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Scarborough Library will display donated Appalachian quilt

ISSUED: 15 September 2014
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — A handmade quilt documenting English ballads on which many Appalachian folk songs are based will be on display at Shepherd University’s Scarborough Library September 19-October 17.

The Ballad Quilt is a gift to the library and the Shepherd University Appalachian Studies Program by Dr. Martha Dolly, a professor at Frostburg State University. Dolly’s mother, Phyllis Nichols Rowe, created the quilt.

Rowe, who grew up in Washington, D.C., had long been fascinated by Appalachia. She learned to play a three-stringed dulcimer in her 50s, and while researching traditional music in the Library of Congress, Rowe came across the classic collection of ballads by Francis James Child, a Harvard professor who in the second half of the 19th century collected ballads from England and Scotland, documenting their relationship to the songs sung in Appalachia.

Through an adult continuing education class, Rowe also learned how to make quilts.

“At this point, all of the necessary pieces came together for the creation of the extraordinary work of art that took several years to conceive and research and two years to complete: setting the Child ballads into a quilting project,” said Dr. Sylvia Shurbutt, professor of English and coordinator for Shepherd University’s Appalachian Studies Program.

The double-sided quilt features 25 ballads from the Child collection, with 24 scenes on the front side, including the ballad of Scarborough Fair,  and a single scene on the backside of the quilt.  Rowe writes that her design was completely her “own and the quilt is entirely handmade, without a quilting frame, each panel being composed and finished and then mounted on the quilt’s backing.”

The back side of the quilt, sewn directly onto the quilt itself, is devoted solely to the ballad of King Orfeo, which portrays the story of Orpheus whose lyre and soft songs could soothe the savage beasts as he attempted to lead his Eurydice from the deepest circles of Hell, but who ultimately paid with his life for such God-like talent.  Orpheus has a place of prominence on the quilt because he represents the magic of music and song, which the ballads give us.

“The Ballad Quilt is not only Phyllis Nichols Rowe’s magnum opus but the creative piece that brings together into one work of art all her many talents,” Shurbutt said. “This Ballad Quilt reveals Rowe as a teacher, a master storyteller, and an artist giving us an exquisite objet d’art for our viewing and musing pleasure.  Rowe accomplished what Thoreau charges us all to do: to live life artfully.”

The Ballad Quilt exhibit is sponsored by the Scarborough Library, Scarborough Society, Shepherd University Foundation, and the Appalachian Studies Program. A reception for the quilt and the Anthology of Appalachian Writers will take place Tuesday, September 23 at 8 p.m. in the Scarborough Library Reading Room.

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