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Jan. 18 - 25, 2001

[Art Reviews]

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How to make an African-American quilt

by Leon Nigrosh

at the University of Massachusetts Medical School Lobby, 55 Lake Avenue north, through February 23.

To commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Black History Month, Umass Medical School invited members of Sisters in Stitches (SIS) to display a selection of over 30 of their colorful and individually sewn quilts. SIS is a group of more than 30 predominately African- American women from Eastern and Central Massachusetts who are primarily interested in producing contemporary quilts for the bed or for the wall.

Because of the specific African heritage theme, many of the works contain images of African scenes or are made from swatches of different ethnic fabrics. The size and complexity of the quilts is as varied as each quilter's background. The smallest work is only ten inches square while the largest would fit a queen-sized bed with ease. A number of quilts have been designed with traditional patchwork quilt patterns, such as Melody Fay Rose's large Millennium Triple Irish Chain Quilt in golds and greens. This painstakingly complex work took almost two years of "sore fingers, blurry eyes, and a lot of love" to complete. For this Quincy resident's first attempt at quiltmaking, it is quite an admirable accomplishment.

At the other end of the design spectrum, Worcester's Susi Ryan is showing her 42 by 28-inch Earthly Woman. Based on a drawing by her teenage daughter, this relative quilting newcomer's design relies only on two fabrics, one a solid brown that indicates the figure's face and arms, and a decoratively patterned cloth used to suggest the dress and headgear. For all its near-abstract simplicity, the image is quite engaging. Holbrook's Norma Booker goes totally abstract in her quilt, Out of Many, One, in which she randomly placed squares and rectangles of brilliantly colored ethnic fabrics, and then further enhanced them by additions of sewn on sliced bone fragments. The mixture of tribal cloths and animal prints eventually comes together as a cohesive whole, echoing the quilt's title.

Roxbury quiltmaker Naomi Henry has several works on display, including Family, which made up of tie-dyed remnants depicting an African mother and daughter in deep conversation. A little more daring than some, Henry has executed the branches of the lone tree in trapunto - an embossed design padded with cotton to create a bas-relief effect. Arlington's Jacqui James' 3 by 4-foot wall piece Kimono, Kimono on the Wall begs the question of whose ethnicity is under consideration. This work is machine-pieced, hand appliquéd, and hand quilted of Africanesque fabrics into the shape of a traditional Japanese robe.

Jeannette Spencer of West Bridgewater is by far the most accomplished member of SIS (and, incidentally, its president) having been a quiltmaker since 1984. She has won several prizes for her work including the Massachusetts state winner of the Land's End and Good Housekeeping All-American Quilt Contest in 1996. This prizewinner, Peaceful Village, which is included in this show, took her four years to complete. It's over six feet square and made up of interlocking blocks depicting abstracted images of African villagers, huts, and fish. Not content with simple patterning, Spencer has tessellated the hand-pieced and appliquéd design much like a jigsaw puzzle, with the vivid images advancing and receding in a symmetrical fashion from the center. Another of her works, African Canopy, is her impression of an aerial view of the African continent. Some areas of the tie-died, checkerboard quilt are nearly barren while others are heavily adorned with vintage buttons, imitating the sparse veldts and the dense jungles.

Newton artist Wanda McClain shows us her own family heritage in a two by four-foot quilt, Braiding Time, in which she portrays an image of her mother on a Sunday night getting her ready for school by trying to braid her hair -- a tangled mess of free-hanging yarn. There are also traditional crazy quilts, lesson quilts, and bedspreads included in this exhibit. While they all vary in style, proficiency, and intent, each quilt stands on its own as an example of the care and dedication each of the quilters has for her craft.

The UMMS lobby is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Call 508-856-2000.


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