During a recent visit to the Northwest, I was hosted at the sumptuous B2 Fine Art Galley in Tacoma, WA. The directors, Gary and Deborah Boone, were so welcoming. Our discussion of Nat Turner and African American history segued into quilting and Deborah shared information about a quilting group she to which she belongs. They share stories and honor our history through their art. Their work is extraordinary and It’s an honor to feature some of it here.
For more information, email email@example.com and visit http://www.b2finearts.com .
Pacific Northwest African American Quilters
(Excerpt from “Stories That Cover Us”, 2009 – by Lynne Varner-Hollie and Deborah Boone, edited by Gwen Maxwell-Williams)
The Pacific Northwest African American Quilters (PNWAAQ) was established in 1997 by five African American women who found that they shared not only common traits of heritage, but a passion for quilting.
We are part of a heritage old as the hills that surround us. The earliest quilt was said to have been discovered in a Scythian chieftain’s tomb somewhere between Mongolia and Siberia circa 100 B.C. to A.D. 2000. Europeans picked up the craft starting around 1359.
But the craft-or art-of piecing layers of fabric to make a single covering didn’t take off in the U.S. until the 1800’s. Settlers saved scraps of material for piecework quilts. Women gathered at quilting bees and worked from patterns such as “Log Cabin” and “Wagon Wheel” reflecting the era’s westward mindset.
On the other side of the country, slaves were making quilts for wholly different reasons, a need for protection on freezing winter nights. The quilts were also used as signs and signals to guide runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. In “Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad,” the quilts carried messages: a quilt hanging on a fence told slaves if they had reached a house sympathetic to their plight and where to go in search of freedom.
As a group, PNWAAQ presents lectures, showcases its work in galleries, and creates quilts for selected community organizations. Members have had their work published, exhibited in juried shows regionally, and nationally, represented by galleries and included in many private collections.
There is the business of quilting, and then there is the pleasure of it. Once per year, we gather together to revel in the creativity and affirmation of quilting. We come one by one, two by two, sometimes three sitting erect in a car, pinched in tight with the bulk of the room reserved for the things quilters carry.
We carry fabric of course, yards of bright cottons, calicos, silks, batiks, mud cloth and the occasional soft wool symbolic of a utilitarian intent. Fat-quarter bundles come along for inspiration. We carry batting, stencils and templates. Rulers, drawing paper, and washable markers. Some carry color wheels, a necessity for those of us who’ve sat staring half-crazed at a quilt top searching for the right hue to signal finis.
We carry these things to our annual retreat, held some years on Whidbey Island, a windswept edge of land off Puget Sound, and other years in a house perched along a rumbling river sat low in the valley of the Cascade Mountains.
Our retreats are decadent affairs. We bring the things of sybaritic pleasures: a marinated pot roast, a crock pot heavy with spaghetti sauce, another filled with spicy beans. We pack exotic mushrooms, bright-colored peppers and root vegetables. A cast iron pot brims with seasoned greens, collards and kale being the favorites. Pints of ice cream and bottles of wine are popular accompaniments. The occasional bottle of brandy or Scotch often finds its way into the supplies. Indeed, we come fortified for the pleasure of making art.
Some of us meticulously plan our production for the weekend. We measure and cut fabric into neat stacks laid the length of the sewing table in a manner that screams order and industry. Others wander the room, eyes and hands caressing fabrics, a piece of hand dyed cloth or a sunny batik or downy wool. Don’t discount the wanderers, for at the end of their stay they have one or two quilt tops made entirely of fabrics they neither owned nor considered before their hands touched them. At our retreats, we critique each other’s work lightly- it is a retreat after all, not a school. Passing suggestions include, “A bit more lime green would make the whole piece really pop.” Or, “It’s perfect. Doesn’t need another think but binding, perhaps in that rich chocolate fabric you have there.”
We turn the stair railings of our temporary abodes into makeshift art galleries. Local strangers sometimes walk through, always quietly and reverently as though fearful of distracting artists at work. But we are so dedicated to our craft that the steady hum of sewing machines goes unabated through visits, episodes of the television show “Monk” and evening wine, not even pausing-though some slow down- for the occasional piece of juicy gossip. When we gather to quilt, our rhythm cannot be broken!
