Faith Ringgold's patchwork sojourn

A quilt is a quilt is a quilt, right? Wrong. There are Early American quilts, Amish quilts, and Appalachian quilts, with patterns ranging from Star and Diamond to Log Cabin and Lover's Knot. And then there are the quilts of Faith Ringgold.

Ringgold doesn't work just with needle and thread. Originally a painter, she turned to quiltmaking for its portability, its ties to African-American history, women, and to her mother, a fashion designer with whom she has collaborated on many projects. Ringgold hasn't put down her paintbrush.

She has brought her talent as an artist to the quilt medium with vibrant, expressive "story quilts," into which she incorporates painted canvases. The highly successful artist has thrown quiltmaking into the air and brought about a quilt renaissance by elevating the medium from craft to high art. Her images reveal something about her own life as well as the African-American experience as a whole. She confronts the challenges of being a black woman, but without bitterness or lack of joy.

Ringgold has lived in Harlem all her life. Her own background provides much inspiration for her story quilts. She always had a sense that she "could do anything she wanted to," she says. Now she finds her deepest inspiration from "people who rise above adversity." She portrays people living everyday lives, but who are capable of extraordinary things.

The artist is known to many as a children's book illustrator with a buoyant, optimistic, and childlike style. Her most popular book is "Tar Beach," about an eight-year-old girl whose summer sleep-outs on her Harlem apartment building's tar-paper roof spawned dream flights over New York City. It won many awards, including a Caldecott Honor for its illustrations.

An exhibition of Ringgold's work, "Dancing at the Louvre: Faith Ringgold's French Collection and Other Story Quilts," is now at New York City's New Museum of Contemporary Art.

"The French Collection," her most recent quilt paintings, follow a fictional character, an African-American woman named Willia Marie Simone. Living in Paris as an artist and model, she travels to the Louvre, where her friend's daughters dance in front of the Mona Lisa; to Monet's garden at Giverny; to Van Gogh's sunflower field in Arles; and through the studios of Picasso and Matisse.

Letters to Willia's aunt Melissa, scrolled on the quilt borders in black marker, reveal the emotions of Ringgold's alter ego as she encounters racism or juggles the demands of her roles as artist and wife.

Ringgold's quilts can be appreciated on many levels and by many ages. They weave a web of enchantment and also stir thought by examining important social issues.

* 'Dancing at the Louvre' is at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York through Jan. 3, 1999. It will travel to the Akron (Ohio) Art Museum, the Berkeley (Calif.) Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Chicago Cultural Center.

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