Legacies in Cloth: Preserving “A Soft Place to Land”

By Dr. Denise M. Campbell

Mammy’s Golden Legacy by Laura Gadson. Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi collection

Days before the U.S. 2020 election, as COVID-19 continues to ravage our nation, I interviewed Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi via Zoom in her West Chester, Ohio home. Her wisdom about preserving the legacy of African American quilts during this unprecedented moment in history is as cogent and awakening as 2020 flashpoint events that have shaken us to our core. Dr. Mazloomi is unmatched in her knowledge of and contributions to the African American quilting community. In her multifaceted roles as artist, scholar, exhibition curator, collector, and mentor, she began with what preserving the legacy of African American quilts means.

“It means leaving behind the footprint of our activity and participation in American quiltmaking… We give a glimpse into what’s going on, not only in our community, but on the national scope as well. How is the world affecting us? How is living in America affecting us, and all the ills that it brings, the joy too. Everything, all of our lived experiences put into quilts, is left behind for generations to study and share. We leave something to our families, our communities, our educational institutions. We’re telling the story about our presence in America, as people of color, African people in America. This is what we do, we’re Fiber Griots.” 

“I believe it was first Roland Freeman who said over 45 years ago that quilts are like cultural documents. We, as human beings, have a lifetime affair with cloth so through cloth and these quilts, we are able to make stories about very difficult subjects in the United States and around the world that people don’t want to talk about. I look at these quilts as a soft place to land to talk about some tough subjects because of people’s familiarity with quilts. Statistics show that most Americans are visual learners.”

Othello on Broadway by Glenda Richardson. Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi collection

As we explored strategies for preserving the legacy of African American quilts, Carolyn shared the following insights.

“They [quilters] have to think about what’s going to happen to their work after they’re gone. Are you properly caring for the quilts? Have you prepared a will? These are heirlooms. These are tomorrow’s treasures; actually for me they’re today’s treasures. Provisions have to be made for the quilts and that’s the foremost thing. Where are your quilts going? If you don’t have a person, you should be educating your family about the cultural and monetary value of your quilts. Every quilt that you have or make should be documented. You should have photographs of your quilts. All the quilts should be signed. You should have where the quilt was made; the year that it was made. It’s important to keep a record of all your quilts. Educate your family. If you have no immediate family interested in your quilts and you don’t know somebody interested in quilts, perhaps consider donating those quilts to a museum or cultural institution that will preserve them. Quilts are no different than any other kind of artwork and we have to treat them as such.”

“We as African Americans are not making wills. I don’t know why. We had very important scholars that passed and left no wills. We don’t know where their artwork is; we don’t know where their scholarly research papers are because they made no provisions in their will for that.”

Along with not preparing wills, Carolyn identified another obstacle worth noting. Namely, only two African Americans have extensive collections of African American quilts. I asked her, “What will change that?”

“Well, I think it’s just like art collecting. First you have to have the interest, you have to have space for [a collection], and you have to have money. You don’t need large amounts of money but collecting is an investment. First you have to have that passion and then you can set a budget for how much you want to invest in that passion. If you have a large collection of several hundred quilts, you need somewhere to put it, and you have to make arrangements for what’s going to happen to those quilts when you pass away.”

Carolyn views African American quilts as fine art, without differentiation between craft arts and fine art. She places the value of these works on the artist’s intention, and the inspiration of a piece. She focuses less on technical execution of quiltmaking standards grounded outside of the culture that have historically excluded African American quilters. She provides a safe haven for African American artistic expression. She celebrates a small group of quilters who found their way into the fine arts community, such as Bisa Butler, Michael Cummings, Carolyn Crump, and Sharon Kerry-Harland, making inroads into museum acquisitions and selling to fine art collectors.

We Are All Warmed by the Same Sun by Helen Murrell. Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi collection

“More and more museums are acquiring quilts and paying enormous amounts for them. But more than that, when you think about the history of African American quilts, we have never shown in traditional quilt shows. The way of viewing African American quilts has always been the museum and not necessarily following traditional rules. It is important to have a complete collection of African American quilts. When I say complete, I mean, inclusive of all styles. The quilts and African American community are just as diverse as we are as a people. There needs to be at least one museum in the country that has a comprehensive collection to show the entire scope of everything that we create. It is important to have documentation from each one of the quiltmakers who are in a collection. That is one measure for preservation. When it comes to documentation for each exhibition that I’ve curated, I have written catalogs – documentation that the exhibit took place, the contents, and the makers.”

