When I first went to look at Ernestine Camp’s quilts in the early 1980s, I didn’t expect the work to be of much interest to me. The improvisational African-American patchwork I’d been collecting and documenting was generally made by women who’d had littl e education and worked at jobs that required no formal training.
Ernestine, on the other hand, was a solidly middle-class schoolteacher with two master’s degrees. Indeed, Ernestine’s ranch-style residence turned out to be in one of East Oakland’s more af fluent neighborhoods. The quilts I was seeking almost always came from far less prosperous surroundings.
But Ernestine was friendly and eager to show me what she’d done, and I told myself that you could never be certain about what might turn up. After ou r initial greetings, she ushered me into her front room and went off to fetch the quilts. I looked around. The room was a study in beige. I might have been in suburbia. Ernestine returned with a neatly folded stack of pristine quilts, which turned out, as expected, to be precisely pieced from published patterns. Not the kind I was looking for. (“Piecing” a quilt refers to the sewing together of the many patches that make up the decorative front layer, known as the “quilt top.”)
I did what I always do whe n the quilts are outside my sphere of interest—tried to appreciate them for what they were. After I’d extolled the virtues of the first few, however, Ernestine spread out a crib-sized quilt top that totally engaged me. Appliquéd in an unfamiliar pattern a nd using pieces that had not been rigorously measured, each square pictured a boy bouncing a ball.
Every figure was slightly different from the next—positioned higher in its square perhaps, or wearing a smaller hat, looser shirt, or pointier shoes. All o f these variations contributed to a sense of movement. The quiltmaker had executed each repetition in a different fabric as well, ranging from prints and solids to plaids and stripes. These fabrics were from the 1930s—clearly before Ernestine’s time.
It turned out that Ernestine’s mother-in-law, Inena Camp, was the quiltmaker. Where? When? I wanted to know everything about it. It had been pieced in Chesnee, South Carolina—nobody knew exactly when—and given to Ernestine’s family after Inena’s death in 19 79. I started taking hurried notes. Ernestine couldn’t help noticing my fervor. She examined me with no small curiosity. What in the Lord’s name, she wanted to know, was it about this quilt top that had so caught my fancy?
Most of my friends and acquaintances, by then, had heard more than enough about my current obsession. So I was delighted to have an attentive audience. Although her own quilts were quite beautiful, I assured Ernestine, my particular interest was in spontaneously crafted work. I’d been noticing that some African-American quilts, like some African textiles, were improvisational. I’d furthermore been working on the theory that some characteristics of this type of quilt—so frowned upon in standard-traditional circles—were at least p artly A frican-derived, embodying survivals and transformations of African ideals.
Ernestine was all ears, her interest fueling the fire. Once I got going, I couldn’t rein myself in. I went on to explain that what were perceived as “mistakes” in the stan dard tra dition were often quite acceptable to, and sometimes prized by, craftspeople working in the improvisational mode. That, in fact, the consequent variation added all kinds of interest to the resulting one-of-a-kind design. That ....
But I was stopped in my tracks. To my astonishment, Ernestine started to cry. She sat down and silently wept, tears blanketing her face. I sat across the room and—glancing up from time to time to see if she wanted to talk—told myself to let the emotion run its course. Eventually, Ernestine told me what was going on.
She and her mother-in-law were both quilting enthusiasts. They had tried, in fact, to get a joint venture going. But they’d repeatedly “clashed”; Ernestine “wanted the quilt to be very well-put-together” and Inena didn’t think that was worth the bother. They’d finally had to give up working on the same quilts because Ernestine couldn’t stop prodding Inena to do it right.
“I didn’t like her working on quilts that I worked on,” she said. “I really liked to get my st itches even and straight and she didn’t think that was important.”
This started Ernestine crying again. Now, she explained through her tears, she could see that her mother-in-law had been doing it right for her all along. She shook her head, fi shed a tis sue out of her purse, patted her cheeks. But it was too late to do anything about it. Inena had died young—not that many years ago. She couldn’t go back and tell her sweet-hearted mother-in-law how sorry she was for giving her a hard time.
The little top wasn’t for sale at this point—maybe never had been—so we hung it over the front doorway, where there was no direct sunlight at that time of day, and chatted amicably while I took as many photographs as I could justify—widely bracketing, zeroing in on det ails, and so on. Then I made copies of Ernestine’s photos of Inena. I never knew if I’d have a second chance at documenting those quilts that I wasn’t able to buy.
After this eventful first meeting, Ernestine and I crossed paths from time to time. It see med like we’d bonded. I, at least, felt a special kinship to her and, some years later, she decided to entrust the little top to me. I was in heaven. As with much improvisational work, I never tire of looking at Boy Bouncing Ball.
I had it q uilted by Willia Ette Graham and Johnnie Wade—expert African-American quiltmakers whose stitches suited it perfectly. But not before Roberta Horton published a black-and-white picture of the unquilted top in Plaids and Stripes: the Use of Directional Fabr ic in Quilts, which Ernestine and her family got to have as a memento. Now they’ll have another. This time, however, it will be in color.
Eli Leon is a local quilt collector and scholar. See www.elileon.com.
One day, I found a clutch of posters at a y ard sale so rich that I tracked down the artist, Eli Leon. They were mostly from the Free University of Berkeley, which flourished in the late 1960s. Since I manage a vast political poster archive, I was tickled to come upon them, and then to find Leon wh o, to my disappointment, had quit doing posters. He was now collecting multitudes of African-American quilts.
But how neat it was, to meet someone else nutty enough to collect something seriously that mostly was passed over. And what a storage problem he had! For quilts were so much bulkier than posters. And those this fellow had gathered were loaded with history and such a wealth of graphic riches that my jaw dropped. Eli saw the same spirit of improvisation in this art form as in jazz, blues and gospel, derived presumably from African roots. And he has followed this recognition out concretely, in a long series of exhibits and writings, in an authoritative and generous career.
He’s now working on a memoir of his collecting years. Here is one of the chapters; its qualities speak for the man.