Bettye Kimbrell pounded kudzu leaves to make this wall-hanging. Photo by Alan Govenar, courtesy of Documentary Arts.
Bettye Kimbrell created this wall-hanging for Alan Govenar, president of Documentary Arts, an organization which assisted the National Endowment for the Arts in presenting the 2008 National Heritage fellows on stage at the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda, MD. When Govenar visited her in Mt. Olive before the event, he requested that she make a quilt for an upcoming touring exhibit and suggested that it feature kudzu leaves. When she agreed he scrambled down a nearby ravine to gather the kudzu she would need for the project.
Bettye did not fill the background with meandering stitches as intensely as she usually did because of the deadline for the piece, yet it is a fine example of Cherokee leaf pounding and a memorial to the smothering vine which is trying its best to cover the south.
The quilt has been viewed in Paris and five cities in Belgium and now is included in Extraordinary Ordinary People: American Masters of Traditional Art. This exhibit is described as “a journey across America through the lives of individuals whose creativity is rooted in their cultural identity and community.” It features numerous art forms and cultural groups that contribute to the vibrancy of American life, including Byzantine (Greek) icon woodcarving, Peruvian retablos (personal altars), Native American basketry, Eastern European lacemaking, and quiltmaking, as well as musical and performing traditions. It has been displayed at Michigan State University Museum (East Lansing), Castellani Art Museum (Niagra, NY), and other sites across the nation. For more information about the exhibit and specific tour dates visit Documentary Arts.
Bettye Kimbrell’s corner of the “Extraordinary Ordinary People” exhibit. Photo by Alan Govenar, courtesy of Documentary Arts
75” L X 58” W (2008)
The theme and title for this wall-hanging came about when Bettye’s daughter, Cindy Denton, noticed that the leaves on it looked like they were wind-blown. Bettye had not yet pounded any leaves in the upper right-hand corner, so they decided to give the wind a face and place it as a white-on-white element in that space. This piece is another example of the Cherokee leaf pounding technique in which a leaf is taped to fabric then hammered with a mallet until its chlorophyl creates a stain in the shape of that leaf.. Details such as stems and veins are highlighted by quilting stitches. (Kathy Hinkle, owner. Photos by Don Breland, courtesy of Merrill Stewart)
Detail showing the face of Mr. Wind
Bettye Kimbrell wanted her quilts to be as beautiful on the back as they are on the front. Those who turn her pieces over will see no knots, tangles or holes. Because of this aim she devised a time-consuming method of stuffing her trapunto pieces from the top rather than the back to avoid placing holes in the back that would need to be repaired. Except for the label and rod pocket she put on the back, her whole-cloth quilts look much the same on both sides, as you will see in the detail below.
Detail from the back of Mr. Wind
42″ W x 46″ L (2013)
“Tree-o Ta-li” quilt
When Bettye and her daughters Nina Harvey, a floral designer, and Cindy Denton, a graphic designer, met together to work on a quilt they called themselves a “tree-o,” since their quilts usually involved some pounding of tree leaves. This being the second Cherokee leaf pounding quilt they designed together, they used the Cherokee word “tali,” meaning “two,” hence the name “Tree-o Ta-li.” This quilt is different from other leaf-pounding quilts Bettye did because she and her daughters used the leaves to provide different colors for individual pieces of a design they had drawn on the quilt top. Instead of pounding the entire leaf to create its shape, they carefully pounded parts of the leaf to color the small circles that surround the top of the urn, all the zigzags, meanders and border designs on that object. as well as the stems of some of the leaves, grasses and vines that arise from the urn and arch over its sides. This quilt is now part of Merrill Stewart’s collection. (Photos by Don Breland, courtesy of Merrill Stewart).
75″ W x 69″ L (2011)
Detail of “Tree-o Ta-li”
Label on back of “Tree-o Ta-li”
Cherokee Leaf Pounding quilt for Merrill Stewart
After Merrill Stewart saw Bettye’s quilt, “Ode to Calvin,” at the Birmingham Museum of Art, he asked her to make a Cherokee leaf pounding quilt for the offices of Stewart Perry, a commercial construction company in Birmingham. She and her grandson, Brian, spent the day walking in the woods and around the pond gathering leaves and pounding them on a muslin quilt top. A video made that day shows she and Brian pounding the leaves. Another video was made the day that she presented it to Merrill Stewart. (Photograph by Don Breland, courtesy of Merrill Stewart)
Detail from Cherokee Leaf pounding quilt (Stewart Perry Campus)
75” L X 58” W (2009)
Ode to Calvin
Cherokee leaf pounding is a method of making designs on fabric by pounding fresh leaves with a mallet on to a quilt top until the pigment makes a leaf-shaped stain. After the stain is made permanent by washing the fabric in a vinegar solution, Bettye stitches around the edges of the leaf, its stem and veins, creating a realistic, natural design. When Bettye learned how to do it, her husband Calvin was intrigued. He brought her four huge leaves from a castor bean bush and told her where they should be placed on the quilt he wanted her to make for him. He showed her the seeds he would plant next spring to provide more leaves for the design. Sadly, he died of a heart attack before he could plant them. Bettye and her son-in-law, Jerry Denton, planted them and grew the leaves that surround the interior four. This is a huge quilt, 110 inches square, covered with millions of tiny stitches, that amazes all who look at it closely. Three years in the making, it is a beautiful tribute to a beloved husband. (Photos courtesy of Jimmy Martin)
110” W X 110”L (1998)
Castor Bean Leaf detail
Detail of White-on-white quilt showing stippling which embosses the designs it surrounds
Bettye Kimbrell made a number of white-on-white quilts which showcase her extraordinary skill at hand-stitching. With a pencil she drew patterns on white fabric—sometimes original motifs, sometimes traditional designs using commercial stencils—then stitched over them with white thread, each stitch going through the top, batting, and back of the quilt. Designs emerged from the richly textured background. Bettye enhanced many of her white-on-white quilts with stippling. Stippling is a technique in which stitches are placed as close to each other as possible without touching. The designs that are surrounded by stippling become embossed, though they have not been stuffed.
