The fabric of memory Elizabeth Talford Scott's quilts teem with history, emotion and art.

January 18, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

To look at Elizabeth Scott's quilts is to see a world of life and a world of art. They refer back to her African ancestors' way of making fabrics, and they resemble abstract art. They reflect her parents and grandparents and growing up on a South Carolina plantation. They include the world around, from stars to insects, that everyone can recognize. And they embody emotions that everyone knows.

Scott, who will be 82 Feb. 7, learned quilting at her mother's knee in South Carolina. But as an adult she gave it up for decades of being a Baltimore wife and mother and working at a succession of jobs. In the late 1960s, she began quilting again, and since then her quilts have earned increasing admiration for their originality, aesthetic appeal and depth of meaning.

Unlike traditional quilts with regular patterns, Scott's are free-form, often employing materials from her life arranged in odd, ungeometrical shapes. Her surfaces can be densely crowded, her compositions usually asymmetrical and her colors intense.

Scott's work has appeared in group shows from New York to Baltimore to Atlanta. But now, for the first time, she's having her own show. "Eyewinkers, Tumbleturds and Candlebugs: The Art of Elizabeth Talford Scott" opened Thursday at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. It displays 45 of her quilts, plus additional quilts related to them by family members and others, and comes complete with catalog. It was organized by George Ciscle, founding director of the city's Contemporary Museum and well-known curator and aficionado of contemporary art.

"I'm very happy about it," Scott says of the show. She is sitting in the second-floor workroom of her West Baltimore house, surrounded by the paraphernalia of her art. The newest quilt, a constellation of stars in a kaleidoscope of colors, its surface awriggle with thousands of beads, sits on the revolving tabletop in front of her. To her right, a worktable contains other materials she uses. At her right hand, needles stick out of the wide upholstered arm of the chair in which she sits. And more quilts occupy the sofa on which the visitor sits, the chair across the way, even the floor -- spread out there for the moment by her daughter, Joyce, herself a nationally recognized artist.

To visit Scott is to know that shows and recognition and art movements could never replace her triumvirate of essentials: her daughter, her memories, her quilts. And that is what makes her art so thoroughly her own and so richly resonant.

Ask her where the inspiration for her extraordinarily creative, colorful and varied designs comes from, and she doesn't talk about abstract art or African roots. She points to her head. In there.

Ask her why she took up quilting again in later life, and she doesn't talk about long-suppressed self-expression finally blossoming forth, though anyone who has seen the quilts will have no doubt that was part of it. "I first started doing this when my child [Joyce] got a scholarship and went away to college," she says. "It was kind of hard for me because my child had never been away before.

"I taught it for a while. I used to have a class in school, and I taught them how to make flowers and things so they could have a quilt. But then the school couldn't afford it anymore, so I decided to do it at home."

Today, scores of quilts later, Scott's art provokes admiration for its mingling of centuries-old traditions with a 20th-century sensibility and an outpouring of deep emotion that springs largely from family memory.

The way it was

Elizabeth Scott was born in South Carolina in 1916. As young as 9, she learned quilting from her mother, but her father and many others in her family and community also quilted. "That was the way of life in those days," she says. "We didn't buy blankets and spreads the way we do today. The churches had 'choirs' that were clubs where people would get together and go to each other's house and do quilting.

"My father worked for the railroad, and he would stop in Charleston, where they had factories that made materials. If there was an oil spot on a piece, they would just whack that off and give it to my father. There was also a button factory, and my father would bring them home.

"At 9 years old, we had to help. We would baste things on and then the mothers would come and sew that on. I learned to strip and other things."

In the show is a quilt by Scott's father and another by her mother that clearly show the piecing and stripping tradition out of which Scott's quilting grew. But Scott never uses strips in regular repetition, nor do her quilts conform to a completely preconceived design. Of her method of working she says, "I put something down and I study it." Her daughter, Joyce, says there have been preliminary drawings at times, but Scott does not feel obliged to follow them. Obviously, she doesn't turn the creative spirit on and off but lets it flow.

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