The Secret Lives of Quilts

In his book, Scott Heffley provides a nuanced look at the collection he spent so many years compiling—and also offers some insight for people looking at the work for the first time.

IN THE opening pages of his 2007 book, Bold Improvisation: Searching for African-American Quilts, Scott Heffley writes, “Many of the quilts have no recognizable pattern at all—instead, blocks of color and texture are reassembled into wonderfully inventive compositions. The basis of this improvisation includes bright colors, clashing prints, balance and imbalance, and—above all—visual motion. All of this relates to the very heart of creativity. Each quilt is an adventure, both for the maker and the viewer.”

The collection described above, which opens this month at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, had been something of a side project for Heffley, who retired last year as senior conservator of paintings at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. However, it was that experience and expertise—working on works of art from artists ranging from van Gogh to El Greco—that makes this collection spanning 120 years so special. Included in the aforementioned book, Heffley provides a nuanced look at the collection he spent so many years compiling—and also offers some insight for people looking at the work for the first time.


QUILTS ARE textile compositions of color, texture and form. Although they were made for horizontal viewing on a bed, they can also be considered as one would modern paintings. You can train your eye to explore the aesthetics of these works of art by looking at as many quilts as possible. Listed below are some ways to look at quilts, ways to help guide the eye in this exploration.

Identify the quilt pattern, if one exists, and note whether it changes through improvisation.

Look at the pattern and the shapes. Now think about how they cause your eye to move across the quilt’s surface. Are busy prints or shapes causing the quilt to appear to vibrate?

Let your eyes go out of focus— squint, or take your glasses off. Notice how the pattern leads your eye across the surface or whether certain strong colors, like red, seem to be balanced across the quilt.

Notice how the quilt was constructed. Were strips first pieced, then sewn together?

How is the quilt held together? Look for the quilting pattern or whether the quilt is held together with ties. Is the quilting pattern or ties an important design element for the quilt?

Bold Improvisation: Searching for African-American Quilts is on view at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum from Feb. 1 to May 5.