The magic and beauty of "Infinite Variety," that magnificent exhibit of 651 red-and-white quilts that I described in my last post, owe their existence to the woman who collected these quilts over the years, Joanna Semel Rose. And after I read the story of how this exhibit came to be I had to know more about her.
Her husband, described as a scion of a wealthy real estate family, asked her what she wanted for her eightieth birthday this year, and she said, "Something I've not seen before and something that would be a gift to New York City," and that something became the gift of seeing all her red-and-white quilts at one time in one place. Further contributions from family members meant that no admission fee was charged to see this exhibit. This woman clearly does not bank at the same place I do.
Joanna Semel graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1952, at a time when a tea set was on the list of required items the young ladies were to bring with them to college and there were maids and porters waiting upon them in the dormitories. She was an English major and seems to have continued to value things intellectual throughout her life since for thirty years she chaired the board of the Partisan Review, an avant-garde literary and cultural journal well known for fostering the likes of TS Eliot and George Orwell. And I even came across a rumor that she might be a member of that super secret group who decides on MacArthur Genius Grants.
A brief Google search also underscores her generosity as her name occurs again and again in connection with donations. Arts and cultural events and organizations seem to be special favorites---she and her husband donated a rehearsal studio for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, but a foundation that bears their name also made a major contribution to the Natural Resources Defense Council, another worthy cause in my own list of worthy causes.
In 2002 in a talk she gave to her classmates at her fiftieth class reunion she says, "We might adopt the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, taking pleasure in natural things, a recognition that beauty is fleeting and imperfect, a reverence for simplicity and the spiritual essence of things. We know it is nourishment for the soul to spend hours reading in a hammock, savoring a Brandenburg Concerto, meandering through a museum. Millicent Carey Mcintosh . . . claimed that it is important for each individual to order her life so that she becomes a happy creative person."
Wabi-sabi, again thanks to Google, involves a Thoreau-like embrace of simplicity, of a joyous poverty, if you will--an ironic connection for someone who has more money than I can even imagine? Perhaps. But she did indeed value these quilts, many of which draw their beauty from their simplicity and which are from the hands of women who probably were not wealthy or privileged in any significant way.
I did not find any everyday details about Joanna Rose's life. There is a suggestion that she might have children in her talk, but only a suggestion. I could not find a single photo of her anywhere, a sign she is not hungry for publicity. Has she ordered her life so that she has become "a happy creative person"? I hope so.
I am sure someone with more time and more skills at searching could uncover much more about her, but I am happy that so far she appears to be an intelligent, curious, generous person who values the arts at a time when they are no longer included in the official list of "the basics," who values knowledge for its own sake at a time when far too often only skills that can increase income are valued, and who can, at the age of 80, come up with a zinger of a great idea. I have added her to my list of those I would love to sit down and have a cup of tea with--although she would definitely object to my ending that sentence with a preposition.
And if you are still reading, thanks for the company!