See Quilts and Ekua Holmes at the MFA


            Through January 17, 2022


            Through January 23, 23, 2022

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


It had been 18 months since we last entered the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and for our first trip back, we decided to concentrate on just a few shows. So, let’s cut to the chase.  


Bisa Butler


Cut is a good segue to Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories, a look at what sewing projects tell us about our past and ourselves. Some of the quilts were “folk art” and others might be classified as “fine art.” I’ve never cared much for such distinctions. Some of the quilters are known in the stitcher community. One is Bisa Butler, whose To God and Truth (2019) depicts the Morris Brown College baseball team. She makes us see the hues among African-Americans by rendering “black” faces in vibrant colors. 


Faith Ringgold


Another well-known artist (in numerous media) is Faith Ringgold. Her Martin Luther King and the Sisterhood is self-explanatory. Some might also know the name Lillie Mae Pettway, a link to the Gee’s Bend, Alabama quilters whose work has gotten a lot of belated recognition. 

Housetop is a 12-block pattern with variations. 


Lillie Mae Pettway


The MFA exhibit samples three centuries’ worth of quilts that indeed tell tales. The show is strongest in highlighting people of color and LGBTQIA communities. This is revelatory given that many of the quilters are unknown or forgotten. One quilt points us to reasons to recover their stories, as it depicts various ways in which those outside the mainstream have been (mis)represented. Still others make statements through the sheer skill that went into creating such meticulous work, including one from an unknown Amish stitcher and one from Celestine 

Bacheller titled Pictorial Quilt (c. 1880).


Celestine Bacheller



World’s fairs occasionally spotlight the work of those on the social margins. Some of that has been a sly dance of tokenism, a way to trumpet American progressivism without actually being progressive, yet the art speaks for itself. Edith Morrow Matthews contributed The Spectrum, a trippy quilt that presaged op-art at the 1933 Chicago fair.  Richard Rowley quilted the fair’s map in fabric: A Century of Progress.


Matthews above/Rowley below


There are a surprising number of men represented at the MFA show, including the well-known Sanford Biggers, though his work pushes the boundaries of what we think of as a quilt. Most visitors will probably relate best to overtly political works that require little explanation to (if you will) unravel. Carolyn Mazloomi mused upon a famous song about lynching for her Strange Fruit II and Sylvia Hernandez put thread to needle to ask the question about gun violence that rests upon many lips: How Many More? Edward Larson and Fran Soika cram a lot of troubled politicians into a 1979 work titled Nixon Resigns


Carolyn Mazloomi



Sylvia Henandez


Two intriguing works caught my eye. Sabrina Gscwandtner’s Camouflage lives up to its title. Those in a hurry could walk right past it without realizing it is made of discarded 16mm film strips. The most in-your-face work belongs to Agusta Agustsson whose Blanket of Red Flowers makes tangible the phrase “banned in Boston.” It was removed from its first viewing in 1979, as it represents alternating blocks of male and female genitalia. Note the date. It came at the dawning of the AIDS crisis, though its meaning is broader than that. 




Banned in Boston!


If works on paper haven’t caught your attention before, check out a retrospective culled from book projects illustrated by Roxbury artist Ekua Holmes (b. 1955). She celebrates the positivity of blackness in various ways: play, black history, ordinary people, poetry, children’s stories, and the connections that occur in unlikely ways in unlikely places. Her energy is infectious, her colors bold, and her ability to bring a smile to your face a rare and beautiful thing. Kudos to the MFA for allowing teens in its Curatorial Study Hall to write the wall text. Read: You can actually understand what is being said! 





We vowed to ease back into the viewing groove rather than trying to take in everything. Nice try! We ended up dipping into several other shows, including a good one on Monet that has already closed and two others that were disappointing. “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture” was billed as a total revamp of the MFA’s holdings. It’s not really–more like rearranging the den chairs and sofa. “Collecting Stories: The Invention of Folk Art” was an example of how museums should have the courage to fold their cards when they don’t have a matching pair. It’s really about collectors, not the art, plus the MFA’s folk art collection is so painfully thin it should offload it to an institution that knows the genre.


