MICA professor sews black history

Latest in series of quilts recounts African-American life on the bay

  • With these quilts, says historian Vince Leggett, people "can come back, and their children and grandchildren can come back, and see their work in community displays."
With these quilts, says historian Vince Leggett, people "can… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kerl…)
November 15, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts

She'd been making acclaimed art for years, and many of her works depicted little-known events from history.

So when Joan Gaither encountered a professor a few years back, his words came as a shock.

"Those stories on your quilt, the ones about the Underground Railroad, aren't documented," he said. "So they aren't historically true. They're just hearsay."

Even now, Gaither, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a widely known maker of documentary quilts, bristles at that exclusionary notion of history. Even if Maryland law had permitted slaves to write (it didn't), how could a runaway have taken the time to put his thoughts to paper?

"That hits a nerve with me," she says.

But Gaither, a cheerful woman with a window-rattling laugh, would rather make art than recriminate. She was up late one recent night adding last-minute embellishments to her most recent project, a multicolored, 11 1/2 -by-8-foot quilt called "Black Watermen of the Chesapeake."

The work, the sixth in her American Series, tells in fabric, artifacts and words a largely untold story: African-American life around the Chesapeake Bay. Marylanders will see it for the first time this week, when Gaither brings it to a series of quilting sessions before taking it on a national tour next month. The public will be asked to add their own embellishments.

The gatherings will go a long way toward showing why Gaither, a Baltimore native, has chosen to focus mainly on community quilting.

"What I love about this [kind of] project is that you don't have to have to have credentials to contribute," she says. "You don't have to have somebody else acknowledge your right to tell your story. It gives everyone a chance to say, 'This is who I am. This is who we are.' "

She was raised in the housing complexes of Cherry Hill, the daughter of a chauffeur, and she doesn't recall a time when she wasn't surrounded by caring, creative people. "Stay humble and spiritual," her grandmother told her, "but soar as high as you can."

That last part wasn't always easy. Gaither, 65, remembers long car rides to New Jersey, where her father's white boss had a summer home. En route, the employer could get out to use the restroom wherever he liked. Gaither and her father, both African-American, had to find trees to squat behind. "It's how things are for now," her father told her.

Creative hobbies helped. She always loved fabrics - her mother taught her to quilt - and as her love of art grew, Gaither yearned to make quilts that "held people's stories, not just their bodies."

She started gathering material in the mid-1960s, after graduating from Morgan State and moving to her extended family's 7-acre parcel in the woods of northern Anne Arundel County. Gaither realized she was surrounded by ordinary people who were also remarkable in their American-ness - an uncle who was an educator and raised horses, an aunt who taught math for generations.

Their stories could be lost, and so would those of a county where industry and expansion were displacing families and old-world ways.

"Neighborhoods were changing and disappearing," Gaither says. "I wanted to make sure there was something that documented their existence."

She used a traditional "Baltimore album" format - individual panels depicting people or themes - to capture family members in a 9-by-10-foot "Family Quilt" (2000), then tales from the days of slavery in Maryland, elements of vanishing black life in the county and other subjects in quilts like "At Freedom's Door" and "Trails, Tracks and Tarmac" (both 2006).

They came in eye-catching hues and sizes, but the more closely you looked, the more particulars you saw - jewelry, ornaments, bits of clothing, family pictures, storytelling text. The works appeared at MICA, the Maryland Historical Society, the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis and elsewhere.

Starting with her family and moving outward, she was weaving African-American history in an unusually personal way.

"I didn't even know I was working on a series," Gaither says with a laugh, "but it kept escalating. It surely became one."

Star stuff
The artist says she didn't fully grasp the power of her medium until halfway through "Trails, Tracks and Tarmac." She didn't want to try telling the whole story of northern Anne Arundel herself, so she left space around the quilt's edges, invited community members to quilting sessions and asked them to sew in personal memories.

The new material overflowed the quilt so quickly that she had to hold sessions to teach guests to make their own. People brought in family heirlooms like pickers' checks - post-slavery-era coins that paid for field labor - and manumission papers, documents that granted slaves their freedom. They sewed these into 26 quilts, all of which were hung alongside Gaither's in a 2006 exhibition at Banneker-Douglass.

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