Quilt Gallery

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Message on a Bridge: Make Art

Several weeks ago we were in Northfield, Massachusetts, to attend Sacred Concert at Northfield Mount Hermon School. As the girls' days were filled with with concert rehearsals and end-of-term school work, we were left on our own. We used the time to explore Northfield and the lovely Schell Bridge on the north end of town.

Northfield is a classic New England town, its wide main street lined with clapboard buildings, spired churches, and big trees. It is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the nineteenth century evangelist Dwight L. Moody. In addition to founding Northfield School for girls on a hill adjacent to his birthplace, and later the Mount Hermon School across the river in Gill, he attracted people from around the country and the world to Northfield.

One of these people was Francis Schell of New York who built an expansive chateau near the Northfield School. Schell found the town's most unusual physical feature  -- it straddles the Connecticut River, with Main Street on the east side and the train station on the west side -- highly inconvenient. So in 1903 he donated a bridge to make it easier to travel between the station and his east-side chateau. It is easy to see why the Schell Memorial Bridge has been called the most beautiful bridge on the Connecticut River.  Its lacework of steel, resting on wide-set stone piers, forms a single gentle arch across the water.

Schell Bridge from the west side
Up close, the arches and detail work combine to give it a a cathedral-like feel.

Schell Bridge from the west side

Schell Bridge detail

East end of Schell Bridge in morning light
Unfortunately, lack of funds prevented the town from properly maintaining the bridge, and by 1985 it had deteriorated so much that it was deemed unsafe for further use.  Solid steel plates were attached to both ends and the roads leading to it were abandoned to the encroachment of nature.

View of Schell Bridge through steel plate on west end
Beneath the west end of Schell Bridge
Like so many abandoned structures, the Schell Bridge has attracted graffiti artists, the large steel plates on each end offering a large easily accessible canvas.  I can't say that any of the graffiti is beautiful, nor can I pronounce on whether it is art itself, but I do appreciate the message scrawled across the east side:  MAKE ART.

Graffiti on east end of Schell Bridge
It has made me think about the nature of my own work in quilting and needlework.  For centuries most needlework was not thought of as art.  Embroidered clothing might have been considered stylish and decorative, but it was not art.  Likewise, quilts and other home furnishings were primarily utilitarian.  If nicely wrought, they might have been valued as decorative, but they were still not art. For example, these socks, which I recently completed, would be classed as useful and pretty, but not as art.

Stalking Socks from "Knitting Knee Highs", Cascade superwash Merino
During the last century "decorative arts" began receiving more attention. In an era when more and more items were mass-produced, the beauty and individuality of handwork could stand out.  Henry Francis DuPont, Electra Havemeyer Webb, and Ima Hogg all collected, in addition to traditional art such as paintings and sculpture, decorative arts such as furniture, housewares and textiles, including quilts.  All three eventually turned their homes into museums of decorative arts.* The 1971 Whitney exhibit "Abstract Design in American Quilts" is credited as the first to present quilts as legitimate art.  More recently, quilts made by residents of Gee's Bend, Alabama, have received notoriety as abstract art and been featured in exhibits nationwide.

I cannot claim that my quilts are works of art.  Certainly I would classify my earlier pieces as merely decorative.  But my work is evolving and the message on the Schell Bridge has helped me to clarify my aspirations:  Make Art!

* DuPont created Winterthur in Delaware, Webb created The Shelburne Museum in Vermont, and Hogg created Bayou Bend in Texas.


  1. hello ! i arrived here via a comment you left on someone else's blog and love the mix of things you have on yours.
    your photographs are very good and the industrial tone reminds me very much of this part of England. the red brick mill in an earlier post could have been plucked from the town i live in !
    i love to sew and knit and am currently churning out quilts ! i also have family in Texas and Connecticut and Boston so the landscapes you take are very interesting to me !
    off now to have a good read of your old posts.
    thanks susan

  2. Thank you so much, Susan! I'm glad you are enjoying this blog! My next post will likely be about Historic Deerfield, which is about ten miles from Schell Bridge, so stay tuned for views of New England from two centuries earlier.