Artist Penelope Wilson of Hollidaysburg never really thought quilts had much purpose beyond keeping people warm.
But then she discovered a secret some believe slaves wove into blankets that helped them find their way to freedom.
Wilson heard about "quilt codes," or symbols used in quilts made by slaves as keys to the Underground Railroad.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Hollidaysburg artist Penelope Wilson looks at her slave quilt collage “Let Freedom Ring” among the exhibit of her work at the Anderson House in Bedford.
The Underground Railroad was a series of safe houses where slaves from the South could hide on their way to the free states in the North before and during the Civil War.
Wilson, who also paints portraits and landscapes, was inspired by the quilt codes to make collages using the code symbols with recyclable materials of paper, metal, plastic and paint. Her collages are currently on display at the Bedford County Arts Center until the end of the month.
"I always thought of a quilt as just something utilitarian," Wilson said. "But then when I learned that it might have been used by slaves to move into freedom, it took on a whole new meaning."
Although the exhibit tells of a darker chapter in America's story, the message is ultimately uplifting, Wilson said.
"It's a story of perseverance," she said. "Everything is told in a positive way."
One of the pieces is about Harriet Powers, a well-known black quilt maker who was born a slave in Georgia in 1837. Another related work concerns Powers' six-year-old granddaughter, Ruby Bridges, who was the first black child to attend an all-white school in the South.
Wilson's collage of Bridges, entitled "Walking With Ruby," is reminiscent of a work done by famous artist Norman Rockwell, whose painting of Bridges bravely walking into the New Orleans school is called "The Problem We All Live With."
Wilson lived in Georgia during a time of racial unrest in the 1960s and 1970s and said she has long admired Rockwell because "there was no discrimination whatsoever" in his artwork. Her work that features Bridges adds a white girl walking hand- in-hand toward the school with Bridges. Her piece also contains wheels and circles to represent "the discarded chains of (Bridges') ancestors (who) fought for their rights," Wilson said.
People who come to see the exhibit have various reasons for why they've sought out the display, said center director Kitrina Ayers. She and Wilson first met at Central High School in Martinsburg, and they both took an art history class as teens.
"Some come expecting to see quilts, and others for the history," Ayers said. "But they all seem to like what they see."
Wilson's work has been shown locally and nationally, and she has sold her pieces in shops in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. Locally, her work is sold at Thompson's Pharmacy. She attended Penn State University and took additional courses at Mount Aloysius College and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
She conducts workshops and has also taught art at St. John's Catholic School In Altoona. She is an associate member of several artistic groups such as the National Collage Society and the National Water Color Society and Art in Common in Altoona, and she has won several awards for her work.
The arts center, which is located at 137 E. Pitt St. in Bedford in the Anderson House, which was built in 1814, is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.
The center, which is handicapped accessible, is also open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday.
For more information, call 623-1538 or e-mail the center at firstname.lastname@example.org.