Translating the art of quilting

By Tiffany Rachann

When I decided to move to Houston I also decided to start sewing again. I promised myself that I would also take up knitting, crocheting and, of course, quilting. I did because I have always been fascinated by the beauty beheld in quilts. The stories they tell and the pathways they define, all very different in their own right but ideally the same, leave an impression one delicate stitch at a time. Because I am so enthralled with storytelling, as a children’s author and a teacher, I can’t help but see the unique offering quilting extends to the present from both the past and for the future. It’s magnifying to say the least, and that is why I was taken away when I learned that The Collective would co-host a quilt exhibit with The Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning. CERCL, a research arm of Rice University, has been hosting these spectacular events for years now, and this year marks the third and also a special occasion. That occasion is The Collective being recognized for its contribution to art education and community art development by having an established archive at The Woodson Research Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library. So to help me in describing just how incredible this show and the relationship between CERCL and The Collective really is, I sat down with Aundrea Matthews, PhD resident at Rice University, who is the curator of the exhibit. Here is what I asked her:

Q: What’s your relationship with quilting? How did it become of interest to you? 

A: I am currently a PhD Candidate in Religious Studies at Rice University. My dissertation centers on the study of African American quilts as source material for the study of African American religion. I was led to this topic through a desire to study women and the stories they tell through art. From conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the city of Houston, I found a rich African American quilting tradition that is filled with stories that are significant to the study of religion.

Q: What do you believe is the single-handed most identifiable artistic trait of most quilts?

A: I would have to say that quilts are creatively pieced together using various materials from the quilter’s everyday life. I have provided a very broad answer to this difficult question because quilters do not limit themselves to designing quilts using any particular style or method. As craftsperson and artist, quilters are free to make quilts using whatever they have at hand and design them as their heart, mind and spirit inspires them and their skills allow them to.

Q: Describe your experiences with the International Quilt Festival. 

A: It is a wonderful festival. There are wonderful displays and vendors, and it is truly an awesome experience. As a graduate student, I was introduced to the International Quilt festival while conducting research on the African American quilting tradition in Houston. When I was offered an opportunity to create and curate the Hearts, Hands, and Heritage: The Patchwork Soul of Houston Quilt Exhibition in 2010 at Rice University, it was important to me that we host the exhibition during the time of the International Quilt festival. Realizing that people come from all over the world to Houston to attend the Quilt Festival, I recognized the importance of an exhibition at Rice University that highlighted the quilters that live in Houston. From its inception, we received support from Quilts, Inc., and the event has been sponsored by CERCL (Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning) www.cercl.rice.edu. This year, we are proud to announce the Hearts, Hands, and Heritage Quilt Exhibition has expanded off of the Rice campus into the city of Houston, due to the collaboration formed with the participation of the Community Artists’ Collective in the CERCL archive at Rice’s Fondren Library. I strongly believe that this exhibition enhances the International Quilt Festival experience for those visiting Houston and for the citizens of Houston.

Q: How would you describe the expo to someone who has never been?

A: Imagine, under one roof, several city blocks of people from all walks of life coming together to create and share ideas. Imagine a place where each individual regardless of race, class, gender, religion, locale or culture shares a common bond with one another–the love of quilting. Imagine blocks of artists filled with passion for their craft searching for materials, gaining knowledge and sharing experiences with one another. Imagine witnessing each quilter, driven by a love of quilting, hunting for that certain piece of cloth, item, tool, technique, new technological advancement among numerous vendors/booths, and the excitement and joy they express when they acquire what they need. Hearts racing, eyes wide, hands touching and feeling all types of things, the energy is so thick and the passion so strong you can feel it. Then look down the long corridor and imagine being surrounded by a quilt exhibition where some of the greatest quilts in the world are displayed. Now after seeing all of this activity and feeling all the excitement, imagine that you notice the most amazing aspect of the whole festival which is–that most of these passion driven artists are women. It is at that moment, you realize that you are witnessing a part of a truly awesome event.

Q: What can individuals look forward to walking away with from the opening reception of the exhibit? 

A: You will walk away from the opening reception of the Hearts, Hands, and Heritage: Art, Enterprise and Preservation Quilt Exhibition with a sampling of the rich quilting tradition in Houston and the quilters who make them.  Whether you came to the International Quilt Festival or reside in Houston, this exhibition inspires visitors to see the art, enterprise and preservation of quilting with greater depth and understanding and to connect with the art on view through close examination. The exhibition sparks experiences among quilters that create an active sharing of ideas and diverse “ways of seeing” quilts. The Hearts, Hands, and Heritage: Art, Enterprise, and Preservation is a treasure that brings meaning and relevance to quilts in galleries, festivals and in our everyday lives. You will walk away knowing more about quilts and the quilters who make them in Houston, and you will never think of or see them the same way again!

Tiffany Rachann is a children’s author, a literacy activist and a program developer. She is the mother of three wonder-suns and lives in Pearland, Texas, with her incredible collection of children’s books. Follow Tiffany @rachannis on Twitter and @Tiffany Rachann on Facebook.