Looking Back

Amish textiles enliven the DAM, while Lewis and Clark artifacts fill the DMNS.

I was hooked from the first gallery, where Zrebiec sensitively paired two very similar quilts of the hieratic diamond-in-the-square design; both were from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the most famous of the more than a score of Amish colonies scattered throughout the East Coast and the Midwest. One, by Barbara Fisher, is from the Browns; the other, which is anonymous, is from the DAM's permanent collection. The design is utterly simple, and both quilts employ big pieces of cloth in rich colors, including purple, red and green. Taken together, the two are heart-stopping.

The first gallery is devoted to quilts made in Pennsylvania, but the Browns have put more attention into Midwestern Amish quilts, especially those made in Ohio. (The Amish are not monolithic, and different colonies have different customs.) The Midwestern quilts are much more complicated than most of the Pennsylvania ones, and they're smaller. Don't miss "Broken Dishes," "Roman Stripes" and "Railroad Crossing," all of which are most likely cradle quilts that were made in Holmes County, Ohio.

Despite my expectations, I loved Amish Quilts. I know that has to do with curator Zrebiec's art-show approach as well as the Browns' obvious connoisseurship. Now the bad news: The show has only a few weeks left here, so time is of the essence.

"Diamond in the Square," quilt by Barbara Fisher.
"Diamond in the Square," quilt by Barbara Fisher.
Nez Perce root bag made of woven prairie grasses.
Nez Perce root bag made of woven prairie grasses.

Details

Amish Quilts: Kaleidoscope of Color
Through June 19, Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 720-865-5000

Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition
Through August 21, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, 303-322-7009

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Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition is running for nearly the entire summer at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and it's an example of a blockbuster that's smothered by design. Everything in it is encased and surrounded by visual imagery and text panels done by the PRD Group, which seems to have made a specialty of goofing up otherwise intelligent shows like this one. These PRD design features, done in the name of interpreting history, make it hard to focus on the things we're presumably supposed to: that is, the objects that illuminate the great survey expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

As we all learned in elementary school, Lewis and Clark, their Shoshone guide Sacagawea and a small contingent of men set off in the spring of 1804 to find a river passage from the Midwest to the Northwest Coast. This was undertaken at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson, hot on the heels of the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson wanted to get an idea of what he had just bought. Of course, no such river passage was to be found, because the Rockies and the Sierras are in the way. But the trip was valuable in other ways, especially in increased scientific knowledge about the unusual animals and plants in the western states.

Any problems with the show do not fall at the feet of the curator, Carolyn Gilman, a special-projects historian at the Missouri Historical Society, which is the institutional sponsor of this traveling exhibit. No, Gilman did everything right, and she deserves a lot of credit for spending some seven years hunting down the maps, tomahawks, peace pipes, presentation pieces, trade beads, paintings, sculptures, scientific equipment, incunabula, botanical sketches, journals, books, uniforms, weapons and everything else she could find that would explicate the topic. The American Indian art she chose, especially those pieces from the Northwest Coast tribes and the Nez Perce, are spectacular, adding a welcome but unexpected angle to the show. After all, the defeat of the Indians is the flip side of the Euro-American domination of the West.

Only a portion of the objects in the show relate directly to the expedition itself, because when it was finished, in 1805 -- hence the "Bicentennial" reference in the show's title -- most everything except the personal property of Lewis and Clark was auctioned off as military surplus. This cast the material to the four winds, and it really is amazing how much of it Gilman was able to ferret out.

In spite of its dreadful exhibition design, Lewis & Clark has some unforgettable things, and I recommend it, my reservations notwithstanding, to history buffs and fans of American Indian art. Oh, and -- I almost forgot -- to those who enjoy the atmosphere of theme restaurants.

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