What drives the PNWAAQ is what drives any group of artists: a need to express ourselves through the language of fiber art. There is something organic about using your hands to create. Some artists are moved by the soft swish of a paintbrush across canvas or the flitter of a pencil across a sketching pad, we are moved by turning yards of stiff fabric into something to behold. It is labor like building a barn is labor. A quilter knows the squares that make up the quilt, the places where the cutting tool left is mark or where the embroidery needle danced.
Some quilts were made to lie across bodies, whispering stories as people sleep. Others were meant to hang as paintings and tapestries do, a shimmer of colorful beauty as one walks by. Every quilt, regardless of its purpose, has this to say: “I am a thing of wonder and splendor. I am all that my creator intended me to be and then some.”
African American women created the quilts on exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum, but the power of these quilts is how much they defy racial categorization.
In “Signs and Symbols: African Images in African –American Quilts,” seven traits are said to identify a quilt made by a black quilter: 1) an emphasis o vertical strips; 2) bright colors; 3) large designs; 4) asymmetry; 5) improvisation; 6) multiple-patterning: 7) symbolic forms.
Wander among the quilts on exhibit; you’ll notice the above characteristics but much, much more. Look within the shapes and textures to see homage paid to art forms from Cubism to Amish-inspired minimalism. One could be forgiven for asking of PNWAAQ creations: “Where the quilt?”
To the members of PNWAQ, our craft is more than art; it is the thread that binds us. It is the key unlocking a door to a world of friendships and a strong sense of place in the vast Pacific Northwest.
We lay out the bones of our lives in pattern blocks. We compose stories about the past and present with threads woven into the fabrics. We speak the language of fiber art.
We are African American women practicing our craft in a society that once marginalize quilting as mere sewing. We are colorful artists in a region shrouded in gray much of the year. We have boldly inserted ourselves into the world of fiber art, taking our well-earned places at the table.
Old and new, May – December associations, – can they work together in a blended relationship. This was a real challenge to me – as my typical work is full of bright jewel colors, often combined with a mixture of authentic African Fabrics or similar ethnic influenced fabrics. So how do I make this work – what products could I use that would meet the criteria; while maintaining my own aesthetic. Multiple sketches and color studies gave me the direction, shopping trips to my local Goodwill and Value Village provided the old fabrics that I could repurpose, and my local quilting haunt provided just the right ethnic look that I needed – and the journey began. Old and new work, May- December relationships work – ask me, I know!
This quilt has been on my “to-do” list for several years. It is my version of “Midnight Starburst” by Carla Moore that was published in America’s Best Quilting Projects. When our quilting group was presented with the challenge of producing a “green” quilt, I instantly knew that I wanted to make something from my project list. Through a process of elimination, this pattern was selected because it appeared easy to make. Appearances can be deceiving! From start to finish, I struggled with an endless list of challenges to complete this project. The two most difficult ones were dyeing the white bed sheet black and hand-quilting the tightly woven, bed sheet fabric. I soon found myself “in over my head” in stars!
I have long regarded quilting as the original form of recycling, and have regarded the Domestic Arts as true artistic expression of women. It is esthetically pleasing as well as pragmatic and often underrated and unappreciated. For example, the beautiful cake that nourished the senses as well as the body, the wonderful quilt that delighted the eye, provided heat, shelter, and often served as map and lastly shroud are just some of the many examples of how women make useful things out of next to nothing and beautiful things out of just about anything.
As an African American woman, I have always thought it ironic that an oppressed often ostracized minority was often used to commercialize products that would symbolize domestic bliss and a tranquil well run home. Long before Mrs. Fields or even Betty Crocker there was Aunt Jemima. These images are from various Northwest area rice, and sugar sacks. The flour sacks were used by the Fisher Flour Co. who would later become the KOMO Communications Co. (TV/Radio). Ironic because these images often appeal to people who would not otherwise welcome an African American into their home. The Fisher Flour Co. began using the likeness of Mr. Newton Colman around 1915.
I am a second year quilter. This quilt is made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.
There is a way for human efforts to work in harmony with the earth. This quilt titled “The Harmony of Nature” captures the beauty of nature and green energy in a display of balance. The beauty of nature is depicted in the blooming landscape together with high hills and the mountain range. Above the landscape is blue sky with white puffed clouds. Scattered across the sky are high flying eagles which ride on the wind. The wind that eagles ride, also power the windmills below. Powered by the wind, the windmills provide green energy which, achieve a harmony with nature.
