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Cuesta Benberry, 83; scholar was a pioneer in the study of quilting

September 05, 2007|Patricia Sullivan | The Washington Post

Cuesta Benberry, one of the nation's foremost quilt scholars who pieced together the history of the art from castoff patches of information, died of congestive heart failure Aug. 23 at Forest Park Hospital in St. Louis. She was 83.

Benberry's research was so fundamental that "in nearly every quilt book today, Cuesta Benberry will be quoted in the text or her name will appear in the bibliography," the Quilters Hall of Fame noted when she was inducted in 1983.

"She began to look very seriously at all the aspects of quiltmaking -- where patterns came from, the people who made them -- at a time when people weren't looking at quilts, much less the history of quilts," said Bettina Havig, a quilt historian from Columbia, Mo.

Not a quilter herself, Benberry nevertheless became interested in the art and craft when her mother-in-law gave her a quilt. When she visited her in-laws, who lived in Kentucky, she began to learn about the pride that women took in that work.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Benberry obituary: The obituary of quilt historian Cuesta Benberry in the Sept. 5 California section stated that she founded the American Quilt Study Group. The group was founded by Sally Garoutte of Mill Valley, Calif.

"I think we get so emotional about quilts because they're such an integral part of many people's lives," Benberry told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1998. "They're on the bed. They're there at birth. They're there at death. They're part of the marriage bed. They're part of our lives, and they give us so many memories. . . . You'd call a quilt like you would a child. [Her mother-in-law would] lift up a trunk lid and say, 'Come see my Sugar Bowl'; she didn't say, 'Come see my blue-and-white quilt.' Then I wanted to learn more about their history."

Benberry's occupation was teaching in the St. Louis public schools, but her preoccupation since the 1960s had been learning about quilts, said her son, George V. Benberry of Elgin, Ill. She collected paper ephemera, which are the once-overlooked patterns, records and documentation of quilts and quiltmakers. She is credited with rescuing innumerable documents from oblivion, researching their importance and communicating that to the world.

"She was a serious scholar at a time when the kinds of conveniences we take for granted -- digital photography, copying machines, e-mail -- weren't possible. She did the difficult research," said Xenia Cord of Kokomo, Ind., president of the American Quilt Study Group, which Benberry founded.

Born in Cincinnati and raised in St. Louis, Benberry graduated from what is now Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis. She received a master's degree in library science from the University of Missouri at St. Louis. She worked in the local school system for 40 years and retired in 1985.

In a 1998 article she wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Benberry said that in about 1976 she began focusing on quilts made by African American women. "I soon realized that any investigation of quilt history, a female-dominated narrative, would also be closely allied to women's history," she wrote. Benberry also found that previous exhibitions of quilts by African American women focused almost exclusively on those from selected areas of the rural South.

She organized a traveling quilt show for the Kentucky Quilt Project of Louisville, which demonstrated the breadth of quilts by African Americans.

"African-American quilt makers' backgrounds, living conditions, needs, access to materials, aesthetic sensibilities, creative impulses and technical skills were vastly divergent," Benberry wrote in the exhibit brochure, arguing that no single style represented them. "Thus it is a simplistic notion that legions of black quilt makers produced works displaying a single aesthetic orientation."

Benberry, who was honored by the American Folk Art Museum in New York in 2004, wrote four books: "Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts" (1992); "Patchwork of Pieces: An Anthology of Early Quilt Stories, 1845-1940" (1993); "Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans" (2000); and "Love of Quilts: A Treasury of Classic Quilting Stories" (2004).

The only quilt Benberry made, a sampler, also reflects her research: It is composed of blocks that appeared in earlier African American quilts.

In addition to her son, survivors include her husband of 56 years, George L. Benberry of St. Louis; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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