In Memory of Sandra Holliday

Watermelon Man by Sandra Holliday

Fellow quilter Sandra Holliday passed away June 16, 2011. Her homegoing service will be held today at 10 a.m. at Elizabeth Baptist Church.

Sandra Holliday

Sandra was a member of the Sewjourners Quilt Guild. She loved collecting black memorabilia, and often reflected that passion in her quilts. Her quilt Watermelon Man was such a quilt.

Her fresh point of view will be missed in the Atlanta quilting community.

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.”

Quilting Pioneer Cuesta Benberry Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007

Cuesta Benberry, 83, one of the nation’s foremost quilt scholars who pieced together the history of the art from castoff patches of information, died of congestive heart failure Aug. 23 at Forest Park Hospital in St. Louis.
Mrs. Benberry’s research was so fundamental that “in nearly every quilt book today, Cuesta Benberry will be quoted in the text or her name will appear in the bibliography,” the Quilters Hall of Fame noted when she was inducted in 1983.
“She began to look very seriously at all the aspects of quiltmaking — where patterns came from, the people who made them — at a time when people weren’t looking at quilts, much less the history of quilts,” said Bettina Havig, a quilt historian from Columbia, Mo.
Not a quilter herself, Mrs. Benberry nevertheless became interested in the art and craft when her mother-in-law gave her a quilt. When she visited her in-laws, who lived in Kentucky, she began to learn about the pride that women took in that work.
“I think we get so emotional about quilts because they’re such an integral part of many people’s lives,” Mrs. Benberry told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 1998. “They’re on the bed. They’re there at birth. They’re there at death. They’re part of the marriage bed. They’re part of our lives, and they give us so many memories. . . . You’d call a quilt like you would a child. [Her mother-in-law would] lift up a trunk lid and say, ‘Come see my Sugar Bowl’; she didn’t say, ‘Come see my blue-and-white quilt.’ Then I wanted to learn more about their history.”
Mrs. Benberry’s occupation was teaching in the St. Louis public schools, but her preoccupation since the 1960s had been learning about quilts, said her son, George V. Benberry of Elgin, Ill. She collected paper ephemera, which are the once-overlooked patterns, records and documentation of quilts and quiltmakers. She is credited with rescuing innumerable documents from oblivion, researching their importance and communicating that to the world.
At one point, Mrs. Benberry became interested in kit quilts, commercial packages that provide everything, except the skill, that a quilter would need to create a comforter. By tracking down and photographing quilts at innumerable country fairs, Mrs. Benberry discovered that up to 60 percent of those submitted were from kits, rather than original designs, said Xenia Cord of Kokomo, Ind., president of the American Quilt Study Group.
“She was a serious scholar at a time when the kinds of conveniences we take for granted — digital photography, copying machines, e-mail — weren’t possible. She did the difficult research,” Cord said. “She also inspired innumerable people to research. She would hone right in on what you should look at and force you to ever finer and finer points. . . . She wasn’t going to allow you to be content with just a surface topic. She was unfailingly generous with her support and with her mentoring.”
Born in Cincinnati and raised in St. Louis, Mrs. Benberry graduated from what is now Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis. She received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Missouri at St. Louis. She worked in the local school system for 40 years and retired in 1985.
In a 1998 article she wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mrs. Benberry said that about 1976, she began focusing on quilts made by African American women. “I soon realized that any investigation of quilt history, a female-dominated narrative, would also be closely allied to women’s history,” she wrote. Mrs. Benberry also found that previous exhibitions of quilts by African American women focused almost exclusively on those from selected areas of the rural South.
She organized a traveling quilt show for the Kentucky Quilt Project of Louisville, which demonstrated the breadth of quilts by African Americans. The exhibit appeared in 1993 at the Anacostia museum in Southeast Washington.
“African-American quilt makers’ backgrounds, living conditions, needs, access to materials, aesthetic sensibilities, creative impulses and technical skills were vastly divergent,” Mrs. Benberry wrote in the exhibit brochure, arguing that no single style represented them. “Thus it is a simplistic notion that legions of black quilt makers produced works displaying a single aesthetic orientation.”
Mrs. Benberry was a founder of the American Quilt Study Group and was honored by the American Folk Art Museum in New York in 2004. In addition to organizing exhibitions, Mrs. Benberry wrote four books: “Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts” (1992), “Patchwork of Pieces: An Anthology of Early Quilt Stories, 1845-1940” (1993), “Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans” (2000) and “Love of Quilts: A Treasury of Classic Quilting Stories” (2004). The only quilt Mrs. Benberry made, a sampler, also reflects her research: It is composed of blocks that appeared in earlier African American quilts.
In addition to her son, survivors include her husband of 56 years, George L. Benberry of St. Louis; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Rosie Lee Tompkins, African-American Quiltmaker, Dies at 70

