QUILTS, LIKE GARDENS, are layered, sometimes-devotional stories of personal history and meticulous handwork. Both pursuits represent a substantial investment of time, attention and resources, whether you’re patiently stitching disparate pieces into a unique whole cloth, or cultivating a historic garden designed and planted more than 100 years ago.

In 1997, five women united by a shared love of quilting formed Pacific Northwest African American Quilters (PNWAAQ) as a means of amplifying a cultural tradition, once grounded in necessity, that since has become a flourishing art form. While membership has fluctuated through the years, over the past nearly 25 years, more than 60 quilters of all ages and experience levels have built the nonprofit association into a mutually supportive organization dedicated to sharing the vibrant history of their ancestors with other people of color.

Through quilting, gardening — and writing — our story emerges and changes

PNWAAQ provides a nurturing environment and encourages its members to keep learning new skills, and to grow as artists. Monthly meetings offer a chance to socialize, work alongside one another and share finished projects. Regular workshops and annual quilting retreats allow even more opportunities for fellowship and building skills. Providing service to the larger intergenerational African American community is central to the organization’s mission. Several members regularly teach quilting classes for all age groups and promote the craft’s heritage.

This summer, on a beautiful day, Dunn Gardens hosted a public exhibition of quilts created by PNWAAQ members. “Pines & Needles” is part of Olmsted 200, a nationwide celebration of the birth of Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), renowned American landscape architect and social reformer.

OLMSTED BELIEVED IN the power of nature to nurture physical and mental well-being for everyone, not just those fortunate enough to own land. Recognizing how social disparities limited access to healthful green space in increasingly polluted cities, he was an early advocate for building community and connection through public parks, once writing, “The enjoyment of the choicest natural scenes in the country and the means of recreation connected with them is thus a monopoly, in a very peculiar manner, of a very few very rich people. The great mass of society, including those to whom it would be of the greatest benefit, is excluded from it.”

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Commonly regarded as the founder of American landscape architecture, Olmsted over the course of his career established the field as a respected profession. An ardent advocate for urban green space, Olmsted and his successor firms are best known for designing parks, including New York City’s Central Park, but his work on a diversity of public landscapes, such as parkways and boulevards, college campuses, recreational sites, and even cemeteries, extended well into many aspects of urban and suburban life.

In 1903, Seattle was a rapidly expanding city built on the timber industry with a booming population fueled by the Klondike Gold Rush. We can thank forward-thinking city planners who recognized that in addition to railroads and factories, a vibrant system of parks, boulevards and green space was essential to building a good life in a modern city. Hiring the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm to create plans to beautify the city was an investment in the future. Today our fair city’s Olmsted parks system is made up of 37 parks and playgrounds linked by canopied boulevards, our own string of verdant gems, much like Boston’s famed “Emerald Necklace” of Olmsted parks.

ALL THIS PLOTTING and planning on a municipal scale drew the attention of local property developers and private clients seeking access to the storied East Coast landscape design firm. In 1914, Arthur Dunn purchased 10 acres of undeveloped land in the Broadview neighborhood of Seattle and contracted Olmsted Brothers to create a landscape plan for his private “country” retreat, where, every summer, his family would decamp from its primary home on First Hill.

The Olmsteds’ design philosophy for all their projects was grounded in preserving the natural scenery, blurring boundaries and framing views. Plans for the Dunn property made the most of the sloping land with a western exposure and enhanced many of the site’s natural features. The property had been previously logged, but large stands of second-growth Douglas firs framed sweeping views of Puget Sound and the Olympic range. The plan preserved a deep ravine leading down to the shoreline that once provided Coast Salish people access to fishing and shellfish grounds, a feature of the landscape that remains intact to this day.

The Dunns were a family of gardeners. When Arthur Sr. received the finished plans in 1916, he personally set about planting large informal groups of spring-flowering shrubs and generous drifts of bulbs. Deciduous shade trees added to the standing conifers contributed seasonal color and texture to the garden.

