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Patchwork Stories : By Combining Photography and Quilting, Three Artists Create a Unique Medium for Commenting on the Issues of the Past--and Present

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Quilts serve as memory maps; tangible family trees.

However, memory is but one component. At the end of the 20th Century--upon generations of family tradition, layers of historical fabric--quilt makers stitch together various non-traditional influences; some shot through with new embellishments--politics, social commentary, history, even journalism.

It is this documentary role that is explored in “Story Quilts: Photography and Beyond,” an exhibition highlighting the merger of photography and the quilt that will run until Aug. 6 at the Black Gallery.

Curated by photographer and installation artist Pat Ward Williams, the exhibition showcases the works of three African American artists--Deborah Willis, Kyra Hicks and Dorothy Taylor--whouse quilts as vibrant banners for sociopolitical issues, while taking care not to compromise the form.

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Williams says she and Roland Charles sketched out a plan for the exhibit last November during a cocktail party at the home of art patrons Elaine and Peter Norton to announce the arrival of the Black Male exhibit at UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum. Charles, who is director of the Black Gallery, ostensibly a photo gallery in the Crenshaw District, buttonholed Williams during one of the evening’s few quiet moments.

“I just knew I wanted to do something with Deborah’s work,” says Williams, who has long admired Willis’ approach, which incorporates old family portraits, snapshots and documents. Those images are reproduced on photosensitive linen and stitched into the cloth as part of her storytelling technique.

“As a photographer,” Williams says, “and since this is a photo gallery, I wanted to expand people’s notions of what photography is .”

Williams has handpicked an expansive collection of work to fill the modest-sized gallery. Diverse, divergent and distinct, each woman’s approach says as much about her as it does her ancestors.

“They’ve taken the medium of photography and incorporated it into quilting format,” Charles says. “For some people it is simply a craft, but with the incorporation of media it becomes a unique format. With the sociopolitical content in their work it just adds anotherdimension to quilting--which is basically this communication medium.”

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While Taylor and Willis work with actual images, Hicks, who started out as a photographer, instead creates her own “snapshots” out of felt and fabric remnants, arranging the components as if figures in a viewfinder.

Willis’ work is more like a glimpse through someone’s well-worn, well-loved family album. Using photo-linens, the images are sewn onto a fabric storyboard: Each piece of found fabric, each stitch, each handwritten caption works as a revelatory agent.

Hidden, however, behind those hugs and smiles, Willis (a photo historian and national collections coordinator for the African American Museum Project of the Smithsonian Institution) uses the occasion to contemplate the significance of that particular frozen moment as well as its broader meaning and historical or social context.

Although family is the center from which Willis expands, some of her pieces tackle larger historical milestones, such as the affecting “The Children and the Underground Railroad,” a 1992 tribute to free men and women of color who harbored runaway slaves. The design, save for the photos--cameo ovals of three little girls in knickers, crinolines and hoop skirts--is reminiscent of those coded quilts that hung outside houses warning a slave whether the house was “safe” to venture inside for assistance and comfort.

Others are much more personal, specific to her own experience. “Doin’ Hair” is a testament to her mother’s entrepreneurial drive--and in a larger context, a rite familiar to most African American women and men. The images rest on a background of orange and black accent fabrics within crocheted frames that look like doilies or miniature potholders. The photos depict the careful grooming process. Surrounding that portrait are intimate shots of pressing combs, razors, pressing oils and pomades.

Her work, Willis explains in her statement, is based on social concerns that touch the African American family, while at the same time highlighting political issues that address oppressed and oftentimes silenced segments of society.

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Rich and evocative, Kyra Hicks’ work is also informed by a background of telling stories through pictures.

“She didn’t start out quilting,” says Charles, who remembers when Hicks entered a photo contest sponsored by the Black Gallery and won. “Quilting was something that she started much later, out of boredom,” says Charles, who has followed her career from Los Angeles to Kansas City, Mo. “She has a creative heart. I saw the same thing in her photography.”

Williams has culled together some of Hicks’ pieces that capture moments usually recorded on film. “Christian’s Baptism” is a collage of abstract portraits of friends and kin surrounding a baby perched in the upraised palms of a minister standing nearby a baptismal font. “He Took His Time” is more fine art, an impressionistic image--quiet, intimate, in autumnal colors: bronzes, brasses, coppers, an imprint of hands, a small icon of a couple making love.

Williams likes the way the work forces the viewer to switch gears, the mind to work to fill in the blanks. “Just that idea that people might think about how photos affect our daily lives and are part of them.”

It is Taylor who dabbles in a little bit of both. Her work incorporates textile collage, paint and photography to tell a story. Taylor’s strength has been to create indelible impressions with an economy of images and strokes.

“She’s an amazing woman,” Charles says. “Her creative juices are always flowing. Everything she touches, she sees as art. She sees potential.”

Taylor says it isn’t anything she has control of whatsoever. “I have a love affair with fabric,” she explains, with a sweeping gesture, sitting in the middle of her cramped bachelor apartment. “The man upstairs writes on your heart.”

Her work is largely ad-libbed creations: hand puppets, dolls, Christmas stockings and wearable art. She has designed jackets for some of her local heroes--artist John Otterbridge, curator Brian Breye, D.J. Bubba Jackson--as well as for herself.

“When you’re young, you’re a sex object. When you’re old, you are an art object,” cracks Taylor. “You got to put something on to get attention.”

Fabric in every incarnation--bolt, remnant, small scrap--occupies every free space in her home; a sewing machine sits center stage. Photos and magazine clippings of designs and quilts are tacked up on every available wall or shelf-space. One knows immediately that this is more than just an affair, but a lasting marriage.

On display at the gallery are two of her quilts fashioned as oversized commemorative stamps dedicated to the late tennis great Arthur Ashe. Hanging alongside is one of her most potent pieces--"Made in the U.S.A."--which communicates history through icons that work like hieroglyphics, tracing a history of violence--from slavery to Rodney King--as part of the fabric of black life in America.

Taylor summons these images out of her own life: “There are a lot of things I have on my heart,” she explains. “When we were young they beat our father to death. Been dead almost all my life. How many times have we known someone who was beaten? How many times have we rioted?”

Even though it doesn’t include a photograph, Williams was particularly moved by “Made in the U.S.A.,” which includes a cluster of fabric icons that recall the ominous silhouettes seen on the King beating videotape. “It uses an image that is part of everyone’s consciousness. They are just outline figures in fabric. But you recognize exactly what is going on. It has been seen and burned into the conscious memory of everyone.”

Taylor uses the quilts as sounding boards, working through various social issues--homelessness, racism, AIDS--as well as tying up loose ends and reconsidering some of her own unresolved issues. One of her hopes is to get a grant to embark on a long-term group project focusing on African Americans in the military. For herself, Taylor sees the project as a tribute to her MIA brother: “You still look for a brother when they say he can’t be found.”

Taylor believes that these story quilts are a way to make history vibrant, alive thus indelible--and they have particular significance for African Americans, evidenced by the growth of quilting networks such as Women of Color Network, National Assn. of African American Quilters.

“We get left out of so much. We have to let the people know we are serious.”

* “Story Quilts” will run until Aug. 6 at the Black Gallery, 187 Santa Barbara Plaza (between Marlton Avenue and Buckingham Road, adjacent to the Magic Theaters in the Crenshaw District).

Dorothy Taylor will teach a series of Saturday quilting workshops for children and adults at the gallery during the exhibition. For information about the show and workshops, call (213) 294-9024.


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