Black quilts: From slavery to the White House

April 17, 2009 7:48:02 PM PDT
The art of quilting seem to be enjoying a renaissance these days. Women and a few men are picking up where their mothers and grandmothers left off.

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Ora Knowell first picked up needle and thread as a young girl in Mississippi.

"Back on the sharecropper's plantation when I was very little, and we had to do it. I hated it," she told ABC 7.

The Oakland woman gained a new appreciation for quilting after her sons were murdered. Chris was killed in 1996 and Daniel was killed in 2002. She says working with fabric has helped her mend.

Knowell goes to the West Oakland library a couple of times a week to quilt. Her work is unlike anyone else's. She calls the pieces "victim's quilts." One will feature the face of her son Chris.

Knowell has made about 100 quilts for other grieving families but she lost them when she became a victim of foreclosure. She was forcibly evicted by police last year. But, still she keeps quilting.

"It helps a lot because I can just let my mind go free to create anything and it's no right way or wrong way," she said.

Knowell is one of nine quilters profiled in a new book called "Crafted Lives," written by Bay Area author and UC Davis professor Patricia Turner.

"If you understand how these individuals approach their quilts and the values that they put into making their quilts, you can extrapolate from that the way they've made their lives and the things that are important to them," said Turner.

Turner tries to capture the wide-ranging African-American experience by examining the history of quilts from slavery to modern day.

"One of the first known African-American quilters was Harriet Tubman who was a conductor on the Underground Railroad," she said.

Now, the bed covers have become recognized forms of art.

"They can be and are incredibly functional. But, they can be extraordinarily beautiful in the hands of an artist," she added.

Marion Coleman of Castro Valley comes from a long line of quilters, but she uses techniques like photo transfer to take her creations to another level.

"I like to step back from it for a moment and look at it and see if there's anything else that would step it up a notch to convey the message that I wanted," she explained.

Her pieces are considered museum quality. In fact, Coleman's work is featured at the Historical and Cultural Society in Washington D.C. It is part of an exhibit that celebrates Obama's inauguration called Quilts for Obama.

"My initial idea was to get 44 quilts for the 44th president," said the museum's curator Roland Freeman. "But, in two days I had 44 quilts wanting to be in the exhibit."

"Who wouldn't jump at a chance? And, I had been collecting every Obama magazine, piece of stuff I could find," said Coleman.

Her piece is called winds for change. Like others in the show and those profiled in the new book, they help tell a story.

"The very diversity of our people I think, is evidenced in the quilts," she said.

Black quilts profile a journey from slavery to the White House.

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