Anna Williams was a self-taught quilter considered one of the twentieth century’s most significant fiber artists. Using no templates and eschewing blocking, a process of straightening and flattening fabric, Williams created freehand, improvisational designs embodying a polyrhythmic African-American aesthetic. The visual complexity of her work, which belies the craft’s humble origins as well as her own quiet, unassuming nature, continues to influence scores of contemporary quilt artists.
Williams was born in East Baton Rouge Parish on a plantation owned by the Kleinpeters, a prominent family of Swiss descent who farmed sugar, cotton, and sweet potatoes. Working in the fields as a child, she learned to quilt from her mother and grandmother and used their remnants, however small, to fashion her own designs.
Reflective of her childhood experience in using modest fabric scraps, she trimmed any large pieces of material into many small shards before starting. The individual geometric shapes would, in turn, be paired and sewn together, whether in rectangular strip-pieced “strings” or triangular “monkey wrench” patterns. Williams initially sewed her quilts by hand but eventually began using a sewing machine, allowing her to increase her productivity and work on several coverings at once.
Following her 1990 debut, Williams’s quilts were showcased in the American Quilters Society’s Anna Williams: Her Quilts and Their Influence in 1995 and the Louisiana State University Textile & Costume Museum’s Joyful Improvisations: The Quilts of Anna Williams in 1999. She was also included in the 2009 Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival, where one of her works was featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Her quilts are in the permanent collections of the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky; and the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. Such displays have introduced Williams’s work to legions of contemporary quilters who cite her significant, even liberating, influence on their own artistic expressions.