Sunday, May 5, 2013

Yogurt Lids, Yo Yo Quilts, and the Yardage of El Anatsui

 When I was in junior high school, in the late 60s, I collected yogurt lids. Here's one.
At that time there was mostly only Dannon yogurt. A lot of kids brought it for lunch. The lids were cardboard and had two parts; the part that snugged over the container's rim, and a colorful sturdy cardboard circle that popped into the top, with the color-matched flavor printed on it.

The insert mesmerized me. I wanted to make something from them. That's how I became cafeteria-famous as the kid that you threw your yogurt lid at. It was done in a mostly friendly way, and I happily collected hundreds.

Back home, up in the attic, I hung a bamboo pole sideways and started to make a curtain of  lids. I put staples in the north, south, east and west positions, to attach each lid to its neighbors. It  didn't work very well. They hung askew. I created an area a yard or so square, but the bigger it got, the wonkier it hung. I never finished.

Eventually, I went off to college, and in my absence, my dad threw them all away. I have one lid left that I found under a box during an attic excavation. That's the one you see above. Like me, it's now an antique. (Here's an age test: Do you remember PRUNE WHIP yogurt? I loved that stuff.)

Years later, when I became a quilter, I discovered yo yo quilts and recognized that they came from  basically the same instinct as my wannabe yogurt curtain. Here's an award-winning yo yo quilt held by its 98-year-old creator, from

Yo yos are not just for seniors. A new generation is discovering them. The picture below shows a small, hip, 'modern'  yo yo quilt with a tutorial, from Purl Bee:

Two weeks ago, while we were visiting New York, a dear friend took us to the Brooklyn Museum to see the quilt exhibit there. It was a very nice, small exhibit of mostly antique quilts (info here)...

But what took my breath away was the amazing work of someone I'd never heard of, African artist El Anatsui.

El Anatsui takes discarded can lids, or foil bottle seals, or other metallic (or wood) scraps....

...and he turns them into heavy, rippling, monumentally massive enormous works of art. Some sprawl   across the floor...

...shoot up like stalagmites...

...hang in waves from the wall...

...or the ceiling.

Just being in their presence is intoxicating. It's like standing next to Niagara Falls or the General Grant Tree - the thing is so big that it gives off gravity waves or negative ions or color emanations or some other invisible force field that makes existence more exciting...


I realized that I gave up too quickly on my yogurt lid curtain. Anatsui obviously had the same problem - things tied together wouldn't hang flat - and he grooved with it. His artist's statement says that his pieces are draped differently in every venue, and that's part of the art - a little bit of performance art!

The exhibit statement also says "Anatsui converts found materials into a new type of media that lies between sculpture and painting." 

As a quilter, I would respond: Hey, that's not so new. Quilters have been using found materials to create something on the borderline of painting and sculpture, for a very long time. But most of us are only a little off the 2D surface. Anatsui is a LOT. 

And like El Anatsui, quilters work with repetition. But most of us are so much more timid about working on a massive scale.

I'm still collecting lids - I especially have trouble throwing away milk carton caps. I've limited myself to one small box full (same box also has empty spools and a jar of metal bottle caps). Someday I will make something out of them.

But what?

El Anatsui has me thinking about working huge. That's pretty scary. What's the biggest quilt you've ever made? I don't think I've gone over 120" on a side. 

Not yet, anyway.

(Learn more about the Brooklyn Museum exhibit of El Anatsui's work here.)


  1. Thank you. I had heard of this guy but had no concept of the size. Your pictures are wonderful.

  2. Dear Cathy,
    I saw this exhibit in Denver a few months ago, and was blown away. It helps that he has a crew of workers actually doing the putting-together part of the work, but I'm still inspired to work big with small units. I eagerly await what you come up with, and yes, I do like prune yogurt!
    Keep up the good work,

  3. Thanks for the wonderful post and photos!

    I'm a member of PAQA-South (Professional Art Quilters Alliance - South) and we were lucky enough to get a guided tour of the exhibit when it was shown at the NC Museum of Art.

    One of the things that struck the group was El Anatsui's desire to make his art a "community" affair at many different levels.

    He recycles materials from his "community" (the metal foils used on the necks and tops of wine and beer bottles are used to create the "yo-yo"'s and small strips that make up his quilt-like pieces) and he hires people from his community to help him with the construction of his pieces.

    But this was the real kicker for me: he sends out his shows with no installation directions to the museums and galleries.

    He apparently believes that each installation is a collaboration between the artist and the "community" (i.e., that the community should be part of creating the art). As a result he wants each gallery/museum/community to decide how to drape his quilt-like pieces, how to position his multi-pieced wooden sculptures or arrange the 1200 (!) small boxes that were part of the exhibit I saw.

    In Raleigh, I believe that they set up a committee of museum folks, local artists, and members of the community to decide on how things should be arranged.

    Pretty neat concept!

    1. I absolutely love that community aspect. I wonder if the Raleigh folks argued about how to arrange things. What a fascinating committee to be on. Thanks so much, Debbie, for the info and insights.

  4. Linda, thanks for the input! Prune yogurt rocks! If only it still existed....and still had nifty lids...we could make a heckuva sculpture!
    I can't even imagine how much time and skill it takes to hang these pieces.
    Thanks again for coming by!

  5. I saw El Anatsui's work in Seattle a couple of years ago and had the same reaction as you -- I was blown away and mesmerized. I had gone to see another exhibit, but ended up spending most of my time standing in front of his work. Thanks for posting the photos.

  6. I saw El Anatsui a few years ago in Seattle and had the same reaction as you -- I was blown away and mesmerized! Thanks for posting the photos.

  7. Sherrie, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I had never heard of him before. Now I'm his biggest fan!

  8. I was recently at the same exhibit and took many of the same pictures, which are also on my blog. I first encountered his work at the Newark Museum years ago; they own a piece of his. I was just at the North Carolina Museum of Art which also owns one of his beautiful works. Simply amazing!

  9. I'm amazed too! Thanks for stopping by, Rayna.

  10. Cathy, I am so happy to have discovered this blog post. I was a yogurt lid collector, too! In fact, I still have my collecting, including Prune Whip. Small world! I don't know what to do with them all, but they bring back fond memories.

    1. TEAM PRUNE WHIP!!!! I thought I was the only human who ate and/or remembered it, Jennie! I'm so glad you wrote!!! I wish I had my prune whip lids. I wish they'd bring that flavor back!!! Thanks for writing!


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