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The patchwork quilt, with its connotations of thrift, improvisation and community, seems as American as apple pie.
So it is remarkable that the sumptuous quilt exhibit “Stitched in Tradition: Art Quilts of the Black Threads Collective” on view at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center during African American History Month, was orchestrated from a place where quilting is virtually unknown.
Dr. Tracy Vaughn-Manley, founder of the Black Threads Collective and the exhibit’s curator and chief contributor, staged the Noyes show almost entirely from her home on the outskirts of Doha, Qatar, where the RoundTable reached her by telephone. She is in Doha until 2015 as an associate professor of liberal arts in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar.
Dr. Vaughn-Manley’s introduction to the exhibit underscores the links between the luxurious quilts on display and the utilitarian bed coverings once stitched by slaves and poor women to keep their families warm. Whether making do with scraps of worn-out clothing or designing with opulent fabrics, today’s quilters transcend their other roles as “wives, mothers, or servants” and “[become] artists.”
“To look at a quilt is to see history,” she continues. The quilts in the exhibit, she says, “represent the resilience of Americans in general and of African American women in particular.”
Quilts have stories to tell, and those at Noyes are no exception. They reflect facets of the African-American experience such as pride (“Inner Queen,” a quilt with female figures wearing robes and head wraps of African fabric), nostalgia (“Up the Road – Playing With My Sister,” a quilt appliquéd with figures of children at play) and loyalty (“Chicago Memory,” a kaleidoscopic traditional quilt signed by Chicagoans, including Richard J. Daley).
Some are laugh-aloud funny. “It’s OK to Be Different” is a riff on the familiar sunbonnet quilt, with one girl facing the wrong direction. “Chicken Buffet (recipes included)” features appliquéd chickens – on a couch (chicken divan), under a beach umbrella (fried), in a baseball catcher’s mask (cacciatore).
Dr. Vaughn-Manley’s first quilt is in the show. “Jimmy and Mable” pays homage to her grandparents, the stylish young lovers of the 1940s photo in its center panel.
Her vivid “Feelin’ Orange Again But Sometimes Blue” is named for a song and acquired special meaning because, instead of stenciling a design for her quilting stitches as usual, Dr. Vaughn-Manley asked her mother to create one. She says that freehand “doodle” looks to her like a mother and baby.
“After the Fire” incorporates into a somber pattern sprinkled with silver and gray the only two pieces of clothing that survived a fire in her aunt’s West Side two-flat. While living for most of a summer in a Hampton Inn with her aunt, who was suffering from dementia as well as displacement, Dr. Vaughn-Manley quilted to maintain her equilibrium. “In one of the most distressing times,” she says, “I found you can make something beautiful.”
Having expressed her aversion to sewing as far back as junior high, Dr. Vaughn-Manley was not a likely convert to the art that became her passion. When, in 2002, a faculty colleague at Smith College introduced herself as a quilter, Dr. Vaughn-Manley says, “That was a non-starter.”
One look at her colleague’s quilts changed her mind. “You have to teach me,” she told her new friend. She was hooked.
Her appointment to the Northwestern faculty brought Dr. Vaughn-Manley to Chicago in the summer of 2004. She offered to make a quilt for an attorney friend, Cheryl Bonds-Rayner, in return for some legal help. Ms. Bonds-Rayner saw her quilts and could hardly wait to show her mother.
Bettye-Jo Bonds had always thought about quilting but was not sure how to begin. When Dr. Vaughn-Manley proposed starting a group on the South Side “to preserve and perpetuate what has been important to women,” Ms. Bonds and her daughter spread the word. Dr. Vaughn-Manley located a meeting room in the lively Carter G. Woodson Library.
Fourteen prospective quilters showed up in September 2004 for the first meeting. Dr. Vaughn-Manley laid down two ground rules: Each member, regardless of her sewing skills or experience, would have to learn to make one quilt entirely by hand, and the last member to join would have to teach the next.
She says she wanted to ensure that the group would be a “collective” rather than a “guild” – that no one would be “teacher,” that everyone would have a voice and that they would be “doing something more substantive than a hobby or craft.
“We are preserving a legacy,” she says – one that includes the now-famous quilts of the isolated and impoverished women of Gee’s Bend, Ala. Fleetwood-Jourdain and Piven theatres told their story in a play reading on Feb. 4.
Dr. Vaughn-Manley still quilts without a pattern and by hand, while other women of the Black Threads Collective have developed their own quilting preferences. Ms. Bonds, who stepped in to head the group in its founder’s absence, helped gather the quilts for the exhibit.
Since arriving in Qatar, Dr. Vaughn-Manley has found ways to introduce American quilting to a culture where weaving and carpets dominate the field of textiles. More than 500 people, many of them Qatari locals, attended a solo exhibit of her quilts in the multi-institutional compound called Education City.
Dr. Vaughn-Manley can see the Persian Gulf from her windows and says the gulf front, or Corniche, with its cyclists and picnickers, reminds her of Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. She quilts between classes and appointments and says she is searching for “something saucy” to name her latest work. The earlier “Arabian Twilight,” inspired by the Doha skyline, hangs at the midpoint of the exhibit.
Suspended between floors in the Noyes stairwell, it is a reminder that, however strongly rooted in American soil, traditions can be transplanted and coaxed to flower – even in the desert.