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

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