Soft cloth, strong messages

Soft cloth, strong messages

quilt making

Soft cloth, strong messages

Wildfires were burning across California as Marion Coleman began Firestorm, her quilt about the flames that ravaged the Oakland and Berkeley Hills in 1991. It is an inferno captured in cloth: the blackened silhouettes of trees, engulfed in a blaze of intricate, swirling stitches.

Coleman, a retired social worker, is now a professional quilter, one of about 80 women — along with the occasional man — who meet monthly as members of the multicultural African American Quilt Guild of Oakland. It is one of a dozen or so guilds across the country dedicated to furthering the tradition in black American culture, but few groups have taken on the challenge of defining a city through quilts.

Pride of the place

About six months ago, Coleman and her guild sisters came up with an elaborate idea: designing narrative quilts that would convey in cloth the personality, history and social complexity of their home ground. “Our name is the African American Quilt Guild of Oakland,” Coleman emphasised. “There’s a sense of pride and possession about our place.” The result is Neighborhoods Coming Together: Quilts Around Oakland, an exhibition of more than 100 quilts.

The quilts reveal as many facets of life here as there are quilters. Alice Beasley’s Lake Merritt Foggy Morning, for example, is a moody riff on a Bay Area weather phenomenon that can sometimes feel like a living thing as it envelops the landscape. Beasley employs layers of blue silk and painted organza to represent the ethereal fog settling in along the lake.

Other quilters take a more sobering tack. In a piece titled Hands Up Don’t Shoot, Jackie Houston, 61, addresses race and police brutality, anchoring her piece around a haunting oversize image of her seven-year-old grandson, his raised hands dramatically, extending beyond the quilt’s edge. Houston said she used her grandson to evoke the perils of being an African-American boy. Speaking of recent deaths around the country, she added, “This could be anybody’s child.”

Historically, quilting has been an art form accessible to marginalised people, especially women, who “visualise their thoughts in cloth,” said Carolyn L. Mazloomi, a quilt historian and independent curator who founded the national nonprofit Women of Color Quilters Network.

“It’s the first thing we’re swaddled in at birth and the last thing that touches our bodies when we leave the earthly realm,” she said.

But for many years, Mazloomi said, cultural historians pigeonholed African-American quilts, assuming that black quilters had a preference for bright colours and large, asymmetrical piecing — like those famously made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama — or signs and symbols related to Africa. The perception was that few quilts by African-American women were finely made, with accurate piece work and small stitching. Mazloomi’s book, And Still We Rise: Race, Culture, and Visual Conversations proves the notion wrong.

At home, Fran Porter, the guild’s 91-year-old grande dame, keeps a “stash” of threads and fabrics in neatly stacked plastic shoe boxes, and a notepad on her night stand to jot down concepts at any hour. She chose to depict graffiti in her quilt because “it both fascinates and repels me,” she said. Porter took up quilting at 82. “I thought it was for old ladies,” she said. “I finally had to acknowledge I was one.”

Porter spent 20 years as a social worker. The guild’s ranks also include a Haitian dance teacher, a retired litigator, a Postal Service auditor and a retired newspaper editor. The current president, Marie Taylor, is a former nun who spent 35 years in a convent. (“I decided I wanted to be in control of my own life,” she said, explaining why she left.)

The emotional resonance of quilting is perhaps best embodied in the life and art of Ora M Knowell, 70, a guild member and the daughter of sharecroppers, who has lost two sons to gun violence in Oakland. Knowell grew up in a shotgun house on a Mississippi plantation. As a girl, she slept by the fire beneath a heavy quilt made by her mother from old wool and cotton clothes. She hated quilting. “We didn’t have a thimble, and our fingers were pricked and sore for having to quilt to keep warm,” Knowell recalled.

But her knack for making stick and cornhusk dolls eventually expanded into an affinity for quilts. When her first son, Christopher, died in 1995, at 25, she channelled her grief into a seven-foot-long quilted panel that included a photo transfer of him at the age of 13 and pink knit gloves — her own symbol of the need for mothers to protect their children. When a second son, Daniel, 34, was killed in 2002, Knowell responded with a 16-yard-long quilt honouring the year’s 113 homicide victims in Oakland.

Sewing the unbalanced

“People say the more death comes, the more immune you are,” she said. “That’s not true.” But eventually, Knowell said she concluded that “I’m not going to let the killer kill me by being fearful.” Her latest quilt, Black Justice Matters, is a hand-and machine-stitched commentary on what she sees as an unbalanced justice system.

About a decade ago, Knowell started the nonprofit West Oakland Lower Bottom Fatherless Children’s Foundation, to help children who are mourning the loss of a family member to violence. She invites the children to help create sock dolls and other art projects, stitching a loved one’s face on the cotton fabric “for comfort.”

“Watching other victims suffer in the same way as myself, unable to speak out and be heard, motivated and inspired me to use my artwork as a voice,” Knowell said. Hers is the soul of a quilter — healing through stories that perhaps only the cloth can tell.

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