Reprinted from the New York Times

Published: December 6, 2006
Rosie Lee Tompkins, a renowned African-American quiltmaker whose use of dazzling color and vivid geometric forms made her work internationally acclaimed despite her vehement efforts to remain completely unknown, was found dead on Friday at her home in Richmond, Calif. She was 70. The cause of death had not been determined, Eli Leon, a quilt scholar and longtime friend, said yesterday.
In everyday life, Ms. Tompkins was Effie Mae Howard, a fiercely private woman who lived quietly in Richmond and worked as a practical nurse. As Rosie Lee Tompkins, the pseudonym under which her quilts were shown, she was exhibited, much to her chagrin, in prestigious museums and galleries in the United States and Japan.
Lavishly praised by critics, Ms. Tompkins’s quilts are in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Oakland Museum in California. Her work was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2002.
Writing in The New York Times the same year, Roberta Smith reviewed an exhibition of Ms. Tompkins’s work at the Peter Blum Gallery in Manhattan: “Unerring and intuitive in their sense of color, shape and scale, Ms. Tompkins’s quilts are formidably joyful visual events that ignore the usual boundaries between cultures, histories and mediums.”
Born and raised in Arkansas, Ms. Tompkins was heir to the long tradition of black Southern quilting, a form of folk art whose best-known practitioners include the women of Gee’s Bend, Ala. Their work, vibrant geometric quilts made from whatever scraps came to hand, became famous after it was shown at the Whitney in 2002 and 2003.
Ms. Tompkins’s quilts are even more radical. Made of massed, vivid patches, they exude a barely controlled geometric anarchy. Stripes can be thrillingly off kilter. Patterns shift and fracture. The result, riotous mosaics in cloth, has been likened by critics to Modernist painting.
In traditional quilts, the fabric of choice is cotton. Ms. Tompkins’s quilts can also include cut-up feed sacks, rayon, velvet, polyester, fake fur, wool and silk. Each material reflects light differently; in combination, they make her work look like something viewed through a prism.
Ms. Tompkins was born Effie Mae Martin on Sept. 6, 1936, in rural southeast Arkansas. (Effie Mae Howard was her married name.) One of 15 children, she picked cotton and helped her mother make quilts for the family. She left school before starting high school, and in 1958 settled in California.
There, she took classes in practical nursing and went to work in nursing homes. Around 1980, Ms. Tompkins started to quilt in earnest, producing hundreds of patchwork items of various sizes, showing them to almost no one outside her family.
She arrived at many of her designs — abstract, improvisational and filled with deep personal significance — after private prayer. Ms. Tompkins believed herself to be merely an instrument, Mr. Leon said. It was God, she felt, who designed the quilts and guided her hand.
She also believed that her phone was tapped. Sometimes she heard voices. She covered one wall of her bedroom with hangings, thick with appliquéd crosses, which she hoped would still them. They did not.
Even as her quilts gained renown, Ms. Tompkins revealed her true identity to only a handful of trusted associates, among them Mr. Leon, the quilt scholar. She never attended her out-of-town exhibitions. If a friend managed to drag her to a local exhibition of her work, she quietly slipped into the gallery anonymously.
“Something she told me once was that despite the fact that nobody knew who she was, she felt like she had no privacy,” Mr. Leon said by telephone yesterday. “She felt like she lived in a glass house and people were watching her.”
Ms. Tompkins, who for deeply held reasons of her own refused to sign documents, rarely sold her work. Those quilts she did sell went for tens of thousands of dollars apiece, Mr. Leon said.
She was also fiercely circumspect about disclosing the names and whereabouts of family members. Mr. Leon was equally circumspect yesterday. It is known that Ms. Tompkins was married and divorced twice; survivors include her mother; several children and stepchildren; and many siblings, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A one-woman show of Ms. Tompkins’s work is scheduled for next year at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., from May 20 to Oct. 31.
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Obituary of Ruth Clement Bond, A Trailblazing Quilter

© 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 11/14/2005.

New York — Ruth Clement Bond, 101, a prominent educator and civic leader who in the mid-1930s, in her first and only foray into quilt design, helped transform the American quilt from a utilitarian bedcovering into a work of avant-garde social commentary, died Oct. 24. Mrs. Bond was noted for a series of quilts known collectively as the TVA quilts.
Designed by her, the quilts were sewn in rural Alabama by the wives of African-American workers building dams there for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Visually arresting and contemporary-looking even today, the TVA quilts are considered pivotal in American quilt making.
While most quilts of the period were based on the traditional geometric and floral designs, the TVA quilts are dynamic works of modern art. Using solid-colored fabrics appliqued onto stark backgrounds, they depict bold, stylized silhouettes of black people. With their jagged yet elegant lines, the figures have been compared to the paper cutouts of Matisse and to the work of the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas.
Mrs. Bond, who had trained as an academic and did not know how to quilt, embarked on the project after her husband was sent to northern Alabama to supervise the black workers at the dam sites there. The Bonds lived for a time near the Wheeler Dam, in one of the segregated villages built for the workers and their families.
The women completed a half-dozen large quilts, all believed to have been made in 1934. Three are extant, as are several very small quilts, made as samples.
The TVA quilts have been exhibited in New York at the Museum of Arts and Design, and elsewhere around the country. They are featured in several books, among them “Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking and the Great Depression” (Rutledge Hill Press, 1990), by Merikay Waldvogel.
In later years, Mrs. Bond, whose husband joined the Foreign Service in 1944, taught at universities in Haiti, Liberia and Malawi and worked with women’s and youth groups in Afghanistan, Tunisia and Sierra Leone. After returning to Washington, she served as president of the African-American Women’s Association.
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