Telling stories with quilts

Dr. Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook’s quilt, “They Paved The Way,” includes those killed fighting for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s at the top, leaders and events in gold bricks and West African cowrie shells, including 13 gold-painted ones for the original Colonies at the bottom.

Peggie Hartwell’s earliest memories of quilts were of the comfort they provided.

“I grew up in a house without heat or electricity, so it could get really cold in wintertime,” recalls the 78-year-old of her days as a young child on an Orangeburg County farm. “So we would reuse good parts of old clothing, making strips and patches, and make quilts out of them.”

The quilts not only helped buffer her from the cold, but there was something else that was special.

“When I got into bed, I had my whole family with me. I had my grandfather’s shirt, my grandmother’s apron, part of my mother’s dress, so it was a humbling feeling.”

Years later, long after she had moved to New York City, Hartwell starting quilting in a different way, in a style largely practiced by African-American women and known today as narrative quilting. She now lives in Summerville and remains active in quilting, teaching and lecturing.

“I only made one quilt that you sleep underneath,” says Hartwell, who discovered narrative quilting, also known as art quilting, on her own and describes it as “a living art form because it breathes, that will continue to evolve.”

Local African-American quilters say the gravitation of black women to express themselves and tell stories on fabric lies is not only the African-American heritage of quilting but in oral history. Many trace the roots of art quilts to Harriet Powers, a freed African-American slave in Georgia who created the “Bible Quilt” in 1886 and the “Pictorial Quilt” in 1898.

Georgette Mayo, the processing archivist at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center, is not a narrative quilter but has taken an interest in them since she was in college.

“African-American women have been making quilts since enslavement but didn’t start telling stories in quilts until later,” Mayo says.

She traces a resurgence of narrative quilting in the 1980s to the work of Faith Ringgold, who is now 85 and still active. Just this week, Ringgold made news as the Museum of Modern Art became the latest of prestigious museums to acquire and display her work. MOMA purchased “American People Series #20: Die,” which she created in 1967.

One major boost in awareness came again in 1996 after photojournalist Roland Freeman published a book, “A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories,” demonstrating how the craft is practiced across the United States.

Today, quilt artists like Hartwell are funneling their emotions over racial turmoil and gun violence, such as the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and recent police killings of mostly unarmed black men, in their art.

An art show titled “The Holy City: Art of Love, Unity & Resurrection,” which is a response to the shootings at Emanuel and largely made up of art quilts by African-American women, ended on July 17. Meanwhile, a retrospective exhibition by Charleston’s Dr. Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook will run until Friday at the Charleston Area Convention Center in North Charleston.

Cookie Washington organized “The Holy City” exhibit after a flood of phone calls and emails she received in the hours and days after the Emanuel shootings on June 17, 2015.

“I could have filled this whole gallery with a hundred more quilts,” Washington said while the exhibit was still going on. “You do this for yourself. You do this to heal. You do this to comfort each other.”

Washington started her adult working life as a wedding gown designer, which she still does occasionally.

But as she faced a divorce from her first husband and middle age, Washington ached for a change.

“Making pretty girls pretty for their wedding is nice, but the world will not be changed because the bride looks lovely in her wedding dress,” says Washington, adding that the combination of pulling off the perfect wedding and reading a book led her to new, deeper calling.

“I did the most beautiful wedding that I had done in nearly 20 years. The bride was beautiful and sweet. I did the mother’s dress and mother-in-law’s dress. I was sitting in the Botanical Garden in Columbia and I thought, ‘I’m done. I can be done with this.’ ”

Then she read “Communion of the Spirits” and realized that narrative quilting was what she wanted to do.

“I loved making wedding dresses because it made people happy, but to do that, I had to bend to their will. When I do this, I give me what I want,” says Washington, adding that there is another reason she likes using fabric and stitching as her paint and canvas.

“If I were a painter, as an African-American painter living in the South, I’d have to be three times as good as Picasso to ever get noticed. Doing this, because it’s a different art form, I’m not competing with the guys and the big guys. This is our own thing and it feels very comfortable.”

Washington’s dedication to the art goes beyond her own work. Among others, she has organized and curated 10 annual art quilt shows for the city of North Charleston that runs every year in the spring. She’s already working on next year’s show, which will have the theme “Higher Ground.”

Washington said many of the art quilts that are displayed at North Charleston City Hall are purchased and that there’s a growing market for them.

“For a long time, it was a hidden, almost secret, art form, but there’s a growing interest in African-American art quilting and it excites me so much,” she says.

And yet making the art for money doesn’t seem to be a driving factor for many old-school African-American quilters, such as O’Bryant-Seabrook.

The third generation educator, who is 82, is officially retired but continues to travel the country giving lectures and exhibiting her quilts.

O’Bryant-Seabrook’s motivation for quilting is to educate.

“One reason I quilt is that I consider them to be like the (educational) bulletin boards I made when I was an elementary school teacher. I research all of my quilts. Before the internet, I’d go to the library. Quilters would tease me that when they got ready to do a quilt, they’d go to the fabric store, but that I went to the library.”

Her retrospective show at the convention center displays quilts she’s done over two decades and each one has a small “NFS” — not for sale — next to them. The show, titled “Parallel Thoughts/Single Minded: The Art Quilts of Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook with Prose by EOB3,” matches her quilts with the prose of her son, Evans O’Bryant III. The works were created separately but were stunningly complementary.

One example came when O’Bryant-Seabrook was asked to be one of 44 art quilters to contribute a work in celebration of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, for the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

At Thanksgiving dinner in November 2008, she told her family that the quilt she had made honored those who had made it possible for the first African-American to be elected president of the United States.

The quilt was going to named, “They Paved The Way.”

“My son jumped up from the table, went to his computer and showed me some prose he wrote on the night of the election. The last line was ‘Thanks to the pavers.’”

That led to more similar matchings of prose by Evans O’Bryant to quilts his mother had made.

Meanwhile, O’Bryant-Seabrook sees quilting as something that almost possesses her.

“Once I learned to do them to my personal satisfaction, I stopped doing them,” says O’Bryant-Seabrook. “I tell people all the time that I could let quilting go tomorrow but quilting won’t let me go.”