Carolyn Mazloomi describes herself as "simply a quilter who happens to be African American." Quilt artist, curator, and author of the new book on Afro-American quilting, "Spirits of the Cloth," Dr. Mazloomi may happen to be African American, but she is far more than "simply" a quilter.
Completely self-taught, and without a family quilting tradition, Carolyn's passion began with an encounter with a particular quilt:
"In the early 1970s I had occasion to go to the Dallas Trade Market. It was at a time when the Appalachian people were first starting to sell their quilts wholesale to the trade. I happen to pass by this one dealer's showroom and spotted a quilt hanging on the wall. It was as if I were drawn to the quilt like a magnet. I was in awe of the workmanship and the simple beauty of the piece. It was a very traditional design with an eagle appliqued into each corner. I left Dallas promising myself that I would learn how to quilt. With the help of several 'how to' books, I made my first quilt. I must say it was, and still is, the worst looking quilt I have ever seen."
Nevertheless, it was a start, and Carolyn continued to develop her skills and her own particular style, eventually turning to applique as the medium for her unique narrative quilts:
"Initially, . . . my work was very traditional. Traditional geometric are still my favorite type of quilt. I marvel at the execution of the design. As an engineer, I can appreciate the precision of putting the pieces together and having every angle meet. Unfortunately, I have never been able to make a quilt top with such precision. Whereas I appreciate these quilts, my sewing skills are too inadequate to allow me such precision. It would drive me nuts if I made a patchwork quilt and the angles didn't match. I turned to applique because it was easy to do.
"My work is influenced by African and African American culture. I've always appreciated narrative quilts, and there is a long tradition of narrative fiber work in African history. I want the viewer to look at my quilts and know exactly the message I'm trying to convey. Lately l've been making more improvisational type quilts. I like the freedom of creating such work. However, I will always create narratives as well. If a fixed style identifies one as an artist, then I'm on the 'outside looking in.' I could never be tied to one style or one way of doing anything. The only person I'm interested in satisfying with the quilts I make is myself."
As her interest in quilting grew, Carolyn began to notice something that puzzled her. "In the late 1970s, as I traveled the country as part of my professional job, I would take in quilt exhibitions when the opportunity would arise. One common element that I always found when attending these shows was -- I never saw any other African Americans. I began to think that I was the only African American interested in quilting. Surely there had to be more! With this question constantly nagging at me, I placed an ad in Quilters Newsletter magazine asking any African Americans reading the ad to write. Eight people answered the ad. The common denominator among us all was that each thought there were very few African American quilters, and we were each in guilds were we were the only African American member. We started exchanging letters and the group grew mainly by word-of-mouth. I wanted to create a forum for understanding and appreciating African American quilts, as well as an organization that would educate African Americans themselves about the history, cultural significance, and the monetary value of the quilts they created."
This experience led to the creation of the Women of Color Quilters' Network (WCQN) in 1985. This international organization with 1700 members is devoted to fostering the recognition of the works of fiber artists of color and encouraging their inclusion in museums and traveling exhibitions.
"The greatest accomplishment of the Woman of Color Quilters Network is the touring exhibition 'Spirits of the Cloth,'" Carolyn says. "Quilts made by Network members have been exhibited across the country bringing serious attention to the artists."
"Spirits of the Cloth" is also the title of a major book Carolyn has written about the work of contemporary African American quilters. It grew out of a conviction that the work of African American quilters couldn't be narrowly confined to certain styles or techniques.
"In the 1970s, scholars described African American quilts along aesthetic lines, citing as defining characteristics the use of bright colors, improvisation, multiple patterns, large stitches, and large design elements. Subsequent research by other scholars, notably Cuesta Benberry, revealed that the spectrum of quilts made by artists in the African American quilt community was wider and more complex, encompassing an astonishing variety of techniques, materials, and individual styles. What is an African American quilt? Perhaps it's any quilt made by an African American. Does anyone ask, 'What is a Euro-American or White quilt?'
