Sitting at her computer, scrolling through photos of embroidered cloth and without consulting a single note, Courtenay McGowen weaves a history of the craft of anonymous women with that of ancient Bengal. A region that has been fractured into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh by partition and a civil war. The region where the Ganges flows to the Bay of Bengal produces the finest cotton the world has ever known and a unique type of embroidery known as Kantha.
Remnants of old saris and dhotis are re-purposed into rugs, book covers, purses, or bed coverings. Using threads from the original garments, women embroider each with ancient motifs – lotus flowers, pinwheels and animals — monkeys, elephants and tigers.
McGowen bought her first Kantha 12 years ago on a trip to India. The why was simple: “I love textiles,” she said. Eventually she would own 42. A few years ago she donated the collection to Mingei International Museum, a folk art, craft and design museum in Balboa Park, where it is now on exhibit through March of 2018.
“We were thrilled to get them,” said Rob Sidner, Mingei’s executive director. “It is the most meaningful collection that we have received in the past decade.”
“Beyond their obvious thrift and utility, Kanthas symbolize both the emotional experiences and the aesthetic aspirations of their makers, often achieved quietly and privately during spare moments of a long day of domestic duties. These quilts capture elements of daily life in rural and urban life in Bengal, often with great individuality and a sense of humor,” wrote Christine Knoke Hietbrink, who co-curated the exhibit with McGowen.
The textiles also reflect India’s rich religious traditions. “Kanthas that incorporate figurate motifs, such as people and animals, were intended for Hindu families, whereas ones that are strictly geometric and floral in design were meant for Muslim households,” she added.
Before she donated the Kanthas, McGowen asked Don Tuttle to photograph them. A selection of these were used in the catalogue that McGowen helped produced. She wrote an essay, captions for the photographs and helped edit the text. Two other authors contributed to the catalogue – Dr. Pratapaditya Pal and John Gillow. Both are leading authorities on Indian textiles.
“It’s one of the most beautiful catalogues the Mingei has ever produced,” said Laurel Holloway, who serves with McGowen on the San Diego Museum of Art’s Asian Arts Council. McGowen has been a member of the council since 1997 and has served two terms as chair. Over the years she has been an indispensable force raising funds, putting on programs and bringing leading Asian art scholars to lecture the council at its monthly luncheons.
McGowen has been collecting crafts for decades. She has brought back body ornaments from Central Asia and Northern India, arrowheads from the American Southwest and snuff bottles from China. Ten of her bottles are included in a show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
McGowen also has a collection of Viennese miniatures. These were bequeathed to her by a great-aunt. Those miniatures planted the seed, but it was her travels as an adult that made her a serious collector. “Collecting is about life,” she said. “It’s about where you’ve traveled, what you’ve learned and who you’ve met.”
Asia holds a special fascination for her. She’s traveled to Cambodia, Japan, Thailand; some places, including China and India, she’s visited many times.
On those trips she brought along an immense knowledge of art. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art from Columbia University. She is best known in Coronado for her work on Art Walk which she organized for eight years. She was also a founding member of Coronado public arts subcommittee 17 years ago and served as a commissioner on the city’s historical resources commission.
McGowen has made her greatest contributions at the Asian Arts Council and at the Mingei, where she chairs the board of directors.
Its executive director first met McGowen fifteen years ago. What he remembers most was her love of folk-craft. “She got it,” Sidner said. McGowen has passion and a wide knowledge, and more importantly she shares her passion and knowledge, not only about art, but also about organization and administration
“She knows how museums work,” said Pat Winter, chair of the South Asian Council. Armed with that knowledge, “she is able to focus on a task, see it through. She gets the job done.”