My interest in quilting began when my daughter requested that I make a quilt for her. I had no previous experience nor did I sew or have a sewing machine. My journey into quilting began at the bookstore. I gathered a large selection of books on all topics of quilting. Also, I started attending block of the month classes and watching quilting instruction on the television and the Internet. My first project was a block of flying geese which turned out to be a disaster. You could not tell that they were flying geese. This block has become a treasured piece. It will be included in a quilt along with other blocks which show how I have improved my quilting skills. This quilt will be titled “Journey”. My current project is my first major quilt entitled “The Harmony of Nature.”
Paper or Plastic? I always answer plastic, after all who doesn’t want to save a tree? When we chose the theme of the exhibit, I immediately thought of those colorful plastic bags and wrappers in my recycle bin. I also used minute scraps of fabric, yarn, thread, ribbon and a discarded silk flower. I chose this shape because it was reminiscent of a cathedral window and the view was of a garden and pond with plastic bags gone wild.
I used the snippet method and randomly quilted it.
Although quilting begins as an intentional effort, during this quilt project, my unconscious self, guided me through the process. As I began quilting, I decided not to focus on color; instead, I wanted this piece to reflect my excitement as well as expressing a sense of tranquility.
The show “Mixed Greens”: Saving the Earth One Quilt at a Time, so aptly titled, provided me a wonderful avenue to create a quilt and still respect the environment. By repurposing the fabric pieces from clothing, previous quilt projects, and some unusual items, I created a piece punctuated with rich textures and patterns. I offer my reflection of the joy and sometimes sadness experienced in our world of abundance. Our respect for what surrounds us begins with how we are taught to recognize the value of Mother Earth.
Johnnie Rabb Miller
When I learned what the requirements were for this assignment, I was immediately moved. Memories of my childhood flooded my mind and I was transported back in time to that small town in northern Louisiana. Living in this agrarian area presented a need to be resourceful and thrifty. We had a large vegetable garden that was carefully tended. The same vegetable was never planted in one place from season to season. I now know that this is crop rotation. This leads one to think that environmental protections were being used though there was no official mandate.
Everything was fully utilized. Worn clothing and bed linens were made into quilts. Some food was packaged in cloth bags in very nice prints. These were highly prized for clothing and quilts. Many of these endeavors were not very attractive, but were bulwarks against the harsh winter.
We canned, preserved and dried fruits and vegetables. The women discovered that certain fruits and vegetables could be used to color drab fabrics.
Grandmother knew which plants were medicinal. She brewed vile tasting teas with these gleanings. They worked, but were very distasteful.
So it seems that we’re practicing the goals set forth in the environmental protection mandates of today (living off the land, but doing no harm).
Community Quilting Bees were social gatherings as well as utilitarian, with a few exceptions. They were usually happy and festive, as well as productive. The mode was quite different when tragedy reared its ugly head. When there had been trouble (lynching, murder, and other atrocities) they still met, but sat in silence and shed helpless tears. Their demeanor brought home the full meaning of that line from the Negro National Anthem, which mentions the “God of your weary years and silent tears”. And just as the Titanic sank, the band played on, and the quilters quilted on.
Being brought up in this atmosphere has left its mark on me. I find it difficult to discard even the smallest scrap left from a quilt. Consequently, I have an abundance of scraps. I sometimes think to myself, that this is really bordering on hoarding, but, I keep them anyway.
In this month that we celebrate Black History, I pay homage to our ancestors who endured unthinkable hardships. They had indomitable courage. We are indebted to them.
Sheila Pitre Holmes
My original concept for this quilt challenge was to use a tree where the fruit of the tree would express different ways to recycle, reduce and reuse.
Then a friend gave me Gail Garber’s book “Flying Colors”. I saw that I could achieve the same concept using her sun flower. I enlarged the original pattern to double the size without calculating how large my finished quilt would be. The project got unwieldy and I became discouraged. My fellow quilters cajoled, encouraged and assisted me to keep me going. I send my thanks to all my quilting sistahs and love to Christine Bell for her help. She was instrumental in the completion of this project.
Te Manaia is a guardian spirit in Maori folklore. Te Manaia travels between the air, water and land. She guides the life force of the fish to a place of tranquility. She is a protector from evil and guides the spirit of the dead to safety in the spirit world. Her three fingers and toes may represent birth, life or death, the three baskets of knowledge or faith, hope and love.
