Master Quilter Phyllis Stephens: The Collector of Stories

Master Quilter Phyllis Stephens:

The Collector of Stories

by Yvonne Bynoe

 

"The Pretender" (2022) | Credit: Richard Beavers Gallery and Phyllis Stephens 

In the art world, insiders are always on the hunt for the next young star. Consequently, many mid-career artists, particularly those living outside of New York and Los Angeles, are overlooked and end up creating fantastic work under the industry's radar. It's therefore exciting to see 67-year-old textile artist, Phyllis Stephens experiencing a career upswing.

Stephens is a fifth generation quilter based in Atlanta, GA who has been creating quilts for nearly 40 years. Her intricate quilts are so exquisitely made that some viewers mistake them for  large-scale paintings. She is preparing for her first solo exhibition, Movement of Material, with Almine Rech Gallery from January 12- February 25, 2023 in their New York location. Stephens had previously participated in three group exhibitions in Almine Rech galleries in Shanghai, Paris and Aspen.

According to Almine Rech Gallery, the ten new works in Stephens upcoming solo exhibition are focused on dance, an important part of her personal and artistic life. She associates dance with individual liberation as well as to the ebullience of gatherings of family and friends saying, "Dance has power…It has everything you want to bring, happiness and joy and emotions that we don't even recognize. There's nothing like a slow dance, especially if you love that person. There's nothing like hearing your song and being able to dance to it…I'm emotionally connected to the power of dance. There's a freedom to it…"

Stephens has notable private and institutional collectors, including Beth Rudin DeWoody, Oprah Winfrey, Arthur Lewis, Samuel L. and LaTanya Jackson, Denzel and Paulette Washington, the late Aretha Franklin, Citicorp Group (New York) and the National Museum of Ghana. Her solo exhibition with Almine Rech will undoubtedly provide Stephen with broader market access and a higher level of public visibility.

Stephens’ artistic practice is centered on African Americans. More specifically, she portrays Black joy. Similar to artists such as Amy Sherald and Derrick Adams, Stephens is using her quilts to define the experience of being Black in the United States beyond the scope of historical subjects, racial oppression and overcoming adversity.

"My Life Is A Bed of Roses" (2021) | Credit: Richard Beavers Galllery, Almine Rech Gallery and Phyllis Stephens

Stephens is represented by both the Richard Beavers Gallery and Almine Rech Gallery. In their joint installation at the Armory Show in 2021, Stephens' quilt, "My Life Is A Bed of Roses" drew raves. It portrays a reclining Black woman in the midst of abundance. She holds a ripe red apple in one hand, while another already eaten one lies near her. The woman has been enjoying a bottle of wine in an environment rich with flowers, birds, and butterflies. The work represents a Black woman who is taking a well-deserved respite to recharge her spirit. 

"A Natural Woman" (2020) | Credit: Phyllis Stephens 

Stephens concentration on joy and happiness doesn't mean that she avoids serious issues that impact Black Americans. She tackles them but in a way that positions Black Americans as exercising autonomy by choosing to be anchored in their own glory. Her Natural Beauty series is based on the experiences of her close family friend who moved to Arkansas for a new job. The 23-year-old college graduate was told that she was going to be terminated if she did not cut her locs because they were not considered professional. However, the young woman's White co-worker who had multicolored hair didn't receive the same ultimatum. The series addresses how Black women are subjected to having their personal image shaped by people who don't look like them.

It should be noted that, for decades, African-American women have been coerced into wearing wigs or straightening their hair to conform to European beauty standards as a condition of maintaining their employment. To combat this racially biased practice, the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair) Act has been passed in 18 states and in the District of Columbia, and in approximately 40 U.S. cities, making it illegal to discriminate against Black women and girls for wearing natural hair styles such as braids, locs, cornrows, twists, and afros.

It is fair to say that Stephens is benefitting from the success of well-known artists working with textiles such as Bisa Butler, Sanford Biggers, Faith Ringgold and African artist, Billie Zangewa. Many credit the 2002 The Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston with increasing interest for textiles within the art world. The exhibition went on to the Whitney Museum of American Art and several other major museums.

The show featured quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a rural town where, for generations, African-American women had been making multicolored and abstract quilts. Quilts, which are made from scraps of discarded cloth expertly sewn together to make something beautiful and useful, is the epitome of Black people "making something out of nothing." The Quilts of Gee Bend exhibition caused mainstream art critics to reclassify quilts from craftwork to fine art.  

There is a long history of African-American women creating sophisticated, narrative-driven quilts. Harriet Powers, who was born in 1837 into slavery in Clarke County, Georgia, is acknowledged as one of the earliest creators of storytelling quilts. She began creating quilts after she was emancipated from slavery. Her two surviving quilts are “The Bible Quilt” (1886), and “The Pictorial Quilt” (1898). The former quilt was exhibited at the Athens, Georgia Cotton Fair of 1886. She employed appliqué techniques and storytelling often found in the textiles of Western Africa. While these textiles had typically been created by men, when the tradition came to the U.S., it was carried on primarily by Black women creators. Powers' work has been compared to textiles in Dahomey, West Africa.  

Credit: Guggenheim Museum and Faith Ringgold 

Moreover, Faith Ringgold's contribution to the elevation of quilts has to be acknowledged. Ringgold, who is in her nineties, recently had her first New York retrospective at the New Museum. Ringgold was born in Harlem, NY and her quilts were integral to re-interpreting quilts from a Southern-based, utilitarian item to a narrative-driven artform capable of portraying the experiences of Black Americans. Arguably, her most famous quilt is "Woman on a Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach" (1988), which is part of the Guggenheim Museum's permanent collection. The story is set on a Harlem rooftop on a hot summer night and depicts the fantasies of the narrator, Cassie Louise Lightfoot who is flying over the George Washington Bridge.

Earlier this year, on the Studio Noize podcast, Stephens said, “I say this all the time. It’s stories that live inside me and they don’t all belong to me.” As a seasoned artist, Stephens brings something to her practice that a 25-year-old can't; it's a perspective developed over time. In this respect, Stephens has taken on the role of a griot of sorts by collecting stories and creating quilts that pass down the history of her community. Her work is personal and reflects the people she's known and loved throughout her life. More than just recording the facts about African Americans, Stephens’ vibrant quilts consistently capture the soul of Black folks.

During her podcast interview, Stephen said, "You know, I'm always trying to say a prayer, a kind word, support, and promote. That's why I'm a little shepherd girl.” It is this visceral aspect of her quilts that separates Stephens from other artists and is responsible for her success.

 

Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is also a cultural critic and author.

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