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Culture & Society >> Textiles
"Once Upon a Quilt":  Diane de Obaldia, or the cultural significance of sewing
Anyone who wishes to find a piece of America in Paris, in the form of a patchwork quilt, - surely one of America's most emblematic art forms - need only pay a visit to 'Le Rouvray', a gallery located within a stone's throw of the Seine, just behind Notre-Dame.  
Paris Dauphine University | Géraldine Chouard, Assistant Professor
Visitors there will find a little piece of America recreated by Diane de Obaldia, who has brought to Paris the very fabrics and culture of her native land, of which she is a most lively ambassador.
For close to forty years now, this treasure chest of a shop has been an exhibition venue for antique and modern quilts, as well as an obligatory destination for anyone interested in patchwork and quilts. In addition to the fabrics and all other items used in quilt-making, the shop also sells French and American books on the subject and provides a wealth of information on all events connected with this particular art form. 'Le Rouvray' is now well-known not only in France but in the rest of Europe and in the United States and enjoys wide recognition as a place for sharing experience and exchanging materials, skills and knowledge. Frequent visitors and newcomers alike receive a warm welcome from Diane de Obaldia, whose friendly, graceful hospitality is matched by the ease with which she inhabits the world of fabrics she has created.
Diane de Obaldia's love affair with patchwork quilts started when she was a child growing up in the United States. From her grandmother, born in Tennessee, where quilt-making had long been a tradition passed on from one generation of women to the next, young Diane in turn learned the art of sewing, and particularly of patchwork quilting.
Ever since those early years, Diane de Obaldia has held dear the world of textile creations in its various forms. Born in Michigan, she went to college in Chicago and started her career there as a dress designer. This led to a decision to travel to Europe to learn about new styles and unfamiliar traditions.
Once Diane de Obaldia had settled in France, her career took her on into the world of fashion, and more specifically, haute couture. She was first noticed by Coco Chanel, whose clothing she initially modeled before moving on to work for Dior and collaborating with Pierre Cardin. For Diane de Obaldia, it was an honor to be presenting such prestigious French collections in all of Europe. No doubt this was when she acquired her deeply ingrained convictions about the inherent value of fabrics as such in a given culture – a conviction which led to her choice of patchwork quilts as a medium for sharing American culture.
But in between haute couture and quilts, for a time Diane de Obaldia devoted her energy to interior decoration. Living in Normandy at the time, she developed an interest in local folk art and started collecting antique furniture and other period items for American friends, and became an antique dealer. Her first shop was set up in a medieval farm-house, named Le Rouvray after a type of local oaks ('rouvre' is an old French word for .'oak'); since it felt a bit austere, Diane decided to liven it up by displaying patchwork quilts she had brought back from trips to the United States. This successful combination of French furniture and American fabrics, mirroring Diane de Obaldia's own bi-cultural history, was wildly successful and praised as such in the press. Some of the quilts were then borrowed by Parisian interior decorators to enhance the presentation of their own collections, while at Le Rouvray, visitors were extremely curious about these textile compositions, which they found highly original. The French were beginning to develop a taste for patchwork quilts.
Then came a watershed cultural event, when an exhibition of antique quilts curated by Jonathan Holstein, which had met great success in New York at the Whitney Museum, was brought to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1972. The exhibit attracted a great deal of interest, especially at a time when current fashion leaned towards folk art and, more generally, any form of easily accessible do-it-yourself creation. This was when Diane de Obaldia decided to move Le Rouvray to Paris, which in time proved to be an excellent decision, making it easier to bring to a wider audience the emblematically American art of patchwork quilt-making.
In a sense, the move was a new start: a visit to Diane de Obaldia's gallery-shop became something of a pilgrimage for the ever-increasing numbers of people with an interest in patchwork-quilting. Far from restricting her activity to displaying the exceptional works that kept being sent to her from the United States (the collection numbered up to 300), Diane de Obaldia had the clever idea of putting French women to work and recreating American pioneer-style quilting parties in France.
Over the years, both French and American instructors (Marie-Christine Flocard, Soizick Labbens, Cosabeth Parriaud, Sophie Campbell) have come to Le Rouvray to teach quilting classes, where French women learn to make quilts of their own using traditional patterns such as Nine Patch, Log Cabin, Star of Bethlehem, Trip around the World, or Dear Jane, a well-known Civil-War era pattern. Workshop participants have also had the pleasure of welcoming experts on quilts, among which Michael James and Jinny Beyer, either as guests or to run a workshop of their own.