I began quilting in 2000 possessing absolutely no sewing skills. Quilting was the key to opening the door of a new world of discovery, creativity and love. My work involves the creation of quilts using Afro/Asian fabrics, as a frame of reference and point of imaginative possibilities. I have discovered a connection between African and Asian American experience –much like Asian American musician, Fred Ho and African American professor of English, Bill V. Mullen.
My instincts lead me to indigo, blood orange, blue reds and earth browns as colors of inspiration. I use African, Asian, Hawaiian, Maori philosophies and figurines to tell narratives. Beads, paper and other artifices provide background to my narratives.
In 2004, I discovered the joy of creating abstract quilted wall hangings. My late husband, Craig T. Shimabukuro, encouraged me to explore that direction in my work. I discovered a certain freedom in these pieces – the pieces called to me with hidden coded messages, colors, objects and fabrics. Sometimes in their creations their names remained hidden from me. Their creation took days, weeks and sometimes months to put together. I discovered the power of pieces naming or renaming themselves.
Finally, my spirit guide is the wolf, she is teacher, and she gives me knowledge, shows me patience, shares the secret of nature, reminds me of family commitments and she encourages me with the thrill of the hunt. She is Kokoro – “the in between feeling that connects one person to another, filling seemingly empty space with personal spiritual meaning.”
This piece provided me the opportunity to take a lot of unfinished projects, odds and ends and make a piece of art rather than throw things away and waste them. Since I make draperies as well I was able to use up stray pieces of trim, and fringe. I also sewed all of my buttons from various purchased clothes so I know where to find them when I lose one off a garment. Most of all I was able to incorporate my favorite color “green” as much as I wanted to and used up all those scraps. Both back and front are all fabrics saved from the trash bin.
I created a triptych building from Colin Brandi’s “Snakes and Ladders” pattern. We cannot protect the environment if we continue our current practices of over-utilization of resources. Too frequently the result is long-term destruction of the environment. We all, particularly the corporate community, have to define “success” differently if we are to change course and successfully protect the environment. I constructed these “ladders to success” out of repurposed dress shirts. The triptych reads from left to right and each piece connects to the next.
The first ladder panel features mostly traditional men’s shirts. It represents current ways of doing business. The black and grey stones at the top and bottom represent the concrete and infertile lands and sea that are the result.
The second ladder panel begins to incorporate more color and pattern – representing increased diversity of ideas and people. Diversity brings better policies and practices. The stones change from grey and black at the bottom to brown at the top – a step forward.
The third panel takes that concept further using less-traditional shirt fabric. It results in a ladder that ends up being green and stones representing a world that is greener – and better—as a result.
While, I ordinarily make clothing using quilt making techniques, quilts are my roots.
I sometime feel I that I hadn’t much of a choice, as it was always in my life, as well as most of the women in my family did some kind of sewing.
When I was asked to participate in a “Green” theme, and I am from the South, Southern Green was born. I often like to return to my roots for inspiration.
Sharon C. Sobers-Outlaw
A piece is done when the balance of the message is present through various shapes, colors, size and dimensions. Do you hear the voice of the artist? There is Joy, Honor and Respect.
Every person has a carbon foot-print, and this measurement represents the impact that our human activities have on the environment.
CO2 is usually associated with gas emissions from vehicles and industry but it equally applies to landfills.
Recycling cuts down on what is placed in landfills, and helps to protect the environment from pollution. Adopting “Green Practices” is important. I chose the lint from my dryer, gathered over a period of time to use in my cloud formations in my quilt.
Because our carbon foot-print is so important, each one of us must watch our steps and move in the direction that benefits our only home “Planet Earth”.
“Dresden Plate Pattern” goes back to the early 20th Century and was one of the most popular quilt patterns made during the 1920-30’s.
A bag of fabrics found at a thrift store contained Dresden shaped cut fabrics all loose pieces with the typical prints of a “by gone era” feed sack, floral prints, novelty prints…All in excellent condition
I chose to use these vintages, heirloom retro fabrics as a way to combine something old and historical with fabrics of today.
Someone discarded these retro fabrics and I reused or repurposed them toward creating something useful and beautiful. “Mixed Vintage” is such a quilt.
I’ve had several people who know me well ask why I took up quilting. The short answer is that I have finally given myself permission to follow my muse. The longer answer, specific to ‘why quilting and not something else?’ is that quilting draws together the largest number of strands in my life.
