“Quilt (Housetop variation)” by Emma Lee Pettway Campbell

Close Looks: "Quilt (Housetop Variation" by Emma Lee Pettway Campbell

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Audio Description of Quilt (Housetop Variation) by Emma Lee Pettway Campbell

The quilt is relatively large and an imperfect square shape measuring just over six and a half feet on each side. It has a rough-cut perimeter and is constructed with leftover or scrap pieces of used fabric. In the museum, it lies flat, low to the ground, so viewers look down at it from above.

The quilt is made up of colored rectangles that outline the borders and work their way concentrically out from the center. Most of the rectangular sections are uniformly colored, except for one long one at the bottom border, which is a plaid made up of coral pink lines and light blue squares. This plaid rectangle is made of up of four pieces and sewn together, creating irregularities in the pattern and the panel as a whole. The remaining three edges of the quilt are each lined with a solid color: navy at the top, army green down the right, and gray down the left.

At the center of the quilt is a light blue square, which serves as the point around which other fabric squares and rectangles are constructed . A solid maroon square of fabric surrounds this blue center. Above and below the maroon are yellow cotton strips. Forming the third concentric layer above the yellow strips are peach-colored panels. To the right and left of the maroon square are dark denim strips. Blues are the most prominent colors, with several shades of denim and lighter blues present. This inventory of fabrics appears again in outer parts of the overall concentric square pattern. Sometimes they join other color panels at the corners, creating a staircase form in the upper left. Elsewhere several distinct colors are stitched together to form a single long rectangular panel.

The fabric pieces, though they look rectangular, are not cut in perfectly straight lines. Nor are the pieces always pulled tight and flat. The edges of the entire quilt are uneven also with the left edge pulling toward the center, forming a bent appearance. The top, right, and bottom edges are straighter.

A visible white stitching in a basic running stitch moves primarily horizontally throughout the quilt. The stitches vary in length and do not form perfectly straight lines, giving the quilt a free hand effect. In smaller rectangles at the top right and top left corners, the stitches move vertically.

The effects of time and wear are obvious on this piece, as there are heavy wrinkles and spots of discoloration, which are especially apparent on the darker colors where the creases have become lighter. In some places, the tucked fabric between panels which was folded under has come undone.

Each time I look at this quilt I want to hang it on a wall with the reddish window-pane fabric running vertically to the viewer’s left. In this position, the overall image evokes a tall, narrow building alongside or overlooking a geometric color palette insinuating sky, land, water, brick; hues and angles often found at the juxtaposition of an urban structure and a large city park. In my mind I have titled the quilt, “terroir” for reasons made clearer below:

The importance of terroir to the French psyche and self-image is difficult to overestimate, because it is a concept almost untranslatable, combining soil, weather, region and notions of authenticity, of genuineness and particularity — of roots, and home — in contrast to globalized products designed to taste the same …

Steven Erlanger, New York Times, Aug 31, 2013

Bill Boyd, Director of Spiritual Formation at the North Carolina Study Center, a community center for students on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. He is a former pastor and avid reader.

Quilt made of rectangle scrap pieces of fabric framing a central square.

Emma Lee Pettway Campbell, American, 1928-2002, Quilt (Housetop Variation), c. 1970, found cloth wit cotton batting, 80 1/4 x 77 1/2 in. (203.8 x 196.9 cm). Ackland Art Museum, Gift of the Arnett Collection and Ackland Fund, 2010.52.2.

In Quilt (Housetop Variation), Emma Lee Pettway Campbell uses color, pattern, and line to order a collection of scraps into a fugue-like visual composition. Indeed, throughout the quilt, Campbell repeats elements, but each repetition contains a slight variation from the original. For example, the turquoise, maroon, apricot, beige, cornflower blue, and navy-toned strips of fabric that comprise most of the quilt fall in an almost mirrored pattern. Campbell mirrors the apricot strip above the central maroon and turquoise square with one below it — but then she adds a third horizontal stripe below that one; in a similar manner, she creates a perfect maroon box around the turquoise square at the quilt’s center, but then adds an additional vertical maroon stripe on the left side of the image. A small rectangle, one line too low, accompanies the mirrored beige lines, as does a turquoise rectangle one line too high. The cornflower blue’s pair is slightly too dark and has been rotated on its side. The central elements of the composition reappear but, as in a fugue, they appear in an altered state.

Campbell continues this motif by including a red and blue plaid pattern at the bottom of her quilt. First, the blue squares surrounded by red lines in the print echo the turquoise square

surrounded by maroon fabric that dominates the quilt’s central passage. Moreover, the plaid pattern — made of a series of horizontal and vertical lines intersecting with solid squares — references the general pattern — a series of horizontal and vertical strips of fabric placed around a square — of the quilt. Once again, Campbell repeats, yet transforms, an essential element of her composition.

All fugues contain a variation on a theme, but all fugues also contain a specific melody that acts as a through line in a piece. Campbell, too, relies on through lines to connect her patterns together, although her through lines are literal ones. In many of the Gee’s Bend quilts, for example, the quilters use matching, or at least less-visible, thread for their quilting stitches.

Campbell, on the other hand, renders her quilting stitches in white, a color that stands out against the navy and maroon sections of her piece. In doing so, Campbell draws attention to the fact that the pieces of her quilt are connected. Her stitches make the colored fabrics into one cloth.