According to many who have met her, one of Diane de Obaldia's most remarkable achievements was to make patchwork quilting very widely accessible, helping French women who were new to the art of quilt-making to learn about America and its history. Diane has always demonstrated inexhaustible patience and energy, whether repeating explanations as often as necessary, describing the connection between the Log cabin pattern and the pioneer dwellings it is named after, teaching novice quilters to identify fabrics and patterns, or elaborating on the origins of patchwork quilting. And, since quilt making has always been about shared experience and cross-cultural exchange, the women she teaches freely trade skills and material, with no qualms about re-interpreting traditional American patterns according to contemporary taste or using traditional French fabrics such as toile de Jouy prints, Vichy gingham or colorful Provençal patterns for their own creations. Such flexibility is inherent to the open, democratic nature of quilt-making, which Diane de Obaldia endeavored to share, giving every new quilter the freedom to make American cultural heritage her own by adapting it according to her own preferences.
In the late 1970s, as patchwork quilts became increasingly popular, the American Embassy in Paris contacted Diane de Obaldia to organize an exhibition of quilts which then toured around France, eventually under the aegis of Mr. Van Galbraith, the American Embassador from 1981 on. No one was indeed better suited to such a generous, large-scale project, than Diane de Obaldia. For the next two years, the exhibition traveled to museums and art centers in cities around the country, including Rouen, Strasbourg, Nancy and Biarritz. The exhibition was also an occasion for other cultural events, which local consulate personalities were happy to be associated with. As illustrated by many articles and publications from the time, a few of which are included here, the traveling exhibition received ample press coverage, with the effect that the quilts were granted the status of works of art and photographed as such in news reports. Diane de Obaldia thus became a genuine ambassador for American patchwork quilts, traveling with the pieces and enjoying the chance to share the most remarkable items in her collection with a much broader audience.
Nowadays, over three decades after the period of intense activity when patchwork quilting was being discovered in France, quilt-making is now well-established in France, an achievement due in great part to Diane de Obaldia. Several non-profit societies, in particular France Patchwork, have now taken over the task begun at Le Rouvray and regularly organize competitions and lectures on a wide range of quilt-related topics. Diane de Obaldia is a frequent contributor to these and is occasionally featured in news reports, as she was in 2006.
As an academic, specifically a Maître de conférences (Assistant Professor) at the University of Paris-Dauphine, and a specialist of American visual arts, I have on several occasions met with Diane de Obaldia and interviewed her about various facets of the tradition of patchwork quilting. It should go without saying that I have always appreciated her competence as a historian of folk art and her ability to elucidate and interpret the unique practice of quilt-making. Being ever ready to speak for American culture, Diane de Obaldia agreed to appear in 'Color(s) of America', a short film I co-directed in 2004 with fellow academic Anne Crémieux (a Maître de conférences at the University of Paris-Nanterre). The film was shown at the annual conference of the Association Française d'Etudes Américaines (the French Society for American Studies) and at the l'Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, as well as in a number of French and American universities. On a recent visit to Le Rouvray, in April 2008, I found a film crew on the premises, working on a documentary film on Americans who have settled in Paris; it was utterly unsurprising that such a leading figure as Diane de Obaldia was chosen to feature among them. The documentary has been broadcasted on the international French-language channel TV5 Monde in May, 2008.
 
When Diane de Obaldia heard the very welcome news that the American Embassy was planning another exhibition of quilts in 2008, she immediately brought out her own photo albums from the previous exhibition, which by their very existence bear witness to the enduring presence of quilt-making as an art form.
'Patchwork spoken here', reads a poster at Le Rouvray. Thanks to Diane de Obaldia, the language of quilts has become something of a lingua franca, reminding us all that sewing quilts is not only culture but a cultural adventure as well. From a fairy-tale beginning under the auspices of patchwork quilting, she has now become part of French and American cultural history.
 
© Diane de Obaldia, collection privée 
Diane de Obaldia - © Diane de Obaldia, collection privée

© Diane de Obaldia, collection privée
Patchwork sample - © Diane de Obaldia, collection privée

 
 
Diane de Obaldia's passionate interest in textile arts has remained undimmed over the years. In 2007, African American textile artist Riché Richardson came to Paris, at a time when Anne Crémieux and I were filming a documentary about her for the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama; we all visited Le Rouvray and the exchange between the two master quilters was remarkably fruitful and rewarding for all concerned. At the time, Diane de Obaldia, who is careful to keep up to date with current developments in African American arts in the United States, happened to have on display the latest publications about Gee's Bend, which was one of the major events in the field in recent years.


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