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November 2008

Fabric of Life
Written By: 
Emily Perlman Abedon
Photographs By: 
Thomas McElwee

Meet five of the Lowcountry’s inspired African American quilters whose avant-garde artworks and cultural legacies are connected by a thread

Fabric is their principal medium; the needle, a primary tool. Their work, however, is as individual, diverse, and personal as their unique life journeys have been. Sprung from the utilitarian warmth of traditional quilts but elevated to fine art, these visually stunning woven expressions meld memory and metaphor with dreams and imagination and redefine the meaning of the historical textile as narrator, provocateur, and meditating tool.

Recently featured in Quilting African American Women’s History: Our Challenges, Creativity, and Champions and an eponymous traveling show, art quilts have found growing national appreciation. “Audiences are becoming more sophisticated,” says Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi, Ph.D., an internationally 
renowned quilt artist and historian who curated the project (currently at the Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center in Ohio) and founded the Women of Color Quilters Network. “Art quilts are gaining attention from interested scholars and savvy collectors who have come to recognize this work as a validating expression of cultural genius.”

Dr. Mazloomi delights in the fertile ground of the South—particularly the Lowcountry—that has nourished these modern fiber artists. “Their talents are a testament to this region’s rich history of highly skilled quilt work, its heritage of multi-faceted techniques, and its legacy of poignant storytelling with powerful imagery,” she notes. “The voices of African American women are stitched into their quilts, shedding light on lives and experiences and making statements about the resilience and the beauty of the human spirit.”

Catherine M. Lamkin

“I am influenced by words and language,” says Catherine Lamkin, whose identity as an artist first blossomed on the written page many years ago when she was a New York City-based poet. 
Lyrical in its own right, the collage aesthetic that characterizes much of Lamkin’s current work supports her bold use of metaphor, 
imagery, and unexpected details, transforming the traditional quilt with an element of surrealism. This dreamlike sensibility is anchored by her socially conscious subject matter that draws from African American history and important figures in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as autobiographical events.

In her Charleston home studio—where she works in the evenings, after full days as a director of health education for DHEC—Lamkin is surrounded by various beloved elements that drive her vision, including old photographs, influential music, and colorful cloths. Her frequent use of African fabrics, beads, and cowrie’s shells is not an Afrocentric leaning based simply on style preference. “I am a black 
woman, and these are my points of reference,” she explains. “My quilts pay homage to 
people who have touched my life.” Among those that have sparked her multimedia tributes are barrier-breaking individuals such as activist-singer Nina Simone, historian Carter G. Woodson, and civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

Lamkin’s daughter, Kebe, and husband, Kurtis, serve as prominent muses as well. But ultimate praise is reserved for the individual who first introduced a young Catherine to the transformative power of mankind’s creative spirit by bringing her to sophisticated museums, galleries, and theaters. “Art brings a sense of wonderment to your life, and I will forever be grateful to my mother for 
imparting that gift to me,” says Lamkin, who is elated that she and mom, Winifred Sanders (see page 158), now have quilts exhibited together nationwide. “I cannot remember a moment in my life when my mother was not making something. When she decided to become a nontraditional quilter and showed me how you could paint with fabric, I was amazed and inspired.”

Peggie Hartwell

Gratitude and a sense of spiritual connectedness are frequent themes in Peggie Hartwell’s 
motifs, which have dazzled viewers in 
exhibitions around the country, made their way to the permanent collection of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and garnered the quilter a wide-reaching voice as part of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art oral history project.

Hartwell’s earlier career as a dancer 
informs the fluid grace and stage presence that distinguish her vibrant pieces. Hailing from a long line of quilt-making women, 
she finds joy in expressing her appreciation—via texture, technique, and color—for that needlework legacy and for the many other soul-supporting traditions and customs from which she descends.

The Summerville-based artist credits her beloved grandfather, a farmer and master storyteller, for passing along the narrative skill that forms the backbone of her imagery. Hartwell knows that her quilts speak out loud, and she is happiest when young people hear that voice and then find their own.

“At least 90 percent of my work has children in it,” says the Springfield, South Carolina, native, who has devoted much of her time to teaching young people how to express themselves with cloth. “Children’s creations reunite us with an inspired world found only in the young. They are the true visionaries. In their work, art becomes countless languages of color and sound.”

Dr. Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook

Regard an art quilt created by Dr. Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook, and you’re likely to learn a few things. The longtime teacher—a third-generation 
educator in Charleston County schools—admits she slips a lesson into every piece. “Sometimes they’re general, like the love of God or importance of family, and sometimes they’re specific history lessons,” explains O’Bryant-Seabrook, who conducts extensive research to furnish her thought-provoking quilts with an authoritative voice.

Having made history as The Citadel’s first African American professor (and one of only two women teaching there at the time), she became drawn two decades ago to the possibilities of art quilts. Her work has been a forum through which to pay tribute to equally groundbreaking women.

Her visual praise songs to unheralded heroines are distinguished by authenticity and steeped in symbolism. For instance, in a piece saluting female Buffalo Soldier Cathay Williams, she perfectly replicates the Civil War-era enlistment and discharge papers the artist unearthed from the National Archives. Among the many ways she has used color and texture to make a sociopolitical statement is her use of real stones to represent female strength. “Sometimes women who spread their wings have to travel a rocky road,” she says.

