Remembering Cuesta

Cuesta Benberry

1923-2007

Modest, 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.

Born 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. 

Benberry, who 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 century.

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 Crabb.

A regular 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.”

Benberry 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 impossible.”

Twenty-four 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

President

The Quilters Hall of Fame

23 August 2007


Presenting Cuesta Benberry


 

A Friendship Quilt For Cuesta


A Piece of my Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans


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