unassuming, thoughtful, generous. These are just a few of the adjectives
that come to mind when one thinks of the late Cuesta Benberry of St.
Louis, MO. Equally springing to mind are the descriptive phrases:
diligent, thorough researcher; a mind wired for details; a walking,
breathing encyclopedia of quilt history.
8 September 1923 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Cuesta Benberry’s death
Thursday, 23 August, 2007, stunned the quilt world, especially all those
who knew her as a personal friend. In spite of their knowledge of her
poor health the past two years, her sudden death still came as a shock.
had a Masters of Arts degree in Library Science, was introduced to the
world of quilting in the 1950s by her husband’s quiltmaking family.
Though not growing up in a household that made quilts, Benberry revealed
to this author in a 1999 interview that she was “not altogether
unfamiliar with quilts. My grandmother had quilts on her beds but she
had covered them with a spread.” However, in Kentucky, Benberry
discovered her husband’s family made the quilt itself the spread.
“This made the lovely patterns and colors available to view and
enjoy,” she shared, “and this caught my attention!”
Next came the
realization that quilt blocks had names. One of the women of the family
asked her if she knew of Ladies Art Catalogue. Benberry had never heard
of it, but she would never again be so ignorant of quilts and quilt
pattern names. A seed had been planted during that Kentucky visit that
would blossom and produce one of the great quilt historians of the 20th
By the late
1950s, Benberry was knee deep in the Round Robins, a popular mode of
pattern exchange of the era. Benberry related that she felt she had
“lucked out” and was fortunate to find herself in “good Round
robins, ones with high standards. There were rules to be followed and it
kept the quality of the exchanges high.” The names that rolled off her
tongue were a virtual “Who’s Who” today of early (pre-1970) quilt
pattern historians: Mary Schafer (MI); Shirley Conlon (CA); Edna Ford
(KY); Delores Hinson (MD); Barbara Banister (MI); Ruth Snyder (KS);
Grace Coutant (NY); Mrs. Danner (KS); Joy Craddock (TX); Liz Rushing
(LA); Helen Erickson (KS); Carol Lynch (KS); Lena & Livia Moses
(VA); Mary Runge (PA); Georgia Williams (MO); Marian James (OR); Frances
Noack (M)); Ruby Hinson Duncan (AR); Betty Flack Sumway (IL); Glenna
Boyd (OK); Dorothy Marshall (Canada); and slightly later (circa 1970)
personal pattern exchanges with Sally Goodspeed (MD); Barbara Brackman
(KS); Maxine Teele (IA); Wilma Smith (OR); Wilene Smith (KS); and Carol
series in Nimble Needles Treasures (1969-1975, Patricia Almy
Randolph, Editor) was titled "Quilting from California" (or
Canada, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas etc) showing the breadth of coverage in NNT
in those early years of the late 20th century quilting renaissance.
Benberry published her first article "Stitched in Time Comes to St.
Louis" in the pages of NNT in June 1970. In an article about
Randolph and NNT by Hazel Carter in the Spring 2000 issue of the
newsletter of The Quilters Hall of Fame, Randolph states, "My
association with Cuesta Benberry was the backbone of NNT historically
and it would not have been the same without her." The article goes
on to say that in the pages of NNT Benberry exposed quilters to
"first-ever-in-print news about Ladies Art Co.," as well as a
chronological study of quilt kits, the Smithsonian quilt collection, and
the Index of American Design at the National Gallery of American Art.
This was all new territory in the history of quilting and Cuesta
Benberry was blazing the path. In fact, it was in the pages of NNT that
Benberry’s first quilt history article was published. When that
publication ceased Bonnie Leman of Quilters Newsletter Magazine invited
Benberry to write for QNM.
Even if they didn’t call themselves “historians” at the time, these early pattern collectors of the 50s and 60s have each left a legacy —a body of paper ephemera —that quilt historians today continue to build upon. In fact, so important was Benberry’s own collection of quilt ephemera that it was eagerly accepted by the American Folk Art Museum in 2003. Her collection is now known as the Cuesta Benberry Quilt Research and Reference Collection within the American Folk Art Museum’s Shirley K. Schlafer Library. On August 18, 2004, the artist Faith Ringgold revealed to Benberry in an interview “The ACFF (Anyone Can Fly Foundation) is pleased to confer upon you, Cuesta Benberry, the Distinguished Scholars Lifetime Achievement Award for your groundbreaking research on the history of African-American quilt making…. You have challenged and educated what you call ‘the innocent arrogance of scholars who would pass over centuries of African-American quilt making and select only a portion which would fit their subscribed prescription for a genuine, authentic African-American quilt.’ You have uncovered our past, enriched our present, and paved the way for the future of African- American quilting in America.” (See the full interview at http://www.anyonecanflyfoundation.org/award/cuesta_benberry/index.html
On April 2,
2006, the St. Louis Art Museum proclaimed a “Cuesta Benberry Day.”
summarized her own thoughts in 1983 about quilt research in a letter to
The Quilters Hall of Fame Founder Hazel Carter, writing, “I think I
share with other quilt researchers the desire to explore, expand and
enrich quilt history, and to do it with accuracy and truth. A personal
objective is to change the intellectual community’s perception of
quilt history…. I believe the efforts of the present generation of
quilt researchers, working in a climate where the status of women has
changed significantly, will result in works so compelling, that further
denial of the value and importance of quilt history will be
years later serious scholarly quilt research is enjoying the greatest
boom ever in its history. Cuesta Benberry is without a doubt one of its
outstanding pioneers. She
will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved her.
Karen B. Alexander
The Quilters Hall of Fame
23 August 2007
Presenting Cuesta Benberry
A Friendship Quilt For Cuesta