Quilts like no other

by Amy Kingsley

At the foot of Reynolda House’s main staircase hangs a quilt as bright and beautiful as a sunburst.

To one onlooker on this gray, frigid morning, it’s an antidote.

“All those bright colors are so nice during winter,” she says.

The quilt, and others like it, also lays the foundation for an exhibition in the Babcock Gallery titled Ancestry & Innovation: African American Art from the American Folk Art Museum. It features these quilts, handmade by self-taught artists, and the works they inspired.

“It’s all the work of self-taught black artists,” says assistant curator Allison Slaby. “They don’t have formal training, these works are here because they are driven to create.”

The exhibition is on loan from the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The Reynolda House will keep it until April 13, when it will move on to the next stop on its national tour. Its stay in Winston-Salem opened on Feb. 1 and coincides, at least in part, with Black History Month.

It’s the first show of African-American artists to be featured in the Babcock Gallery, Reynolda House’s main gallery. Among the artists included in the show are quilters from Gee’s Bend in Alabama, an isolated village known for its distinctive textile arts. There are also painters and sculptors who use quilting as a starting point for works made from materials at hand.

“It’s very much about overcoming obstacles,” Slaby says. “These artists have no access to formal training or art supplies, so they’re using the objects in their immediate environment.”

In the case of quilters like Nora McKeon Ezell, they’re also taking a chore and turning it into an outlet for creative expression. In rural, Southern communities plagued by poverty, residents often had to make the quilts on their beds and the clothes on their backs. The techniques handed down between generations became the foundation for a unique artistic idiom, one of bright, solid colors and content culled from the fabric of everyday life.

Clementine Hunter’s paintings date from the 1960s and 70s, when the artist was already nearing 90 years old. She painted fields and forests, churches and picnics, scenes from her small Louisiana community. It’s a style of painting that’s gained currency in the academy and artistic establishment.

“Throughout the twentieth century, formally-trained artists have been inspired by self-taught artists,” Slaby says. “But it’s not so much about how they’ve influenced other artists. It’s about establishing their own importance and their own reputation.”

One example is Thornton Dial Sr., whose mixed-media works resemble Jackson Pollock’s.

“Thornton Dial is crossing a bridge,” Slaby says. “He’s been featured in the Whitney Biennial and the [Museum of Fine Arts] Houston.”

Here a large painting by Dial hangs beside another concocted by his son, Thornton Dial Jr. The two incorporate enamel, rope, clothing, wire and sealant into their works.

Then there’s the colorful pieces by Nellie Mae Rowe, who constructs her portraits from crayon, pencil and felt-tip marker. Sculptor Kevin Sampson took a cow’s backbone, dressed it up with wire, paint and tiny ceramic figurines to create “Blue Meat,” an arresting work with plenty of countrified filigree.

Phil Archer, the director of adult programs, has pulled together a series of educational and social programs to accompany the exhibit. On March 1, academics, critics and artists will come together for a symposium on self-taught artists. A couple weeks later, in collaboration with Winston-Salem State’s Diggs Gallery, Reynolda House will sponsor a field trip to several local, self-taught African-American artists. There will also be poetry readings, musical performances and film screenings.

“Our members already know about the show,” Archer says. “But if I can bring in people who really like jazz or blues, they’ll come for the music and stay for the art.”

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