August 2008 Issue
A Stitch in Time
Quilters share a connecting thread in an exhibit at the National Afro-American Museum and Coltural Center in Wilberforce.
The quilt as love. It’s an easy metaphor for Carolyn Mazloomi.
Comfort, safety, security –– whether offered as solace or celebration, few things so aptly symbolize fond feelings the way that a handmade quilt does, capturing heartfelt sentiments with every stitch and literally blanketing someone with affection.
“There’s a reason why people are drawn to quilts: The first thing we’re swathed in from birth is a piece of fabric,” says Mazloomi, a West Chester resident and internationally
renowned quilt historian and artist, whose works hang everywhere from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. “It makes sense that they make people hearken back to hearth and home.
“Quilts carry warmth.”
For one community, they also carry the weight of the past.
The exhibit, “Quilting African-American Women’s History: Our Challenges, Creativity and Champions,” through Nov. 8 at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, honors the experience of black women in America with a medium that holds deep cultural significance. Guest curator Mazloomi uncovered 101 works by 56 quilt artists that blend vibrant colors, vivid imagery and expert craftsmanship to convey an array of personal stories and political struggles –– from Charlotte O’Neil’s postcard-sized work, “Still Breaking Barriers: Busting Glass Ceilings,” an intricate piece depicting women carrying banners in protest for causes such as school segregation; to Gwen Aqui’s “Miss Ruby’s Crown,” a patchwork, kaleidoscopic quilt that incorporates an elegant hat and white gloves as an homage to her mother’s Sunday church garb.
The collection amounts to the nation’s largest exhibit of its kind –– a testament to what happens when an inspired idea pairs with passion for a subject.
“I got beyond carried away,” Mazloomi says with a chuckle.
When, one year ago, Mazloomi conceived of celebrating African-American women with fabric art, “there was only supposed to be 40 quilts,” she recalls. A nationwide search for artists who could produce works on the theme included contacting the 1,700 members of the Women of Color Quilters Network: an organization Mazloomi founded in 1985 to foster and preserve the art of quilt making among black women.
Hundreds of slides and digital images poured in, including “Cherished Times,” by Texas-based quilt artist Carolyn Crump. The quilt features a striking mother bathed in orange-and-yellow hues in the foreground, contentedly sitting amid a picture-perfect landscape with embroidery in her lap, as an idyllic scene of six children placing laundry on a clothesline unfolds behind her.
“I did that whole scene from memory ... it was like I had an inner spirit working,” says Crump, who planned to portray an ambiguous image of an African-American woman doing needlework, but wound up depicting her then-31-year-old mother, Willie Mae, on Crump’s grandmother’s Arkansas farm in 1964, with a young Crump and her siblings frolicking in the background.
It wasn’t just commitment to the craft that inspired Crump, a fifth-generation quilter, to meticulous detail over the course of two months (she used six different shades of brown fabric for her mother’s face alone). Rather, it was the cherished memories of her childhood years and Willie Mae’s stories about the importance of quilts to their family.
“She used to tell us kids how they had a wooden stove in their house growing up,” says Crump. “When they’d turn that stove off at night, the house would be freezing. But the quilts they made were so thick and heavy.
“Mom said it felt like a person was lying on top of them, protecting them.”
For Mazloomi, visual reminders of poignant family history further a tradition once rooted in necessity, when it was against the law to teach slaves how to read and write.
“When you look at the nature of quilts in the African-American community, you see that most of them are like narratives,” she says. “There’s a message that you can see –– regardless of whether one is able to read and write.
“Even today, they still tell a story.” nQuilters share a connecting thread in an exhibit at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce.