Kansas pride in every stitch

Jean Mitchell's elaborate, colorful quilts are infused with stories of her pioneer heritage, pride in state, nation and family. She may be the quilt queen of Kansas.

by Leigh Elmore

"Kansas Quilt Block", a rare traditi-onal design in Jean Mitchell's body of work,1978. Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas. (photos by Ryan Waggoner)

Jean Mitchell calls her handcrafted quilts "hodge-podges." In modern parlance someone might go so far as to call them "mash-ups" because the intricate, painterly patterns that Mitchell achieves in her quilts all tell stories – lots of stories "mashed up" in every quilt. How we label them is really no matter; beautiful is what they are. Stunningly so.

And in recognition of Virginia Jean Cox Mitchell's lifetime of quilt making, the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence has put a significant selection of her quilts on display in an exhibit called Personal Geometry – The Quilts of Yoshiko Jinzen and Virginia Jean Cox Mitchell. The exhibit compared and contrasts the quilting styles of two of the medium's most accomplished artists. The exhibit ended on May 18, however, examples of Mitchell's quilts will be placed on permanent display at the Spencer.

Mitchell's quilts are characterized by thousands of tiny fabric pieces, hand sewn together, arriving at a completely unique design, which lends a name to the quilt, such as "China Trade with Miss Liberty," that commemorates an obscure historic event, the bicentennial of U.S. trade with China in 1984. The quilt is filled with additioinal references to that time including the return of Halley's Comet in 1986 and the re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty, originally a gift of France. The French Star pattern in the quilt is a reminder of that gift. The flower motifs relate to flowers that originated in either China or Japan, such as the tiger lily and the pea. Appliques of images of fireworks exploding also make reference to China.

"China Trade" with Miss Liberty, U.S.A. quilt top, 1986. Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas.


Detail of the center section of "China Trade" features the Statue of Liberty, celebrated as a gift from France.


Detail of the "China Trade" quilt, which shows the wide variety of fabrics and colors that are typical of a Jean Mitchell-crafted quilt.


Another large example, "Rode to Philadelphia," marked the 1987 bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. In this quilt, Mitchell has interspersed images of American myths as well as Bible stories. "Her work is just astonishing," said Susan Earle, one of the curators of the exhibit. "It is filled with so many surprises."

"Rode to Philadelphia" quilt, 1987-1988. Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas.

What is evident in most of the quilts displayed at the Spencer is that Mitchell is deeply proud of her Kansas heritage. She is the descendant of an early Kansas pioneer family, and her attachment to the land seems to be infused in every quilt, whether it commemorates the centennial of hard red winter wheat as the basis of Kansas' wheat crop, to windmills, gardens, wildflowers and animals. Her love of nature is pronounced and her love of family is front and center. Many of her quilts make reference to her family members and ancestors.

"The quilts are celebrations of happenings over the years," Mitchell said. "They really are a hodge-podge." Today, Mitchell's quilts are displayed in art museums, but she remains the shy, self-effacing farm girl who hales from near Kingman. She works alone in her home studio in Lawrence, hand-stitching every inch. "I never use a frame, she said. "When the ideas come, I jot them down in a notebook. Then I will draw out the design on a large piece of paper. I usually know ahead of time where everything is supposed to go."

"Beginning Again" quilt top, 1980-1985, Spencer Museum of Art, The University of Kansas.

Kansas all the way

Born in Kingman in 1931, Mitchell learned to sew at an early age. In the 1930s, "most all families made quilts simply because they needed them. I first became aware of quilting from the ladies in the church basement; there wasn't a particular history of quilting in my family," Mitchell told Discover Vintage America.

Jean Mitchell interprets the images in a quilt for an audience
recently at the Spencer Museum in Lawrence.

She graduated from the University of Kansas in 1953, a design major in fine arts. She made her first quilts in 1963, long before the resurgence in quilt popularity in the 1970s. She soon launched a series of blocks and pillows based on Kansas themes, culminating in a pattern book that she and her husband, Bill, co-authored: Quilt Kansas!, produced in conjunction with the Kansas Quilt Symposium in 1978.

"Her quilts celebrate special people and occasions," said Earle. "In technique, the works combine piecing and appliqué, embellished with chain stitch an other embroidery, all sewn entirely by hand using only cotton fabrics and thread. The subjects are as complex as Mitchell's stitch work. Each figure or flower has a story behind it. Every inch holds meaning," said Earle.

"Some of the motifs in her quilts are inspired by works of art in the Spencer Museum, likely encountered during Mitchell's time spent cataloguing the Carrie Hall quilt block collection," Earle said. "I always have to have wheat and sunflowers in every quilt," Mitchell said in describing the specific quilt "Wheat Centennial." This work commemorates the advent of hard red winter wheat in Kansas in 1874 about the time her grandparents came to Kansas from Illinois. Red is the predominate color and a series of geometric patterns make reference to her grandparents, her parents and her brother.

Mitchell has lectured widely and seen her work published in numerous journals and catalogues. She is also one of the founders of the Kaw Valley Quilters Guild, a group with more than 200 members today.

Mitchell has created a total of 21 quilts in her career. "But I've never sold a quilt," she is proud to say. In fact, Mitchell has given them all away. In 2013, she and her husband, Bill Mitchell, a longtime curator for the Spencer Research Library, generously donated Jean's body of work to the Spencer Museum.

"The gift includes quilt blocks and nearly twenty quilts and quilt tops, plus pillow covers and a banner," said Saralyn Reece Hardy, director of the Spencer Museum. "We are humbled by the astonishing gifts, and we are delighted to share the quilts with visitors through this exhibition.

"This is the best part of our jobs," Hardy said. "To be able to show to the public Jean Mitchell's intense love of family, of place and of Americana. We are deeply honored to receive these quilts."

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com


Feature Stories Archive — past articles