Quilts on display as part of library’s ‘The Big Read’

OCEANSIDE — A free exhibit reception and lecture on Feb. 4 based on the research of Dr. Maude Southwell Wahlman introduced a packed house of viewers to “Signs and Symbols: African American Quilts” at the Oceanside Museum of Art.

Monica Chapa-Domercq, Oceanside Public Library, and Danielle Susalla Deery, Oceanside Museum of Art, in front of Martha Jane Pettway, Three Stripe Quilt, 1979. Photo by Promise Yee

The African American quilt exhibit is part of the citywide Big Read program organized by Oceanside Public Library. The Big Read promotes community reading through a monthlong series of activities around the book selection “Their Eyes are Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston.

The story tells of a young African American woman’s journey to find her own voice. It was written by Neale Hurston in 1937 and still holds universal truths on the challenges of coming of age.

The quilts made in the 1980s also tell a story about African American history. Bright colors, vertical lines, asymmetry, improvisation and animal shapes are seen in African American quilts.

“They are from the South U.S. where the tradition is strongest in the nation for African American women,” Danielle Susalla Deery, Oceanside Museum of Art director of exhibits and communications, said. “None of them were trained artists. They learned from their mom or grandmother as a family tradition of making quilts.”

“Quilts are very popular,” Southwell Wahlman said. “They appeal to people for so many reasons. Some people look at the stitches, some people look at the patterns, some people look at symbolism and history. There is a bigger audience for quilting than anything else.”

Southwell Wahlman is the first and foremost-published scholar on African American quilts.

“When I began my research in 1977 nothing was written,” Southwell Wahlman said. “I wanted to document it and try to understand it. And promote these women who make quilts as artists. I hope the younger generation continues the art form.”

Research by Southwell Wahlman reveals more about the women who made the quilts.

“Style is pretty individual,” Southwell Wahlman said. “Improvisation is part of the esthetics. If you’ve done research with the quilter you know what’s their preferred style, who they learned from, are their quilts similar to their mother’s or grandmother’s. All kinds of different questions come to mind.”

Southwell Wahlman works as a professor of global arts at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“To preserve quilts interview the quilter,” Southwell Wahlman said. “Interview the grandmothers. Take pictures of family quilts. Ask each quilter how she learned to make quilts from her own point of view.”

“Signs and Symbols: African American Quilts” will be on display at the Oceanside Museum through March 18.
Grant funds from the National Endowment for the Arts helped support the “Signs and Symbols: African American Quilts” exhibit reception and lecture and other Big Read events planned to take place throughout Oceanside through Feb. 25.

For more information on the Big Read, visit oceansidepubliclibrary.org.

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