O’Bryant-Seabrook’s introduction to her medium is unusual in that she recalls no exposure to it until she was an adult. In the 1980s, close to retirement, she stumbled upon her 
artistic talent. While observing a middle 
school special education class in which the instructor was teaching cross-stitch, O’Bryant-Seabrook asked for directions to help a student. Fascinated with the process, she went so far as to walk into her first needlework store, purchase a few cross-stitch graphs, and complete some squares to frame. Months later in a high school breezeway, she became unexpectedly 
captivated by a quilt featuring cross-stitched Charleston-themed blocks as part of a raffle.

She didn’t win the prize, so she decided to cross-stitch her own Charleston scenes of African Americans and have the blocks made into a quilt titled A Record of a Rich Heritage. During the process, she learned of a comprehensive quilting course; Sampler, completed in that class, is the only traditional quilt she ever produced before diving straight into the kind of barrier-breaking designs for which she has now earned international acclaim.

The artist travels extensively to lecture about her work, bringing along a portable sewing machine so she’s never without the ability to create. “These quilts have their own life; I just follow where they lead,” says O’Bryant-Seabrook, who’s currently working on a series of jazz greats. “Even when there are signs all over a quilt show saying, ‘Please Do Not Touch,’ something about cloth’s association with warmth and closeness makes it irresistible. There’s something about fabric that’s magical.”

Torreah “Cookie” Washington

“My dreams are filled with colors,” says Torreah Washington, who sometimes, to conjure the spirit of inspiration, sleeps or finds a deep meditative state atop yards of fabric. “When I wake up, it’s as if my heart has given birth to my textile creations.”

A full-time artist, Washington works in her Rhodes Art Center studio in North Charleston. Among the endeavors launched from her subconscious is a series of black Madonnas, eight pieces—as her dream directed—that illustrate her awe, faith, and passion. “I’m deeply spiritual and that majorly influences my work,” she explains. “I want to create art that can uplift: that teaches and heals rather than divides. I want my art to challenge you to learn more about the subject and your own feelings about it.”

Over the years, the artist has designed dolls, journal covers, purses, and pillows, but her commitment to art quilts centers her energy in a more profound place. Her unique visions, painted in cloth, touch upon undiluted gratitude and sacred reverence. Beautiful, soaring, and always exhibiting expressive freedom, her quilts pay homage to descendants of slavery by honoring those who broke its bonds. “As long as we’ve been on the shores of America, we’ve had to quilt as a necessity, even if it took sacks or rags to keep our children warm,” Washington says. “Though I’m working in a centuries-old medium, I’m shifting the historical tradition to accommodate a new application. ”

She recalls that when she was a child her grandfather paid 50 cents for her first sewn piece, a doll dress. By college, she was a professional dressmaker. A self-proclaimed “Air Force brat,” Washington’s burning desire as a girl was to be a fighter pilot. She is currently working 
on obtaining a grant that will allow her to channel that dream into a “Women in Aviation” series. The mother of two daughters, Washington considers one of her greatest passions the empowerment of young black girls—a message she relays via strong feminine imagery such as Female Astronauts and Black Goddesses.

Washington’s quilts celebrate black women from pre-monotheism through the new millennium, offering an aesthetic that intends to outlast time and place. “I’m not at all interested in creating art that matches your furniture,” she says. “I want my fiber art to strive toward a 
universal means of communication.”

Winifred Sanders

“I want to do my own thing,” says Winifred Sanders, describing why, after a lifetime of mastering nearly every conceivable form of needlework, she is now an art quilter through and through. “Anything goes. I have total artistic freedom.”

A former dressmaker educated at Central Needle and Trade High School (now called the High School of Fashion Industries) in the heart of Manhattan’s garment district, Sanders can’t remember a day when she wasn’t sewing. With her prolificacy unabated and her spirit unfettered, her quilts reveal the joy, love, and insight that have accompanied the artist during her more-than-70-year journey in textiles. “I find it very peaceful to sew,” explains Sanders, who traces her skill to ancestral Gullah roots, childhood summers spent visiting her mother on James Island, and frequent travels to Charleston to see her family.

Raised in New York City by her paternal grandmother and an ever-inspirational aunt named Anna Smalls, Sanders sews quilts that are usually celebrations of women. Smalls severed one arm in an industrial accident, yet taught her young niece all of the sewing and cooking skills she knew and continued to use despite the loss of her limb.

That unstoppable vitality comes through in Sanders’ pictorial patches, which, she says, often take a lighthearted approach, even when the theme is hard-hitting. For instance, she discovered the focus for her salute to the many styles of women’s hairdos, in which one of the four figures is bald, after witnessing the beauty of women who have undergone chemotherapy.

Sanders’ New York home provides an ideal environment for people-watching. Her neighborhood’s bustling and colorful streets are filled with characters of innumerable moods. Their nuanced expressions made their way onto the faces of the artist’s many fabric dolls for years before she directed her focus toward quilts.

“She cut loose when she joined the 
Women of Color Quilters Network and discovered the art within her soul,” says her daughter, Catherine Lamkin, who saw the healing influence of Sanders’ creations when the senior artist’s husband—her biggest fan and supporter—passed away in 2003, just days before their 51st anniversary. “The 
desire to create burned dimly in her during my father’s illness, but burst into flames after his passing. Her first art quilt after his death, 
In Her Loving Arms, was exquisite.”

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