Quilts can also require a good bit of instinct to work within the confines of the materials at hand – my goal to date. The quilter’s axiom is that you always get a more interesting and usually better quilt if you have to make do, or run out of at least one fabric while you’re finishing the design. I like this idea both because it honors the history of quilting and because it pushes my creative boundaries.
Making quilts is so joyful for me that I rarely lose patience with a project even when I’m stuck. I easily lose track of time while in my studio.
I grew up during the depression era, so I learned to be conservative. I am and have always been aware of the earth and our need to protect it. I recycle as much as I can. I give items to my children and friends. I donate clothing. I even reuse my quilting scraps!
“All tied up”- is an example of recycling my husband’s old ties into a quilt
“Lynette’s Lament”- is another example of a quilt that a fellow quilter became frustrated with. I took the quilt apart and remade the quilt using her material.
I find it interesting that there is a social and cultural movement (and corresponding language) encouraging what used to be called “making do with what you’ve got”. So, I chose to honor some of the women in my family who taught me to do just that with this quilt piece.
My grandmother worked at a furniture store that discarded upholstery fabric samples and display items when they were no longer current. She saw value in these discarded items and took them home. My great-grandmothers saw beauty and purpose in the upholstery samples and pieced them together to make quilts for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They used old blankets or bedspreads for batting and other fabrics (including curtain sheers) for backing and binding. The quilts they made were not heirloom quilts of traditional designs. They were wonderfully heavy quilts that kept us warm. The upholstery fabric samples used in this quilt were shared with me by a friend who, like my grandmother, saw value in them when they were being discarded nearly 20 years ago. The backing is curtain fabric I purchased years ago, but didn’t use and the batting is a flannel sheet that I’ve had for over 15 years and was beginning to show wear. I “repurposed” these items in honor of my grandmother and great-grandmothers.
With this piece, I also honor my mother, who passed away in 1998. It was she who saw the value of and saved my great-grandmothers’ quilts. I embellished this piece with buttons and lace seam binding from her sewing box. The seam binding had a sales tag from 1969.
I think most of us know how to make do with what we have. We just need to remember and value “making do”.
The Sankofa quilt features the mythical Sankofa bird of the Akan peoples of West Africa with its neck turned backwards, usually depicted as carrying an egg in its beak or reaching for an egg. Sankofa is often associated with the Akan proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates into English as, “It is a good thing to go back to get that which you have forgotten.”
The quilt has three features:
- The Sankofa bird carrying an egg to symbolize life and to show how fragile the process of retrieval or “going back to get” can be.
- The handshake depicting reconciliation among people of African heritage in the Diaspora reaching toward Africa to learn from the Africans who remained on The Continent. The hand on the left represents the descendants of Africans who were forcibly taken during the transatlantic slave trade. The hand on the right symbolizes Africans on the Continent reaching back to connect with those who were stolen. The handshake also voices the fact that we people of African descent in the Diaspora are “Africans, not because we were born in Africa but because Africa was born in us.” (Anthropologist & photographer, Chester Higgins, Jr.)
- A map of the African Continent symbolizing our home whether we live on The African Continent or simply have Africa in our hearts.
The background of the quilt is made of 13 African fabrics—some new and some recycled—symbolizing the Africans who are dispersed throughout the world either through exploration, enslavement, or by choice and who now form the African Diaspora. The orange & yellow fabrics represent the resilience of African people. The lining of the quilt is made from a black-on-black recycled bed sheet, symbolizing the fact that people of African descent have been worn, pushed, pulled, walked over, stepped on and slept under and yet we survive to fight another day!
My hope as the quilter is that people of African descent will recognize our strength and always work toward understanding and reconciliation as African people. In doing so, we honor the ancestors who chose to survive so that we could live, understanding that as we stand together, we change our circumstances, and in fact, change the world.
Patricia Batiste-Brown – 1947-2011
“I never thought something like this would happen to me…”
“It’s Time” embraces my life through the memories of an old tablecloth from cradle to grave, a lament of a life lived.
Who knew a simple cloth has such an enormous purpose and ability to bring people together for all life occasions.
“It’s Time” repurposes the cloth incorporating colors, texture and depictions of my childhood. The Flying Geese pattern was chosen to represent its everlasting flow north.
Embracing ones fate is inevitable but through a life lived and the things that I have touched, I will never cease living.
To EVERY thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 13