Sunday, February 15, 2009

Points of view

Nancy Pettway
Bricklayer Variation, 2003
Quilted fabric, 71 x 71 inches

Thanks to all who showed up for today's Art Cafe and made it so much fun!

There were so many ideas that resonated.
Receptivity to making changes, or improvising, during the act of creating is to me a very important one.

I noticed that many of our comments pointed to qualities we seemed ready to entertain as culturally especially African. The comparison was made to music and to jazz in particular, partly, I think, because of the elements of improvising and making variations on a theme common both to jazz and the Gee's Bend quilts.

According to Eli Leon in the book that Faith brought to share with us (
Who'd a Thought: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking, San Francisco Art & Craft Museum, 1987), the comparison to music is apt and real to such an extent that terms used in African music are carried over to the visual in quilting. For example, "whooping" in the Congo and Angola means a kind of yodeling, breaking from high to low, from a chest to a head voice. To "whoop that down" in quilting means to pull together two contrasting colors.

That's just the beginning. According to Leon, in African culture generally, improvisation on an existing form is actively encouraged from a young age. There are in fact classical forms for dance masks, sculptures, robes, and stools, for instance, but within each form there is enormous scope for individual expression.

"While every society finds its appropriate counterpoise between traditional and individual expression, black African cultures are exceptional in the degree to which they favor individuality."

So our sense of the Africanness of the freedom to mess with a pattern, to allow an accident of placement to remain, or as I like to say, to collaborate with one's materials, turns out to be a culturally reinforced predilection.

The direct quotes from the quilters say it best. Here's quilter Willia Ette Graham:

"When I get it together, well I'm surprised at the quilt that I have made. It's so much different to what it's supposed to have been. It's a new pattern."

And Sherry Byrd: " I don't like to use patterns. I think moreso they're a waste of my time because it's other people's ideas and not that I don't use other people's ideas, but you know , I don't like to do the same things over and over, and so I just kind of build my own quilts as I sit at the machine."


  1. Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to meet with such a lively and thoughtful group of artists. I really enjoyed myself and came away enlightened and energized about improvisation. I know I could use a little more 'jazz' in my soul!
    It occurred to me on my way home last night, while listening to the Blues on the radio, that maybe my choice of music in the studio affects my painting style. I usually listen to Classical or New Age type and my paintings reflect that. I'm going to try painting while listening to Jazz this week!
    I'll post my results on my blog:
    Again, thank you Julia! and thank you ladies. It was a pleasure reconnecting and meeting anew.

  2. You are most welcome, Terry. Thank you for the perspective you brought to the table. I think the discussion about technique is an important one, and I for one am not done thinking it through yet. It is great to hear your response and openness, thank you for sharing it here. It will be fun to see how the new music choice affects your work. Here's to a little jazz in our souls!