Nora Ezell Dies at 88

By Dennis Heves
Reprinted from the New York Times
September 17, 2007
Nora Ezell

Nora Ezell

Nora Ezell, a quilter in the African-American tradition renowned for her storytelling panels and for vividly colorful abstract works, died Sept. 6 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., at the home of one her granddaughters. She was 88 and lived in Eutaw, Ala. 

The cause was a stroke, the granddaughter, Audrey Phillips Williams, said.

Ms. Ezell, a daughter of a steelworker in Birmingham, was already well known in quilting circles when, in the early 1990s, she gained wider recognition after the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute commissioned her to produce “A Tribute to the Civil Righters of Alabama.”

With intricate stitching and the addition of padding in some panels to create a three-dimensional effect, the work illustrated central moments in the civil rights struggle. Among its images are: the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of the March 7, 1965, attack by police officers on civil rights marchers; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writing the “Letter From the Birmingham Jail” on April 16, 1963; and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus on Dec. 1, 1955.

In Ms. Ezell’s panel commemorating the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, another rallying point for the civil rights movement, the church steps literally seem to rise.

Ms. Ezell’s works are now in collections around the world, including the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan. She received a National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992 and a Folk Heritage Award from the Alabama State Council on the Arts in 1990.

“She was a very important representative for the African-American quilting tradition,” Joey Brackner, a folklorist for the Alabama arts council, said in a telephone interview on Friday. “Her fame preceded the Gee’s Bend quilters, who in recent years have become the most celebrated group of African-American quilters.”

Named for a bend in the Alabama River, south of Selma, the Gee’s Bend quilters have been featured on national television, showing quilts using bold color swatches that evoke abstract paintings.

“Nora made quilts like that, too,” Mr. Brackner said. “She was traditional in most of her quilts, but in others very adventurous.”

Some of Ms. Ezell’s adventures involved mixing and elaborating on well-known traditional patterns — among them Log Cabin, Dresden Plate, Bear Paw and Drunkard’s Path — in her own complex creations.

Beverly Smith, the eldest of Ms. Ezell’s four grandchildren, said she created many crazy quilts with “different patterns, different fabrics, different types of stitching.”

Nora Lee McKeown was born in Brooksville, Miss., on June 24, 1919, one of 10 children of James and Laura Daley McKeown. The family later moved to Birmingham.

In addition to her four granddaughters, Ms. Ezell is survived by five sisters: Etoil Cook, Birdell Sapp, Christine Vediza, Bessie Lee and Bernice McKeown; a brother, Cecil; seven great-grandchildren; and 11 great-great grandchildren. Her only daughter, Annie Ruth Phillips, died in 1984, and her husband, Joseph, died in 1986.

It was at her mother’s side that Ms. Ezell first became acquainted with quilting, but it was only in her early 60s that she became deeply involved in the craft. Until then sewing was her profession. She dropped out of high school in her junior year and began working as a seamstress in factories around the South and later in Paterson, N.J., where she and her husband moved in the 1960s.

After retiring and moving back to Alabama in the early ’80s, Ms. Ezell returned to quilting, sitting in her backyard under a broad straw hat, her granddaughter Ms. Smith said.

In an interview for the Alabama Folkways Radio Series, Ms. Ezell said, “I like to put a little bit of me in my quilts because I think this is one thing that lives on after us.”

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