Detail of white-on-white quilt
California Star Quilt and Bettye holding book that featured it on the cover
When Bettye needed “R&R” during or after making a highly complicated quilt she would turn to a simpler design such as the “Feathered Star” or “California Star.” She called this one her “cancer recovery” quilt because she worked on it while dealing with uterine cancer. It ended up on the cover of Star Quilts, by Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Martin)
82” W X94”L ( 1979)
This quilt is one of three quilts made by Bettye Kimbrell using a technique called broderie perse, meaning Persian embroidery. It involves cutting floral designs out of chintz material and reassembling them into a different pattern on a quilt top. Bettye said, “I took a piece of chintz fabric, noted the clusters of flowers on it that I wanted to use in my quilt and did a rough cut around them. To attach them to my quilt top I cut away—a half inch at a time—all the background fabric from the chintz design. I appliquéd that half-inch to the top using a button-hole stitch around the edge of each leaf, stem and flower in the design, then trimmed away another half inch of the chintz and stitched it to the piece. I kept cutting and stitching a half-inch at a time until I had a quilt top full of chintz flowers arranged the way I wanted them. It was tedious and really difficult to do. It took me five years, with R&R breaks, to finish it.”
34” W X46”L (1989)
Detail showing how designs on chintz were trimmed away from their background and applied to quilt top with a button hole stitch. Note that the entire white background is stippled.
Detail of center figure of Broderie Perse quilt
Cindy’s Vineyard (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Martin)
This is the second shadow trapunto quilt that Cindy Denton designed and Bettye Kimbrell quilted. Each grape on the quilt is stuffed with bright purple yarn and each leaf is stuffed with an intense green yarn. They appear pale and hazy seen through the quilt’s sheer batiste top. There is a large amount of stippling around the main design elements. Stippling consists of tiny stitches placed as close to each other as they can be without touching. It took Bettye 3 years to complete “Cindy’s Vineyard.”
77” W X 89”L (1992)
Detail of Cindy’s Vineyard
Double Wedding Ring quilt and detail
Bettye made this traditional patchwork quilt from scraps left from clothes she had made for her three daughters. The youngest, Cindy, says “I can just look at that quilt
and remember an Easter dress I hated and a pair of plaid bell bottom pants I wore in the 5th or 6th grade that I loved! ” It was the first quilt she entered in a competition, the 1970 Alabama State Fair. She won a blue ribbon. (Photo courtesy of Jimmy Martin).
70” W X 75”L (1970)
Bettye created this this quilt in 1975 for a competition sponsored by the National Grange to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the United States. It has a patchwork design made up of twelve blocks that look like Betsy Ross’s 1776 flag with its red and white stripes and thirteen blue stars alternating with white squares filled with hand-stitched outlines of eagles and stars. (Photo courtesy of Alan Govenar)
81” W X96” L (1975)
In 1987 Bettye and her three daughters, Kathy, Nina, and Cindy, designed this quilt for a competition sponsored by the Southern Highlands Craft Guild celebrating the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. The woman in the center is working on a quilt of 20 squares, the type that Bettye’s grandmother, Julia Whitson, made. Each square has an 8-point star in the center. A threaded needle is left in the hoop to show that the quilt is not finished. The quilting is done in a traditional shell pattern, also echoing her grandmother’s work. (Photo courtesy of Alan Govenar)
71” W X71”L (1987)
Stained Glass quilt with news photo of Bettye and daughter Cindy.
In this type of quilt figures are cut out of cloth and appliquéd to squares in a manner that imitates stained glass. Each figure is edged in dark fabric to represent the leading that joins the individual pieces of glass into one image and the squares are joined with strips that create the appearance of window panes. Bettye’s youngest daughter, Cindy Denton, shown with her mother in the photo below, drew each of the figures that Bettye used in making the quilt. (Photo of quilt courtesy of Jimmy Martin)
82” W X93”L (1982)
Cindy’s Rose and recognition from Disneyland
This is Bettye’s first shadow trapunto quilt. “Trapunto” is a form of quilting in which figures are outlined in stitches then stuffed with extra batting to make them rise above the surface of the quilt. In “shadow trapunto” the top layer is a sheer batiste fabric. When figures are stuffed with brightly colored yarn, the designs take on a soft, hazy appearance. The stuffing is usually done from the back of the quilt, but Bettye, devised a way to stuff the yarn in from the top with a tapestry needle. This quilt, designed by Cindy Denton, won Best of Show at the Alabama State Fair and got the same honor at Disneyland in California when shown with winners from other state fairs across the country. (Photo of quilt courtesy of Jimmy Martin)
82” L X 78” W (1985)