Blue, gray, white and a little frayed around the edges.
So describes the first quilt Ken Burns purchased from a New England antique store back in the mid-1970s.
“It was intimate and personal and very exciting,” the famed filmmaker said from his home in Walpole, New Hampshire, where he’s working on an upcoming film on the Mayo Clinic. “It was both the notion of what a quilt represents — the cultural evidence — and also the anonymous stories implied.”
Burns’ passion for those stories has since blossomed into a collection of approximately 75 quilts. Twenty-eight, created between 1850 and 1940, are currently on view for the first time in “Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection” at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln.
Quilts are of course not the first thing that comes to mind when you’re talking about Burns. The acclaimed filmmaker is known for making dozens of documentary series, including “The Civil War,” “Baseball” and, most recently, his 10-part “The Vietnam War.” Burns’ style is a blend of American history and personal anecdote, threaded with iconic imagery and music, and coming together in patterns you might call quiltlike.
Quilts are such a personal thing, said Leslie Levy, the quilt center’s executive director, and Burns’ collection reveals a lot about him.
“Like any other art form, it’s about what moves you enough to have that quilt live with you,” Levy said.
Carolyn Ducey, the museum’s curator of collections, said Burns sees quilts through a more intimate lens than most people.
“He approaches them with the intent of a documentarian and reacts to the lives behind them and the ways they’ve been used and loved.”
That kind of intimacy, Burns said, comes from being connected to people from the past, which means not dismissing quilt makers such as the Amish as “quaint” or the women who stitched together quilting blocks as “simple.” Instead, Burns stresses that there’s a great deal of sophistication that goes into quilt making, no matter how deceptively basic it might seem on the surface.
“I like liberating the past from the kind of straitjacket we put on the lives of the people who lived before us,” he said. “I think that the great arrogance of the present is that we impose on the past a kind of tyranny that those people couldn’t have lived lives anywhere near as complicated or as full as ours. And that’s just not true.”
Writ larger, Burns said that kind of pigeonholing often means we don’t follow the “Golden Rule” and interact with people the way we’d like to be treated — with “the full dimension of our range of emotions, the toleration of our flaws as well as the acceptance of our positive aspects. These are all parts of the things that we expect for ourselves.”
That’s why, Levy said, the filmmaker’s choices of quilts often reflect the complexity of the past, symbolized in both pattern play and color combinations.
“There are the traditional patterns that are well-known and familiar, but the quilts tend to be in bold colors. The makers were not timid. When you look at his quilts, there’s just something about them that’s intriguing and evocative.”
Some examples include brilliantly hued quilts sewn into geometric patterns with names like “Bars,” “Joseph’s Coat,” “Tumbling Blocks” and “Log Cabin, Barn Raising.” Burns describes them as “electric” and says such quilts have “a startling degree of modernity,” noting that they were created long before artists like Piet Mondrian and other abstract expressionists started experimenting with similar shapes and color fields.
“Here you have these supposedly quaint Amish who are for 100 years or more experimenting with these kinds of designs, maybe not in a conscious or intentional or aesthetic kind of way, but they’re getting the same thing.”
For Burns, quilts also symbolize a coming together in ways that extend beyond needle and thread.
“Certainly there are quilts that are individual, but they often reflect a kind of teamwork, a group of women sitting together and making a quilt within a family or within a community,” he said.
History itself can stitch us together, Burns said, and quilts can link “individuals, families and communities together.”
“That’s what we ought to be doing. We ought to be having shared stories,” he said. “It’s the impetus for people to be together, to work together, to be in union. That’s what I’m interested in in a bigger way.”
The filmmaker likes to quote historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. reflecting on the Latin motto of the United States, “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one.”
“He said we suffer today from too much pluribus and not enough unum,” Burns said. “I think quilts reflect that spirit of unum.”
Burns’ National Recovery Administration quilt symbolizes “unum.” Dated around 1933, it was made at the height of the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the NRA (not to be confused with the National Rifle Association), a New Deal agency intended to establish fair codes of competition among industries that would also set minimum wages and maximum hours for workers. The NRA’s symbol was a blue eagle, and the quilt makers showed their solidarity with FDR by stitching a larger-than-life one into the quilt.
The filmmaker said he believes the NRA quilt represents people trying to be a positive force in an effort to help repair the country — a theme that could be relevant today.
“I do think most Americans are homesick for a kind of time when what we need is bigger than what I want,” he said.
Given his profound motives for collecting quilts, how does Burns know when he’s found the perfect one?
He said he isn’t setting out to own a set number of crazy quilts, log cabin or other specifically patterned quilts, nor does he confine himself to certain time periods. Instead, Burns follows his heart, likening his decisions to hearing a piece of music that moves him to tears.
“I wish I could tell you. I wish I could say it’s these things,” he said.
“You just know in your gut. This is why I have to have it. I can say, ‘Nope, nope, nope’ to 30 or 40 or 50 quilts before I can say, ‘Oh, yeah. This is the one that I want to have.’
“I still find the heart skips a beat when there’s a new quilt to consider.”