Rob Weir





By Dan Shaughnessy

Scribner, 256 pages.




Were the 1985-86 Boston Celtics the greatest team in National Basketball Association history? Such questions are pointless because sports–rules, equipment, players–evolve. Few analysts, though, take umbrage with saying that the Celtics front court of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish–with Bill Walton coming off the bench–defined the adjective dominant.


Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy revives memories of the 1980s. He was a newbie at Globe in 1981, the year after Larry Joe Bird was the NBA’s 1980 Rookie of the Year.  The epic battles between Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the years 1980-87 redefined the NBA and brought it into national prominence.


Perhaps you wonder about the showdowns in the 1950s and early 1960s between the Bill Russell-led Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors. Today, the NBA is a global product and the second-most popular team sport in North America. When Russell was a rookie in 1956, he and Chamberlain shed light on a 10-year-old league that played in crummy gyms and had franchises in places like Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, Rochester, and Syracuse. The Lakers were in Minneapolis and the Warriors in Philly. Russell helped define the NBA. It grew from the mid-60s on, but didn’t become a media-fueled juggernaut until Bird, Magic, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Julius Erving, and others broadened TV viewership and gained sponsors.  


The best parts of Shaughnessy’s book deal with change, not just in the game but also in the media and social mores. Shaughnessy was dubbed “Scoop” by Celtics players and it wasn’t endearing. He was part of a new wave of sportswriters whose perspective was investigative and (in many cases) combative. Consider, for example, that Boston Herald writer Mike Carey had been so chummy with players that he lent them his car and acted as their agents. Today that would be conflict of interest. Bloody on-court fisticuffs would yield lengthy suspensions; in the 1980s, they didn’t always lead to technical fouls. Bill Walton reveals that he knew he loved new coach when K. C. Jones when he put the Lakers’ James Worthy into a headlock during a melee.


Shaughnessy was in the seam between the chummy old-style NBA and the emergent; he wanted access to players, but because he didn’t write fluff, he often ruffled feathers. He had a hot/cold relationship with Bird and Parrish refused to talk to him at all. Diehard basketball fans might wish to skim the parts of the book that rehash the long familiar: Red Auerbach’s iron-fisted management style, coach Bill Fitch’s abrasive egoism, Parrish’s sullenness, and Bird’s cockiness. (Bird took trash-talk to the next level. He once defended BYU grad/teammates Danny Ainge and Greg Kite by saying nobody would have heard of Utah without them–and murderer Gary Gilmore!)


Bird was the pivot piece, but Auerbach’s unsentimental roster retooling was the lever. During Bird’s peak years he was league MVP three years in a row and the Celtics won the NBA title in 1980-81 and 1983-84, lost the finals in 1984-85, and won again in 1985-86. Auerbach had no problem jettisoning popular players he felt were no longer useful, such as Cedric Maxwell, Quinn Buckner, or Rick Robey. (He robbed Seattle by trading Gerald Henderson for Dennis Johnson.) He also felt (rightly) that the Celtics lost in 1984-85 because the players despised Fitch. Enter K. C. Jones and a magical season.


You may never see another team like it. The roster had eight white players, just four African Americans, a black coach, and not a hint of racial tension. (Bird called Jones “the nicest man I ever met.”) Walton claimed that coming to Boston saved his life. That’s hyperbolic, but the Celtics played with infectious joy. McHale set a team record by scoring 58 points, which fell the very next game when Bird poured in 60. They were so cohesive that they went 37-1 at home, wrapped up their division so early they didn’t bother to try for an NBA victory record, and won their final game by playing only the bench. There was no partying when they won the conference title; as Bird insisted, celebrations only came after titles. He also proved that a slow white dude who didn’t jump well could become a hoop god through hard work and a high court IQ. (Shaughnessy advises skepticism re: the “Hick from French Lick” guise; Bird knew how to conjugate verbs!) 