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Olmsted 200 (olmsted200.org)

Dunn Gardens (Dunngardens.org)

Follow Pacific Northwest African American Quilters (PNWAAQ) on Facebook, where you can see more of their quilts and find out about future exhibits.

Black Heritage Society (bhswa.org)

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Following his father’s death in 1945, Edward Bernard (Ed) Dunn, son of Arthur and Jeanette Dunn, picked up the planting tradition. Today the E.B. Dunn Woodland Garden (Dunn Gardens) is named for him and reflects his love for spring-flowering shrubs and trees; diverse woodland plants; and the marvelous carpets of snowdrops, cyclamen, erythronium and trillium that still flourish in the understory.

Ed Dunn died in 1991, leaving provisions in his will to care for his share of the property and ultimately open the remaining 7-acre garden to the public, fulfilling the Olmsted principle to provide democratic access to green spaces. Today, the E.B. Dunn Historic Garden Trust, established in 1993, owns and manages the property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

All of this is to say: The Dunn Gardens, indeed all gardens, and the land they occupy, have a long and storied, if not always obvious, history.

TODAY, DUNN GARDENS is a plant-filled treasure in every season. Winter bulbs followed by blazing banks of mature rhododendrons, azaleas and flowering trees in spring lend color to this decidedly green garden. But perhaps the most significant feature of the historic landscape is the “Heritage Tree Collection” made up of mature conifers and hardwood trees that furnish the landscape with majesty and gravitas. Several now-massive native Douglas firs that date back to the beginning of the gardens’ development are still standing, joined by the now-mature shade trees that appeared in the Olmsted plan.

Two Washington State Champion Magnolia trees reside in the collection, a Sargent’s magnolia (Magnolia sargentiana) whose substantial canopy fills the spring garden with tender pink petals, and a cucumber tree, or mountain magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), a stately magnolia that’s prized more for its dramatic foliage than its subtle blooms.

Now approaching its 30th year, the Trust, in addition to preserving and enhancing Dunn Gardens as a historic landscape, is committed to connecting with the greater community and serving as a public resource, a beneficial social aspect of gardens that Olmsted once defined as “communitiveness.”

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Executive Director Carolyn Cox is focused on program development and outreach. Seasonal workshops with local first-graders at Broadview-Thomson elementary school include exploring the garden and sharing ideas about composting, protecting salmon and growing veggies. Every visit wraps up with story time beneath the Western cedar on The Great Lawn, and garden songs. “Children are our legacy,” Cox says. “Fostering a love of gardens and nature will ensure public gardens and parks in the future.”

The emphasis on serving as a “public resource” was especially evident during the early days of the pandemic, when Dunn Gardens offered a bewildered and sometimes-frightened populace access to a place of beauty and refuge by opening the garden Monday through Saturday by appointment. The public responded to the generous invitation, and as people discovered the well-tended landscape, membership grew exponentially. These days, our world is more open and less locked down, but Dunn Gardens continues its lively open policy for both members and “not-yet-members,” adding docent-led tours on Thursdays, Fridays and select Saturdays.

WHEN IT COMES TO matters of social justice and inclusion, Dunn Gardens acknowledges its roots in privilege. A statement on the home page of its website recognizes the stark reality that contemporary “public” gardens don’t necessarily serve the greater population. The statement reads, in part, “We continually seek to make the Dunn Gardens welcoming and inclusive and recognize our responsibility to proactively reach out to the Black community and people of color to listen, seek varying perspectives, and take action to diversify our Board, staff and visitors.” 

In early 2020, Eve Rickenbaker was invited to Dunn Gardens to present a lecture entitled “Botanic Garden and Arboreta: Who Benefits?” Rickenbaker is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, researching the historical significance of race in botanical institutions that has led many in the Black community to not receive the benefits of a public garden or horticultural organization. “As a part of my work, I am interviewing African Americans in Washington, Georgia and South Carolina, including members of all-Black garden clubs founded in the Jim Crow era, to get their perspective,” Rickenbaker says. “I want to acknowledge and honor African Americans’ contribution and encourage botanical institutions to make their spaces more welcoming and equitable.”

