Sewing Together a Lost Tradition

Anything you set your mind to do, you can do. It makes me feel so good to make a pretty quilt and have someone enjoy it.

- Nora Ezell SIGNS AND SYMBOLS: AFRICAN IMAGES IN AFRICAN-AMERICAN QUILTS By Maude Southwell Wahlman Studio Books, 134 pp., $35.

THE events of everyday life matter in art, particularly in 19th- and 20th-century art. Many of our best films, plays, paintings, and sculpture have dealt with ordinary people handling ordinary problems. But ``dailiness'' in art has also helped lead us on to a reevaluation of crafts, the arts of the home. When do crafts become something more than merely decorative or useful works - more than merely objects of self-expression, satisfying to make but ultimately insignificant?

From rug weaving to jewelry-making to pottery firing, the great crafts have sometimes crossed the line into the realm of art. When they do, they usually carry with them transcendent meaning or, perhaps, some leap in beauty that transcends decoration. ``Transcends'' is key here. Works of craft that cross the boundaries into art bring with them the faint perfume of home, of usefulness, and of daily experience.

Take quilts. American quiltmaking as a household art has been reexamined in a number of wonderful quilt exhibitions all over the country during the past 20-odd years. We've seen marvels of the needleworker's art that have tapped into European and American traditions and imagery for generations - an art taught by mothers to daughters. Sometimes exquisite designs have gravitated more consciously toward high art, until working artists have taken up quilting as their chosen medium.

A great variety of imagery and style has graced this coziest of American home arts from the very beginning. Imagery has been traced to almost every imaginable European culture. But the influences of African cultures on American quilting have been less well documented - until now.

In a traveling exhibition (that originated at the San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum) now on view at the Center for the Visual Arts at the Metropolitan State College of Denver, and in a new book unrelated to the exhibition, quiltmaking by black Americans has been given its due. ``Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking'' celebrates the diversity and free-form expressions in cloth by 22 self-taught artists. This exhibit runs the gamut from interesting daily quiltmaking to somewhat more spectacular art works. Maude Southwell Wahlman's book ``Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts'' takes up many of the same issues, profiling a number of mostly older black quilters and tracing styles and imagery to their African roots.

``Signs and Symbols'' is a fascinating study because a craft handed down from mother to daughter would certainly include a kind of history - perhaps lost to conscious memory, yet never wholly gone. Displaced from their cultures of origin, many slaves were taught needlework in the European tradition. But when the women made quilts for their own families, long-suppressed African traditions found their way into the imagery of the needlework. Ms. Wahlman traces the influences of West African aesthetic traditions of cloth making, applique traditions, and religious symbols on antique and contemporary quilts. Wahlman includes the quilters' own explanations about the meaning of their handiwork.

The very natural impulse to make beautiful what is useful, to turn scraps and throwaways into objects that not only delight the eye but also warm loved ones on a cold winter night is described here in frank, clear terms. Wahlman quotes the quilters, who speak with genuine affection about the purposefulness of their craft.

``I hardly ever buy material,'' says great-grandmother Nora Ezell. ``I have a dear friend who may buy one hundred dollars worth of material to make a quilt. That's not what quilting is all about. Scrap quilts are the prettiest quilts, more so than the ones where people try to match all the pieces up....''

``I have a mind to quilt,'' says Leola Pettway of Boykin, Ala. ``When I'm home, I want to do something. I give a lot of quilts away to children, to people whose houses have burned up. When I sit down to quilt, I say, `Lord, be with me....' ''

``We just had a better time than we do now,'' said Lucinda Toomer of her youth on a farm in Georgia in the late 19th and early 20th century. ``Because everything was coming, and everything people had, they made.''

`IT'S a gift from God to be able to do this,'' says Pecolia Warner of her dedication to quiltmaking. ``That's my gift, that's my talent. Making quilts, that's my calling. And since I learned when I was young, I haven't forgotten it.''

While many African-American quilts use repetition and symmetry in the ordering of design, many others explode design in improvisations akin to the improvisations of jazz. The exhibit ``Who'd A Thought It'' emphasizes this factor in African art and in African-American quiltmaking. An anonymous 19th-century quilt hangs from the ceiling in the center of the exhibition so the viewer may see both sides. On one side is the easily recognizable ``flying geese'' European pattern of repetition. On the other side is an exuberant splash of design, which, as gallery curator Sally Perisho explains, was thought to be more beautiful than the perfect symmetry of the European pattern.

``The artists maintain a generous attitude toward the accidental, embracing innovations that originate beyond the conscious domain,'' says Ms. Perisho. ``They allow for diversity, using approximate measurements and dealing creatively with resulting piecing predicaments. So, the design is conceived as an invitation to variation, similar to a jazz musician's approach to music.''

My own favorite quilt illustrates Perisho's thesis perfectly. It is a fabulous string quilt (pieces of variously colored fabric are sewn into strips and then sewn together) by Rosie Lee Tompkins (1985) done in velvets and other napped fabric. The flowing design works itself out in various reds, blues, grays, brilliant loud ``notes'' of aquamarine, and astonishing orange juxtaposed with surprising force. From a little distance, the velvet's nap absorbs the light luxuriantly, giving the already three-dimensional quilt added depth and power.

The movement and energy in the piece, the strong brief repetition of aqua and orange, and the riches of color sit on the wall like distilled music.

``Who'd A Thought It,'' a quilt by Francis Sheppard, lends its name to the show. The strong ``X'' design captures the eye as soon as the viewer turns the right corner. One of the legs of the ``X'' doesn't fit into its appropriate corner. The fabric is almost alarmingly ugly. Nevertheless, the overall effect is powerful, drawing the viewer like a magnet to its elemental design.

IN ``Tents of Armageddon,'' Rosie Lee Tompkins chooses dress-up material again. This time brocades and gold lam possibly from old evening gowns - fill her piece with cascading light. The evocative title and the juxtapositions of textured cloth and formal colors ignites the imagination, playing on the eye like music plays on the ear.

As I walk around the exhibit, and later as I gaze at ``Signs and Symbols,'' I am reminded of all the beautiful objects made to grace the home and the daily lives of their makers - not for money or praise but for the sheer joy of making beautiful what is useful.

To appreciate the variety and intensity of creative expression as it occurs to the ordinary person in ordinary circumstances is to turn another corner of joy. But when the artisan transcends her own dailiness to articulate something of the ineffable life of the spirit in her handiwork, the music of her life, then ``her own works praise her in the gates.'' (Proverbs 31:31)

* `Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking' will be on display at the Center for the Visual Arts at the Metropolitan State College of Denver until Dec. 17.

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