

As a person who freely admits to having the “editorial personality” (fact-checking, nitpicking), I did some online research about Anna before writing this post. Sadly, there is little out there, so I’ll just have to tell you the story as I remember it. Anna cleaned houses for a living, and one of the people she cleaned for was an art quilter named Katherine Watts. Katherine (who was also friends with Nancy Crow) introduced Anna and her art to the world. AQS published a book about her in 1995 – Anna Williams: Her Quilts and Their Influences. The Textile and Costume Museum at Louisiana State University presented an exhibit of Anna’s work in 1998.

There are a quilters who are knowingly influenced by Anna’s style (Tonya Riccuci is one – see her blog post http://www.lazygalquilting.blogspot.com/2011_09_01_archive.html) and plenty of others who have been influenced without realizing it. You can see some of Anna’s quilts in an online article by Susan Druding at http://www.straw.com/equilters/annawilliams/index.html/.

And here’s a picture of the Anna Williams quilt I mentioned earlier. On the back of the frame there’s information about Anna, including this quote: “I like working with color. Piecing helps me keep from going crazy.”

Me too, Anna. R.I.P…Jan Magee, The Quilt Life

Untitled quilt by Anna Williams, 1993, 13" x 13"


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5 Comments for “The most famous quilter you never heard of”

  • Toni says:

    Kudos to Anna Williams, posthumously, and thank you for recognizing her.

  • Vivian says:

    Jan, read your posts and your links. Definitely another of the unsung quilting heros. Any chance AQS could re-issue the 1995 book about Anna as an e-book?

  • Christine says:

    I am a quilter who knows she was influenced by Anna Williams. I first saw her quilts at an exhibit at a public library in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and my heart leaped at the color. I met Anna at that 1998 LSU exhibit, and as I shook her hand, I told her that I would try to be a braver quilter because of her. Those of us who know her work cannot forget Anna Williams. And a reprint of ANNA WILLIAMS: HER QUILTS AND THEIR INFLUENCES would be a gift to the world.

  • Mary Vaneecke says:

    Thank you for posting this remembrance. I hope the book is still in print…I will be looking for it.

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