"When I look at quilt exhibitions today, I find many quilts that are improvisational, quilts that feature African faces, quilts with scenes depicting African life, quilts utilizing African fabrics, and quilts utilizing African signs and symbols. Did African Americans make them? No, African Americans did not make them. Is anyone asking? When asking what are the salient features of African American quilts, a few years ago I would have said that 'many African Americans are inspired to create quilts that celebrate their cultural and artistic legacy and by the rich cultural heritage of Africa.' Well, that's not definitive either, because many Euro-Americans are doing the same. Now I'm at the point 'why label anyone.' At some point one gets tired of being under the microscope.
"I wrote the book, 'Spirits of the Cloth,' to illustrate another view of African American quilts. Improvisational quilts and historic quilts from the antebellum south have long been associated with any exhibition dealing with African American quilts. Nothing had been written about the quilts African American were making today. The quilts made in the African American community are just as varied as the people themselves, and there had to be a vehicle to showcase these quilts.
"I am writing a second book on the subject; however I will publish the book myself. The work created by WCQN members has grown tremendously. Spirits of the Cloth was not everything I wanted it to be. The editor for the publisher (Random House) cut out 50 of the quilts and most of the text. It was a great learning process for me. Publishing companies have a definite idea as to how the book should look and what's going to sell. Whereas, the writer is passionate about her subject matter, the editor is brutal about trimming to conform to the publishing company's standard."
Another thing that Carolyn finds to be different about African American quilters is their relative absence from quilt competitions. "For the most part, African Americans aren't interested in quilt shows. There has never been felt that urge to compete, to conform to rigid criteria in making a quilt. Statistics taken among the membership of WCQN show that quiltmakers make quilts for their personal enjoyment and for their families. They are not interested in exhibiting at quilt shows. Over the past ten years I have curated dozens of quilt exhibitions, and still find it difficult to persuade African Americans to exhibit their quilts."
In addition to her many activities as curator, consultant, author, and quilter, Carolyn finds time to participate in online quilt communities and maintain a website (http://www.mindspring.com/~mazloomi.) "I belong to three online computer communities. I joined them because I am always interested in sharing any information about quiltmaking. At times I feel as though I'm chained to my computer because I use it for my writing and for tracking sales and exhibitions for WCQN. I've had a website up for two years. The reason I put it up was to sell my quilts. There was never any action on it and I had plans to discontinue it. Two weeks ago I sold two 'big ticket' quilts via the website, so now I'm having it redone and I'm keeping it! I have not used the computer for quilt design. I would like to, but I don't have the spare time to experiment. I have never taken a quilt lesson-and there are so many offered. Again, there's no time. There is no balance between the creation of art and being an administrator. It's tough running WCQN and trying to be an artist as well."
As for the future of quilting, Carolyn sees increasing interest in an acceptance of quilting as an art form. "I have served a consultant for authors writing about quilt history, to set designers for stage and screen, corporate and private art collections. As a curator, I can see that the audiences for quilt exhibitions are growing. There is interest by museums, which just a few years ago wouldn't ever consider exhibiting quilts. They realize now that quilts can draw the public to visit museums.
"Audiences are becoming more sophisticated. Their growing knowledge of quilts is not only reflected in attendance at quilt exhibitions but it is also reflected in the sales of quilts. Within the membership of WCQN sales have always been brisk. My problem is finding Network members who want to sell their quilts! Most African American quilters aren't interested in selling their work. As I said before, the quilts are made for personal enjoyment and for friends. Since African Americans have never been part of the quilt show scene, and with all the scholarly interest, their work has long been exhibited in museums and galleries.
"There are only a handful of professional fiber artists within the 1700 membership of WCQN. The demand for their work is intense, with prices ranging from $2,500 to $20,000. per quilt. I have no complaints about sales, the market is good and I feel that it will continue."
With such a dedicated, articulate advocate as Dr.
Mazloomi, African American quilters have every reason to
believe that appreciation of their work will continue to
grow and prosper.
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