While COVID restrictions held things up until well into 2021, Cox was inspired by Rickenbaker’s presentation and determined to explore ways to increase access and diversity in the Dunn Gardens community. In late summer, she met with Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, president of the Black Heritage Society, whose mission is to preserve and share the history and art of Black Washingtonians. A beginning quilter and new member of PNWAAQ, Johnson-Toliver connected Cox with Annette Wadiyah Nelson, a fiber artist and quilter who has been active with PNWAAQ for more than 20 years. Collectively, the women decided a garden/quilting collaboration would be a “perfect fit.”

On a stormy day in October, Cox and Susan Dunn, board treasurer and Dunn family member, invited the women of PNWAAQ to lunch in “Ed’s Cottage” to further explore the partnership. It was decided that Dunn Gardens would provide access to workspace in the cottage, where the organization could hold its monthly meetings and host a public exhibition of the created quilts that were inspired by the Dunn landscape. Nelson became the point of contact for PNWAAQ, Later, Christine Jordan Bell, a fiber artist who describes herself as a “traditional” quilter who enjoys working with appliqué, took a leadership role in bringing the project to completion.

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SATURDAY, JULY 23, was practically perfect. Clouds cleared, and the day warmed to the temperate mid-70s.

Situated at intervals along an intimate pathway through the woods, a variety of large and small quilts greeted nearly 300 visitors to the “Pines & Needles” exhibit at Dunn Gardens.

Suspended from black frames and animated by breezes, a dozen or so quilts encircled the perimeter of The Great Lawn. Looking across the lawn, where folks were picnicking and lounging on blankets while listening to a jazz trio, the quilts’ bold colors seemed to energetically vibrate in the lush green landscape. Each quilt was accompanied by information sharing the quilter’s biography and an artist’s statement. Again and again, alongside themes of nature and flowers, family and love were expressed in each artwork’s title.

Vera Patterson has been a PNWAAQ member for 15 years. When she’s not quilting (or reading or gardening), Patterson actively supports organizations working to improve social issues affecting members of society. Her quilt, titled “Beauty of Diversity,” depicts colorful stylized trees against a subtle background pieced with a variety of light-colored fabrics with intricate black and gray line work, a design decision she made to illustrate that every community is made up of unique individuals. “Every single person, no matter their culture or nationality, sees things from a different point of view,” she wrote in her artist statement. “Consequently, the beauty is always in the eye of the creator and those viewing the piece.”

When quilter Sheila Pitre-Holmes first visited Dunn Gardens on an overcast and wet February day, she was struck by the “majestic” trees and surrounding green landscape, a memory she captured in her quilt “Trees and Sky.” A prodigious creator, Pitre-Holmes had other quilts in the exhibit that portray the colors and blooms of spring and summer. Of her “Watermelon Picnic” quilt, she wrote, “This is my take on the garden as a lovely place to spread a quilt and picnic.”

At the foot of the garden, sun shining through the trees backlit an intricate “Texas Star” quilt created by Cheryl Haskins. Haskins is a longtime member of PNWAAQ whose work has been displayed in local museums and featured in a national traveling quilt exhibit called “Sacred Threads.” Sewing is, and always has been, her passion, a way to relax and relieve stress. Another one of Haskins’ quilts, “Peacocks in Purple,” worked in tonal shades of purple and blue with green accents, hung in the garden framed by blowsy hydrangeas blooms in a similar color palette. Quilts in a garden never seemed so natural.

This exhibit, these artisans, this garden, indeed our entire region, contain countless stories dating back to generations of native Coast Salish people who first inhabited the land and shoreline. Massive harvesting of natural resources and an affluent hideaway are a part of this history, as is the transition to a public garden funded in part by a generous endowment. Like history, growth is constant. Along with a historic landscape, Dunn Gardens is cultivating a democratic, respectful and reciprocal community. I think Olmsted would approve.