The quilt exhibit at Northwestern University’s Dittmar Gallery in the Norris University Center is beautiful, poignant and filled with personal memories and recent history, well worth a visit before it closes March 4.

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The exhibit, Radiant Compositions II – Quilts of Inspiration and Remembrance, features quilts made by Tracy L. Vaughn-Manley and her “sister quilters,” Bettye-Jo Bonds and Melissa Blount. The three quilters’ styles and content vary substantially.

The majority of the quilts were made by Vaughn-Manley, an assistant professor of African American studies and the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor of Instruction at Northwestern. A renowned quilt artist, Vaughn-Manley has been featured in quilting publications and written about the intersection of quilting, literature and African American history. 

Tracy Vaughn-Manley. Credit: Courtesy of Tracy Vaughn-Manley

Quilts have been made for hundreds of years to provide comfort, warmth, protection and a sense of home. Before and after the Civil War, quilts were often embedded with signs and a visual shorthand to provide directions to slaves trying to escape to freedom. 

Last June, Vaughn-Manley spoke about how she became a quilt artist and how it has influenced her scholarship in African American literature. She uses fabrics like silk, cotton, wool, flannel, mud cloth and velvet in rich colors, and modern technology such as photo transfer. Most pieces are hand-pieced and quilted, often with appliqué and embroidery. 

Jimmy and Mable honors Tracy L. Vaughn-Manley’s maternal grandparents and includes a photo of them from the 1940s. Credit: Wendi Kromash

Her influences are her family history, modern art and literature. Every square is unique; the workmanship is impeccable. She “signs” her initials and dates her art using her distinctive needlework. 

Her first quilt, Jimmy and Mable, honors the memory of her maternal grandparents and includes a photo of them as they strolled in Chicago during the 1940s. Rivers Run Through Me was inspired by the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes and Hibiscus Happiness was inspired by Andy Warhol’s Flowers. The quilt For Baby Suggs, Holy was inspired by Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, the novel Beloved.

The sizes of the quilts vary greatly. Beauty and Baby Too, made in honor of Vaughn-Manley’s mother, is 25.75 inches by 28 inches. Feeling Orange Again but Blue Sometimes, inspired by a song of the same name by the vocalist Ledisi, is larger, 85.5 inches by 35.25 inches. Several quilts are on loan from private collections.

One of the sister quilters, Bettye-Jo Bonds, has several quilts displayed at the exhbit. Dreams of My Childhood is a stunning piece of art as well as a family heirloom. Her style is different from Vaughn-Manley, but Bonds’ artistry is equally captivating.

Look at the detailed square from this quilt: it relates to many childhoods, regardless of race and religion.

Her African Radiance is a joyous celebration of ethnic pride.

African Radiance by Bettye-Jo Bonds is on display at the Dittmar Gallery through March 4. Credit: Wendi Kromash

The other sister quilter, Melissa Blount, an Evanston psychologist and artist, has a single quilt in this exhibit and it is a showstopper. She created the largest quilt, one so large (108 inches by 108 inches) there wasn’t a wall large enough to display it at full height.

The large Black Lives Matter Witness Quilt by Melissa Blount honors lost Black lives with memorial squares. Credit: Wendi Kromash
An up-close look at a square from the Black Lives Matter Witness Quilt by Melissa Blount. Credit: Wendi Kromash

The gallery note for the Black Lives Matter Witness Quilt states that it memorializes “Black women, girls and babies caught at the intersection of racial, economic and gender violence.” 

Blount organized and participated in sewing circles to create each panel. Each square honors a life, honoring the deceased through something tangible and beautiful, both individually and collectively. The quilt is a powerful and overwhelming piece of art.

Radiant Compositions II closes Saturday, March 4. The Dittmar Gallery in the Norris Center is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday, and parking is free in most campus lots after 4 p.m. weekdays and all day on weekends. Pop in one evening before attending a concert or seeing a show on campus. 

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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