Show Us Your Wall: Don’t Tell Ken Burns Quilts Are Quaint



“I don’t have a quilt that gives me more pleasure than this one,” the filmmaker Ken Burns said of the “Circular Wreath” quilt that hangs above his bed in his Manhattan apartment. An exhibition of his quilt collection opens this week at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, Neb. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

This week, the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, Neb., will reveal a surprising side of the prolific filmmaker Ken Burns: He collects quilts. The exhibition “Uncovered: The Ken Burns Collection” will display 28 of them for the first time.

Mr. Burns has been buying American quilts since the mid-1970s, often on prowls through antique stores on the back roads of New England; before too long, dealers began coming to him.

He now owns about 75 quilts, split among his home, office, barn and lake house in New Hampshire. He also keeps three in his Manhattan apartment, including his favorite, the “Circular Wreath” quilt, which hangs above his bed. He did not tell the International Quilt Study Center about it, he admitted. “I don’t have a quilt that gives me more pleasure than this one.”

He warmed to his subject. “First of all, you’re faced with a loud but controlled design of these circles and these spots and these dots and the borders. And then,” he said, pointing at the white background, “you go in and you cannot believe the extent of the quilting. There’s some mirrored or deeper round circular things that aren’t in any way what the circles are, and there’s combinations. One may be a pinwheel, followed by something that is more like a traditional flower, with blossoms, and then lots of leaves in between. If you consider the thousands of woman-hours that went into this, it’s just an extraordinary thing.”

“I would not trade it for a $25 million painting by you-name-the-artist,” he added.

Giving a tour of his Manhattan home, he noted that although about a quarter of his quilts are in storage, he still misses those sent to Nebraska: “I can feel the emptiness of the spots where they were.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.


When you examine the “Star of Stars” quilt closely, “you find there’s quilting of dozens of other stars that’s just in the red background,” Mr. Burns said. Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

What draws you to quilts?

A quilt greets you on many levels. It has its stunning initial design, and that draws you into it — established patterns like a crazy quilt or a log cabin quilt. I’m less interested in that than in just how beautifully they’ve realized that. Then others seem to have sprung from the imagination of the creators, or they are riffing on a design and have gone so far away that they’ve just added something new. And then, once you’ve accepted the symmetry or the asymmetry, the colors and the patterns, then you go in to see the minute quilting itself.

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