Four decades ago, Carolyn founded the Women of Color Quilters Network, (WCQN). Three WCQN principle initiatives include: teaching young folk how to quilt; documentation with books; and promoting exhibitions quilts, along with individual artists who are gifted in the field.

“It’s important to place their work in high profile shows to facilitate buyers for their work. It’s important to support them, not only in words, but deeds, because I feel compelled to purchase their work, to help their career, and do anything I can to push them along where people in the art world know their name and recognize their work.”

When I asked Carolyn to sum up the overarching importance of legacy in African American quilt preservation, she concluded with these edifying thoughts.

“I see the richness in my heritage and the beauty in what we create because we are just so talented it’s frightening. I look at this period of African American culture and to me it’s like a second Renaissance, like the Harlem Renaissance. African American work is influential around the world. When Black folks create, everybody is watching, paying attention; and we’re brilliant at what we do. We use technology. We have scholars such as Dr. Myrah Brown-Green, and other historians who happened to be quiltmakers and they’re giving Zoom lectures with various artists that are preserved and recorded on platforms where people around the world can see them. More people are writing about quiltmaking; they’re writing papers, they’re writing books. You see more African American quilters who publish their own quilt books around the country, from New York to Portland, Oregon, Seattle to Chicago. It’s phenomenal that they’re documenting the work they made.” 

“Everybody’s machine quilting. So technology has changed quiltmaking, especially with people like Carolyn Crump, whose work is entirely digitally generated. It’s amazing.” 

“Let it be known that we were here!”

Levi Coffin By Cynthia Lockhart. Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi collection

Finally, Carolyn elaborated specifically on provenance. Provenance is documentation that authenticates our quilts and our voice. To establish quilt provenance, Carolyn detailed a list of practical tips: 

  1. Educate family and close friends about the cultural significance of quilts and their importance to the Black community.
  2. Put a label on the back of each quilt that includes the maker’s name, city, and state in which the work was made, title of the quilt or pattern, year the work was made, and any other information with historical significance.
  3. Keep a record book of all your quilts and information pertinent to each piece.  If the quilt is a one-of-a-kind work, write a statement explaining the inspiration for the quilt.
  4. Copyright all original design quilts.
  5. Secure certified appraisals for each of your quilts which aids in securing fair pricing if you decide to sell them. Quilt appraisers are listed with the American Quilter’s Society at: http://www.americanquilter.com/about_aqs/appraisers.php 
  6. If you have exhibited quilts in galleries, museums, or traditional quilts shows, keep a record of all the places each quilt was shown, including the date it was shown. 
  7. Keep written instructions on caring for and storing your quilts.  Never wash an art quilt or attempt spot cleaning with water or dry cleaning chemicals. Quilts should be stored at optimal temperature and humidity. If possible, store them flat and layered on a bed in a darkened room, covered with a sheet and then a plastic drop cloth. There are special washing techniques for antique quilts: https://www.nationalquilterscircle.com/article/quilt-care-part-1-how-to-clean-a-quilt/ (I store my quilts rolled using foam swim pool noodles. Make a muslin fabric casing for each, and roll the quilt around the covered pool noodle.  Tie each end of the rolled quilt with 2 inch wide strips of muslin fabric. 
  8. Never store a folded quilt in plastic for long periods. The fabric needs to breathe and plastics produce gas vapors that can discolor and deteriorate fabric. Plastics to avoid include plastic grocery bags, garment bags, garbage bags and Styrofoam.*  (*The Quilt Show) 
  9. Make a will or Living Trust with specific instructions indicating who or what institutions shall receive your quilts when you pass.  

“I have seen close relatives give quilts to donation centers not knowing the cultural or monetary value of the quilts.  I’ve witnessed the passing of many quilt friends, and their quilts just disappeared, taken by caregivers, persons outside the family, or unscrupulous dealers and collectors before family members could get to their loved one.”

“To preserve a legacy for our children, grandchildren, and their children, we, as artists, must leave an artistic footprint on the canvas of American history.”

Summing up Carolyn’s footprint in the history of African American quilts requires merely two, (ok, four words) – Living Legacy, International Treasure. Blessed with such wisdom in our midst, in turn let us be wise by heeding her sage advice.

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