Lanier Walker, Graduate student in English and Comparative Literature, UNC-Chapel Hill

What catches my eye first is that this quilt is built on a traditional pattern but the quilter wasn’t afraid to improvise. For instance, on the third vertical row of strips (left-hand side), the quilter added a medium blue strip that’s extended by a light blue square. This pieced strip isn’t mirrored on the right side of the quilt; in fact, at this point in the quilt’s construction, the quilter has forsaken parallelisms – blue mirroring blue, twelve-inch strip mirroring twelve-inch strip, etc.

While the quilt is constructed mostly out of somber-hued fabrics, there are wonderful bright moments throughout. The bottom red and white gingham-like strip (which looks to be four pieces stitched together and is the only use of a print here) is an especially surprising and delightful choice.

The long gray strip going down the left side is like a sidewalk or a river. It moves differently than the quilt’s other elements. The quilting itself – slightly serpentine horizontal lines stitched in a light-colored thread – adds texture as well as rhythm, tiny beats/beads of light moving in waves across the quilt’s surface.

This quilt seems to me typical of the Gee’s Bend quilts that I know, which tend toward a mix of traditional and improvised elements within the same quilt, as well as fabric choices that mix and match the practical and the playful.

Frances O’Roark Dowell is a Durham, NC-based quilter and writer and the current board president of The Quilt Alliance, a national nonprofit that serves to document, preserve and celebrate the stories of quilts and quilt makers across the country

Upon looking at Quilt (Housetop Variation) it immediately projects a feeling of forced comfort. The juxtaposition of the neutral shades and the bright tints create an aesthetic that overshadows the beauty of the cloth itself. The checkered pattern at the bottom of the quilt could act as a focal point, but the asymmetrical compilation of the shapes forces the viewers to focus on the blue tinted square. Another thing that could really draw a viewer into the composition of this quilt is the many textures that are brought together: there is smooth and there is ridged fabric where some have several seams and other parts don’t. Because this piece was

created with recycled materials, viewers can assume that this sense of chaos was purposeful which, where I come from, recycling items and making them into art is very important and has been practiced for decades. Ultimately, I see a quilt that someone compiled by taking several different fabric pieces and sewing them together delicately and strategically to make a statement and fit in with the style of art going around at that time. I also see a quilt that was recycled and made new.

Courtney Cappa, art teacher in Raleigh, NC

  • Emma Lee Pettway Campbell was a member of the Gee’s Bend Quilters, a rural Black community in Alabama. Most of the people living there are descendants of slaves. How does this knowledge impact how you interpret this quilt?
  • Traditionally, Gee’s Bend quilts were made and used by the quilters and their families. In what ways does the exhibition and display of these works alter their meaning, perception, or purpose?
  • Quilts created by Emma Lee Pettway Campbell and other Gee’s Bend members were made of old clothes and found materials like sacks, pants, and work shirts. Can you identify any of the materials making up this quilt? In what ways do you think these functional items impacted the design of this specific quilt and its pattern?
  • “Call and response” is a musical technique where one element is immediately followed by another as they feed off of each other. It is a common trait of African American music including the gospel songs sung in the Gee’s Bend community. In what ways do you think the housetop quilt mimics this musical form? Does it have a rhythmic flow?
  • The quilts from Gee’s Bend reflect the history and struggles of one African American community in America. Most families have some sort of heirloom or tradition that is passed down from generation to generation the same way the tradition of quilt-making has been for Campbell’s community. What traditions or heirlooms does your own family have, and in what ways do they connect to larger events in history or other communities today?

About the Art


  • Emma Lee Pettway Campbell and other Gee’s Bend quiltmakers salvaged pieces of clothing like jeans or old dresses to create their quilts, as fabric was scarce. Because of this, many Gee’s Bend quilts, though abstract, document the daily lives and hard labor of the residents of Gee’s Bend. The worn appearance of this quilt comes in large part from the torn work clothes incorporated into the stitching.
  • Despite the quilt’s organized and structured appearance, Campbell and other quiltmakers in Gee’s Bend did not use printed patterns but rather used their own design ideas and imagination for their patterns.
  • Quilts defined by concentric squares are often referred to as “housetop.” They begin with an anchoring center block of cloth, around which frames of rectangular cloth are laid next to one another to create a target-like shape. The overall design is often improvisational.
  • Housetop quilts like Campbell’s were a part of the unique and continuous artistic tradition in Gee’s Bend. Four generations of quiltmakers have descended from the enslaved African Americans of the Pettway plantation, all adhering to the colorful, folk-style blend of tradition and abstraction in quilts.
  • Like this quilt, other Gee’s Bend quilts engaged in abstraction. The Gee’s Bend quilters were unrestricted by the expectations of fine art, allowing them to create unique works with patterns and styles unconventional in the art world.

About the Artist

1928: Born in Boykin (Gee’s Bend), Alabama
1970: Made the Ackland’s Quilt (Housetop Variation)
2002: Died in Boykin, Alabama
Created by:
Hunter Andresen, Peter Beidler, Elizabeth Bryan, Sam Dietrich, Noah Ellington, Carmella Ferraro, Jamin Flores, Evan Goodman, Teddy Iliev, Zack Johnson, Kelly Kendall, Cameron Lynch, Karlie Nielson, Deesha Parekh, Shivam Patel, Ella Pruchniewski, Henry Shriver, Yarema Touprong, Amy Webster

Edited by:
Emily Duvall and Maggie Cao