Jan 19, 2023

STITCHING HISTORY: A Celebration of Freedom

 Do you know what a STORY QUILT is? I grew up surrounded by the original and remnant versions of quilts, most stitched from the scraps of no-longer-worn clothes and tattered cloth. The end results were suede-soft, star-studded, lumpy/loose-cotton-stuffed favorites that served as picnic spreads, back-of-the-car napping, living-room-tents, and other heavy, even careless use. Each had been created decades earlier by my mom and her relatives in Kentucky. Each was an artifact offering functional/survival evidence that reuse, repurpose, recycle were necessary daily practices long before that 3-R symbol became ubiquitous. 

Each quilt also held stories, with corners and star-point scraps occasionally patted along with a mention that this faded bit was from one of grandma's aprons or that bit was from great-grandpa's shirt. Small sections were pointed out as the ones on which Mom learned to quilt, recalling the endless times she was told to pull her threads and try again, keeping them a bit smaller and straighter.

From my earliest days, I knew that quilts held those kinds of stories. 

I also knew that a few quilts resided in protected drawers, quilts that were nearly as old, but whose designs were testimonies to resilience. Quilts with intentional colors and sections, in which the patterns and squares were cut from intact, full pieces of cloth, not several bits stitched together to form a single chevron or strip. Quilts that were filled with actual batting, no lumps to be found. Ones with single sheet backing, ones that used matching fabrics for the fields, borders, and binding. These were treasured and protected as proof that a time had come when the family's means allowed the rare luxury of purchased goods, even when that was simple gingham or poplin. These offered stories, real and imagined, of what the occasion must have been to justify such luxury. Stories I imagined of the joy and satisfaction in the creators' gnarled fingers as they smoothed, cut, pinned, stitched, and eventually quilted a masterpiece not destined for eventual threadbare wear.

"Story quilts", though, can have another meaning. (Click the introductory link, above, if curious). 

NEAL PORTER BOOKS, January, 2023
Holiday House Publishing

Author/quilter/artist KIM TAYLOR provides an example of such story-quilting in a recent picture book release, A FLAG FOR JUNETEENTH. This Library Guild selection has had rave reviews from impressive sources, but I dare say the highest praise I can offer is that my ancestors would love and admire it. The quilting quality and design on these pages had me convinced that Taylor had learned to quilt as a small child, as my mother had. The author/artist's notes in back indicate that she had never quilted until the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. It was then that she considered that the major media option for storytelling among enslaved people was quilting. Their products were even more mismatched and bit-patched than the quilts of my youth. Batting for plantation quilts was a greater struggle, too, sometimes filled with newspapers, dried leaves, or sun-dried straw. The stories and culture stitched into them were as essential to survival as the warmth they provided.

Taylor set out to learn to quilt (intimidating, right?). Her first story quilt, FULL CIRCLE, A HISTORY was created to celebrate that impressive circle of Black history in this country, from enslavement to the presidency. Some time later, Taylor attended a Juneteenth celebration and learned the history of this occasion as an adult. She set out with a plan to incorporate the story of the first Juneteenth into a story quilt. Her mission was to share the story with young people, wanting them to become aware of this important history while still children, not as adults, as she had been. 

This project, naturally, required even more time than the already mindful and time-ful task of picture book illustration. In fact, it was not until she was satisfied with a design that told the story well that she could apply her growing skills to the production/quilting task. Within that design and eventual result she incorporated her characteristic faces without features, rendering the pictured individuals expressive in body posture and action, but open to being inhabited by the viewer, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the emotions and history.

Only when that story quilt was complete could she begin visiting schools and other gatherings,  using the quilt as her media for sharing the story of Juneteenth. Those events, with adjustments along the way, eventually became this picture book, A FLAG FOR JUNETEENTH.

Although Juneteenth has FINALLY been officially designated as a federal holiday, its story will be unfamiliar to many until they hold this book in their hands. Told through the first person voice of a young enslaved girl living with family on a Texas plantation, each quilted page and image spread conveys the life of this young person, one who anticipates the joyful celebration of her tenth birthday tomorrow, June 19th, 1865. 

She is frightened when Yankee soldiers arrive to issue a proclamation, announcing that TWO YEARS PRIOR the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery. (Texas slave owners had refused to inform the people of this, illegally retaining enslavement in Texas far beyond the rest of the country.)

Images of radiant jubilation pair with the observant girl, holding her baby sister, joyous but somewhat overwhelmed by what had been said. Plantation owners were furious, but could do nothing about it. Women snatched up needles, thread, and fabric to stitch freedom flags while children collected long, straight branches for flagpoles. Men carved cultural symbols of freedom and independence into the flagpoles. 

The jubilee takes on special significance when the community presents the young birthday girl  with her very own jubilee freedom flag, but one that is not quite complete. She sews her own star onto its strong horizon line, stitching in the sunshine she had captured from a visit to the treetops. Wrapped in the celebratory grace of freedom, her small family visits the night for a special cultural experience of their own. From the opening with quilted, steaming hotcakes to that final spread, this is a masterpiece of storytelling, visual strength, and fiber artistry.

The stitch patterns throughout as well as the artful choices for illustration (figures, placement, clothing, scenes, and swirl pattern choices on white text backgrounds) made me return repeatedly to page after page. Each time I would note additional elements from color tones to leaf patterns to angles and connections. I recommend this book highly.


Eerdmanns Books for Young Readers

For anyone who
 appreciates quilting as I do, don't miss an older offering,  I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: Poems of American Slavery
, written by Cynthia Grady and illustrated (quilted) by Michelle Wood. I reviewed it HERE. It not only showcases some extraordinary quilt art but also provides poetry that will open your soul.

Please stay tuned. KIM TAYLOR has agreed to take part in an interview about this work and more, which will be posted here within a few days. If you think you might miss it, why not su ascribe to get these posts in your inbox?

No comments:

Post a Comment