In the 1970’s the feminist movement brought recognition to domestic arts and textiles.  This led to the rediscovery of Harriet Powers, whose two surviving quilts currently hang in the Smithsonian and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Harriet Powers, folk artist and quilt maker, was born into slavery outside Athens, Georgia (1837). She was married at 18 and gave birth to nine children. She lived most of her life in Clarke County, where in 1897, she began exhibiting her quilts at local cotton fairs. She was believed to have been a house slave and first learned to read with the help of the white children she cared for.

Powers quilts used a combination of hand and machine stitching along with appliqué to form small detailed panels. She then organized these squares to unfold a larger story, much like a modern graphic novel. This teaching style of quilting has its roots in West African coastal communities, and her uneven edging of panels mirrored the complex rhythms of African-American folk music. Through her quilts, she recorded legends and biblical tales of patience and divine justice. Only two pieces of her work have survived: Her Bible quilt of 1886, which she sold for $5 in the aftermath of the war, now hangs in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Her Pictorial quilt of 1888 is displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Powers’ work is now considered among the finest examples of Southern quilting from the 19th century.

Harriet Powers. Pictorial quilt. 1895-98. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Harriet Powers. Pictorial quilt. 1895-98. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston






Harriet Powers Bible Quilt, Smithsonian


The information in this post first appeared in the The Writer’s Almanac.

I invite you to share a link to your story of an inspiring woman.


Every year the NEA National Heritage Fellowships recognizes people in varied artistic pursuits who have shown artistic excellence.  The National Endowment  supports the continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage. This is our Nation’s highest honor in Folk Art.  One of the 2016 NEA National Fellows is Clarissa Rizal.  What follows is Clarissa’s story.



“After learning Chilkat, I gained the art of patience, the way of gratitude, and the act of compassion. The universe opened its doors with a flood of information; the kind of information not definable, yet powerfully written in our Native art, in the ways of our people, and in our commune with nature.”

Clarissa Rizal, member of the Raven T’akDein Taan (black-legged kittiwake) Clan of Hoonah/Glacier Bay, Alaska, is a highly respected cultural leader and a multitalented artist who has contributed to the revival and perpetuation of the Chilkat blanket weaving. These difficult and time-consuming twined robes made of wool and cedar bark depict highly stylized images of the crests which embody a clan’s history and eminence. In the gender-divided world of Tlingit art, a Chilkat robe is the female equivalent of the male-carved totem pole. In addition to Chilkat weaving, Rizal has perfected the Ravenstail technique, an earlier, more geometric type of Tlingit weaving, and has also created blankets depicting crest beings in appliqué and buttons. Rizal not only creates fine textiles, which would be sufficient to guarantee her artistic reputation, but she makes paintings, collages, and drawings that integrate the formline style of historic Tlingit art with modernist visions, creating almost surrealist two-dimensional works of visual intensity and drama.

Several Tlingit elders mentored Rizal. Harry K. Bremner, Sr., taught her Native songs and dance and basketweaver Selina Peretrovich trained her to make spruce root baskets. But, perhaps most significantly, Rizal trained in Chilkat weaving by 1986 NEA National Heritage Fellow Jennie Thlunaut. When she first started weaving with Thlunaut, the oldest living woman trained in this complex textile technique at that time, almost no one knew how to make these powerful and, by that time, rare robes. Following her mentor’s directive to teach others how to weave, Rizal has educated scores of students in Chilkat, Ravenstail, and button robe techniques. Today at clan ceremonies as well as public festivals, the abundance of such textiles being worn and danced with is a testament to Rizal’s training, influence, and inspiration. More than a mentor, Rizal’s vision to create a community of artists dedicated to Northwest Coast Native heritage inspired her to organize the Biennial Northwest Coast Native Artists’ Gathering and assemble the Shaax ’SaaniKeek’ Weavers’ Circle of Chilkat and Ravenstail weavers. Her passion for community participation in artistic creative projects recently led to the creation of “Weavers Across the Water,” a Chilkat-Ravenstail robe composed of squares woven by 54 weavers which she sewed together to create blanket that will be used in celebrations of Northwest Coast canoe launchings and other ceremonies.

Rizal’s weavings have received Best in Show at the Heard Museum Indian Art Fair, the Santa Fe Artists Market, the Anchorage Museum All Alaska Juried Art Show, and the Sealaska Heritage Invitational Art Exhibit. She has had visiting artist fellowships at the Pilchuk Art School in Washington state, the Rasmuson Foundation, in Alaska, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Vancouver, Washington, and the Smithsonian Creative Capital Grant from the First Peoples Fund in Rapid City, South Dakota, and a George Kaiser Foundation Tulsa Artist Residency.

Bio by Aldona Jonaitis, director, University of Alaska Museum of the North



National Heritage Fellow Portraits by Tom Pich