Wish It Lasted Forever has eyeopeners, including pranks that wouldn’t fly today, like putting an M. L. Carr jersey on a car lot’s advertising gorilla. Casual sexism was also a thing. We laugh when Shaughnessy loses $160 in a free throw challenge with Bird, who taped his entire hand and thumb. Shaughnessy also gets another booby prize for leaving the basketball beat in the spring to cover the Red Sox, then the city’s biggest sports attraction. (Today, they might be number four.) We appreciate Bird’s color-blind judgments, including his prediction that Michael Jordan would become the NBA’s greatest player. (M.J. transformed the game a third time.) Alas, nothing lasts forever. Injuries took their toll and it would be 22 years before the Celtics hoisted another championship banner.


Rob Weir


Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird




By Harper Lee

HarperCollins, 278 pages.

★★ ½


I didn’t rush to read Go Set a Watchman. The initial reviews were damning, though they gave way to others declaring it a brilliant lost gem. Which is it? In my estimation, neither. I’d call it a prosaic effort that wouldn’t have ever seen the light of day had not Harper Lee (1926-2016) published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.


Go Set a Watchman is an oddity in Lee’s total output of two novels. It was supposed to be her first novel. She penned it around 1957, began revisions, and then locked it away. To Kill a Mockingbird went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a hit movie in 1962 that won three Academy Awards. Lee either never got around to finishing revisions of Go Set a Watchman, or deemed it beyond repair. It was thought to be lost until it surfaced in a lockbox and, in 2015, Lee was persuaded to allow its publication. This was controversial, as some critics alleged elder abuse on the part of Lee’s conservators.


It’s a pointless debate given that the novel was ultimately released. What we have is a first book sequel to a book that was released before it– a sequel to a prequel, if you will. If only that were the most problematic thing about it. Before diving into this, a quick note on the title. It’s from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah: “Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” (It’s from Chapter 21 and the next line gave rise to a famed song: “Babylon Has Fallen.”)


In Go Set a Watchman Jean Louise Finch (“Scout”) is a 26-year-old woman who has been living in New York City. Each year she spends two weeks with her father, Atticus, in Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus is now 72 and slowing down a bit. He still has his law practice, but most of the work has been turned over to his protégé, Henry “Hank” Clinton, who comes from a humble background, but is seen by Jean Louise as the man she’ll probably marry. Her brother Jem is dead from the same weak heart that killed their mother and their African American maid Calpurnia has retired.


One wonders if Lee was channeling Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again. Jean Louise is a young woman who is too Southern for New York and too New York for Alabama. She loves Atticus, her Uncle Jack, and her Aunt Alexandra, but the latter two drive her batty. The learned Jack, a retired doctor, tells circuitous stories and utters remarks obscure even by his standards and the heavily corseted Alexandra is obsessed with propriety, religion, and getting Jean Louise married off. She’d be okay with the latter, but New York has made her too independent for the traditional role expected of her, she’s not at all sure she wants to move back to Maycomb, and Hank wants to stay. Gossip seems to follow Jean Louise around like a shadow. Go Set a Watchman is at its best in revealing Alabama as a time warp challenged by post-World War II social changes.


The novel’s crisis comes from those changes. When Calpurnia’s grandson runs over an elderly drunken pedestrian, it scarcely matters that it’s not his fault. The accident reveals racial fault lines in the Deep South just a few years removed from Brown v. the Board of Education. Suffice it to say, the NAACP is not popular among Maycomb whites and African Americans are beginning to sluff off their subordinated skin and with it the fiction of easygoing racial relations.


Social friction gives way to personal trauma when Jean Louise catches wind a meeting of the all-white Citizen’s Council and finds that both Hank and Atticus are members of it and the Ku Klux Klan. She is outraged and explodes at each of them. The open question is whether they are infiltrators or collaborators. Uncle Jack helps bring the book to what I’d call a compromised conclusion that certainly will not please those weaned in the age of wokeness.


The last point aside, Go Set a Watchman is a wildly uneven novel that reads like what it probably was: an insufficiently revised work. Numerous To Kill a Mockingbird devotees expressed their displeasure at the depiction of Atticus Finch, whose morality is at best ambiguous in Go Set a Watchman. Other detractors have called the novel an apologetics for whiteness, though one could just as easily make a case that it is a more realistic portrait of race than one gets from To Kill a Mockingbird. I hold the view that it’s simply a subpar book.


Rob Weir