Patching together second career
A love of quilts led to the staging of lauded exhibitions
It was while working on the development of a new anti-malaria drug in the late 1980s that Annette Gero, a research professor in the department of biochemistry at the University of NSW, indirectly set out along the path to becoming an internationally acclaimed quilt historian.
Disparate pursuits? Not entirely. Gero’s scientific research was funded partly by the US Army. “They desperately needed an anti-malarial for their soldiers, and during this period I was required to make frequent visits to army board meetings in Washington, DC,” she says.
Gero already was a keen collector of early Australian quilts — some dating back to convict times — and any downtime in the US was spent seeking out noteworthy American quilts.
“I’d return home with one suitcase full of scientific research results and another filled with exquisite quilts,” she recalls.
Then, about 10 years ago, fate intervened: a serendipitous find of a very different quilt, one that was made by a soldier from military fabrics during the Napoleonic wars. This propelled Gero into an ongoing search for other war quilts, a passion that culminated in a recent blockbuster exhibition, War and Pieced, at New York’s respected American Folk Art Museum.
“These fascinating textile art pieces were made by soldiers, prisoners of war, sailors and regimental tailors, and they demonstrate that it’s possible for beauty to be a by-product of war,” she says. “In this centenary year of the end of World War I, I feel this is particularly emotionally resonant.”
Once retired from her job, and with the preventive drug Malarone on the market, Gero was free to take what previously was a hobby to a whole new level.
She had already travelled extensively around the country to chronicle historic Australian quilts. “They provide a social history of everyday women whose lives would never have been documented except for the fact that somewhere in their family a quilt had been made. In contrast, the war quilts were made exclusively by men.
“Some are around 300 years old, others date from World War II, and they’re spectacularly complex, geometric and display extraordinary designs. They used richly dyed wools garnered from military and dress uniforms.”
While some of the treasured quilts she has collected are still on tour in the US (returning for an exhibition next year at Cowra Regional Art Gallery in NSW), several decorate her light-filled, Sydney northern beaches apartment. Gero was attracted to the apartment for its wide windows, which provide a serene and quiet outlook across Mona Vale golf course.
“Quilts can fit into any domestic environment, be it contem- porary or older style,” she says. “I’ve mostly hung mine so that their full visual impact can be appreciated like artworks in a gallery. The bold colours stand out against the walls, which are painted in a vivid white.”
Two favourites hanging in the living-dining area are Crimean war quilts, circa 1850. One features a chequered central gameboard composed of tiny hexagons; nearby is a reproduction of a Napoleonic war quilt.
Complementing the quilts are select antiques such as a beloved silver doll’s house from Harrods in London.
“I enjoy giving dinner parties and I often place the doll’s house in the centre of the table; it lights up to produce a wonderful atmosphere,” says Gero, who admits to owning seven dinner sets.
“Four are vintage. My favourite is a blue-and-white Meissen; another is a 19th-century Wedgwood setting inherited from my grandmother.”
Both look right at home on her French, Louis Philippe-era table that extends to seat up to 20 guests.
Life is busy for Gero, who is on the advisory board of the International Quilt Study Centre and Museum in the US, which has the biggest collection of quilts in the world. She also lectures extensively on decorative arts, has curated 33 quilt exhibitions in Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the US, is an elected member of the Royal Society of Arts (London) and has written four lavishly illustrated books. She’s proud that The New York Times reviewed her War and Pieced exhibition as one of the 10 best exhibitions of last year, Harper’s Bazaar dubbed it the second best exhibition in the world and The Wall Street Journal gave it a glowing review.
Her book written to accompany the exhibition, Wartime Quilts, Appliques and Geometric Masterpieces from Military Fabrics (The Beagle Press, Roseville) also was hailed by The New York Times as one of the 10 best art and design books of last year.
Not too shabby for an encore career.
Clockwise from main picture, Annette Gero at home in Mona Vale; a quilt from her collection; Mona Vale Golf Club; Gero’s silver doll’s house from Harrods