Heritage is all sewn up Design: Decorative quilts at the Maryland Historical Society weave a rich history of African-American families.

January 25, 1998|By Jennifer E. Mabry | Jennifer E. Mabry,SUN STAFF

Swatches of metallic gold fabric lie next to M&M wrappers. There's also a yellowed newspaper clipping, Popsicle sticks, bottle tops and stray pieces of yarn. These are all sewn together over several yards of fabric.

This crazy quilt, created by children in the Police Athletic League program, is just one of several quilts that can be viewed Jan. 31 at a celebration at the Maryland Historical Society. As a prelude to Black History Month, the historical society will be celebrating its second annual "A Maryland Family Reunion: An African American Culture History and Quilts." The celebration is part of a quilting exhibition that began earlier this month and can be seen at the society through April 19.

Next weekend's event will include activities related to quilting and the preservation of family histories as well as opportunities for the public to learn about the art form and its historical significance in the black community.

The program "is a way to bring families together to celebrate African-American history," says youth and family program specialist Janet Surrett. However, the program is not just for blacks, but for all Marylanders.

Surrett hopes the program will "get people interested in preserving their own family stories, or their own family history," through the creation of quilts.

Though quilts are often thought of as utilitarian objects, those featured in this program "were never meant to be anything but decorative," says Melanie gordon-Healy, organizer of the Shiloh senior women's group, whose quilt is featured in the program.

"They are not bed quilts," adds Healy, a master quilter and historian who teaches and works with the senior women's quilting group.

Crazy quilts

The group of approximately 15 women, who convene weekly at Shiloh Christian Community Church to sew quilts, was asked by the historical society to sew a crazy quilt for the program. Most of the women have quilted or sewn for years, but none was familiar with the crazy quilt, which takes its name from its random patterning.

Unlike other quilts, the crazy quilt is a nondeliberate meshing of color and different sizes and shapes of fabric.

The women at Shiloh were excited about the project because of the challenge it presented. Juanita Bryan has been with the group for two years and had never heard of crazy quilts. "I can see what she means when she says it's a crazy quilt," Bryan says. "You could see it forming into something, and it looked very, very nice. We learned a lot of little stitchings, and it was very educational."

According to Mattie Barksdale, 75, who has been with the group for the duration of its eight-year existence, "It was different and challenging because of the variety and intricacy involved in the types of stitching techniques used."

Daisy Richardson, 72, who has been with the quilting group for three years, says, "It was something I had always wanted to do. When the colors came together, it was so beautiful to see, and I was very proud to be a part of it."

Interspersed among the lace, appliques and faux pearls, several small spiders and webs can also be found. Gordon-Healy says the spiders are linked to a story from West African folklore titled "Anansa." Considered guardians of African people, Healy says, the spiders are a sacred symbol, a reminder or representation of "who we are."

It is that kind of tale, the bits and pieces of cultural and personal history woven into the fabric, that Surrett believes is important to the celebration. The quilting project "brings together diverse fabrics and makes a nice metaphor," she says, for the links that generations of people, no matter their age or race, have within their own family structures.

The children in the PAL program were assisted in their quilt-making by students at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. The children scoured their neighborhoods and homes, collecting items and ideas to help piece together quilts.

A 9-year-old girl named Stacey says, "We pasted square pieces, put some beads in to make a pillow and then we designed it with the other art and it was done." Stacey says she enjoyed making the art and hoped that people who saw the children's quilt would enjoy it. "I want people to say it looks beautiful."

A third crazy quilt on display was made by 81-year-old Elizabeth Scott, a master quilter known throughout Maryland and the country. A separate exhibit featuring 45 quilts created by Scott can be viewed through March 1 at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Joyce Scott, Elizabeth's daughter and a textile artist herself, will speak during the celebration about the connection that quilting makes between generations of black women, and the role it has played in her relationship with her mother. Scott describes her mother's quilting as abstract art fused with new techniques.

"Art is life, it's basic to life," Joyce Scott says, adding that she hopes those attending the program will leave with "a desire to look around and know about their own family art forms, and not take them for granted."

In addition to the display of quilts there will be activities and mini-workshops. People will be able to learn how to create their own quilts, and how to preserve their family's history using household artifacts.

There will also be music and performance art related to quilting and family heritage.


Admission to "A Maryland Family Reunion" is $4 for adults, $2 for children, students and seniors. Families of up to five people will be admitted for $10. For more information, call 410-685-3750, Ext. 372. Reservations are encouraged.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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