It took just one day for Mary Wimbish to discover she was a quilter.
Due to a family emergency, the 7-year old had to attend a quilt convention in Virginia with her grandmother Delores Benton Evans.
“Women at the convention said they would watch Mary so I could go to the workshops I had signed up for,” Evans said. One of the fairy godmothers asked Mary if she would like to quilt and by day’s end, Mary had completed a doll-size quilt.
Now 9, Mary has her own stash of fabrics and quilting tools, and is the youngest member of the African American Quilt Circle of Durham.
On Aug. 24, the circle opens an exhibit, “Woven Melodies,” at Durham’s Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Fayetteville St. Festivities begin at 7 p.m. The show ends Sept. 30.
Mary will be showing a quilt called “Fireworks” that incorporates something unusual – insect wings from Indonesia.
Evans, a circle member for 14 years, will have four quilts in the show. “But my most special one is called ‘My Donor Son,’” she said. “It is a memorial quilt for my son Ryan, who was killed on Nov. 18, 2008. I got his kidney.”
Exposing more people and in particular, younger people, to the art of African American quilting was an impetus for the circle’s founding.
Jereann King Johnson is one of four women who started the circle in March 1998. The other three are Bertie Howard, Candace Thomas and Helen Sanders.
Johnson and Howard had talked about starting a quilt group but the fire remained unlit. “Bertie always amused me with her interest in quilting,” life-long quilter Johnson said. “She would have a magazine with a quilt pattern or some cloth she had started and I would say to her, ‘When are you ever going to make a quilt?’
“Then one day, which I will never forget, Bertie walked into my office and had some quilt blocks a friend had given her. They had belonged to the friend’s mother who had just died. I thought here she is walking around with a dead woman’s quilt blocks, it is time for us to have a meeting,” Johnson said.
The pair put out the word for anyone interested to gather at Stanford L. Warren Library. About 10 women came, each bringing a quilt to introduce herself by. Johnson took her grandmother’s quilt made with sample wool swatches from a men’s suit catalog. The group decided to meet thereafter the first Saturday of every month from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and held their next meeting and every one since at the Hayti Heritage Center.
“This group has evolved into a whole movement,” Johnson said. “It is much more than a quilt club. Seeing the women and the one man in the group, it has been just a powerful experience and movement of growth, thought, and artistic expression.”
She said Thomas, one of the other founders, set in motion the idea that a quilt was more than just a bed cover, it could be a piece of art.
“Everyone has embraced and appreciates the depth of the art quilts, the smaller wall pieces,” Johnson said.
Oohs and aahs of appreciation tumbled out as circle member Edna Alston unfurled her large art quilt at least week’s quilt dropoff. A long-time volunteer at the Bull Durham Blues Festival, Alston used the front of T-shirts from past festivals to create her stunning piece, “Celebrating the Blues with T-shirts”.
Just as important as providing fellowship around a shared passion, the circle strives to preserve the heritage of African-American quilting. Johnson said during enslavement black women made fine quilts for their owners, using fabrics and patterns prescribed by their mistresses and employing particular stitches they desired. In the evening, the slaves made quilts for their families using scraps from the mistresses’ worn-out clothes and old feedbags. Their thread would have been coarser and instead of stitching they may have used knots.
“Because of that experience of having to make do, I think African-American quilters historically have just been more improvisational in that you can find a lot of artistic expression and creativity that you may not see in European-style quilts, which are more linear and have more symmetry,” Johnson said. “The colors in those quilts might be more pastel whereas African American quilters may have used bolder, richer, darker colors without the intent to symmetry. The fabric choice also distinguishes African-American quilts, as they would probably be more mixed. You might have satin, wool and cotton in one quilt.”
For each exhibit, the circle poses a challenge to its 60-some members, such as to create an art self-portrait quilt. Veronica Hicks, who joined the circle 11 years ago, came up with this exhibit’s challenge remembering circle members’ quilts inspired by African proverbs and sayings.
“Part of our mission is to engage the youth,” she said. “I thought that if we based work on African folk tales, it might inspire young people to learn more.”
The challenge quilts must be no larger than 20 by 24 inches, and usually about 10 members create one. Hicks based her piece, “Keeper of the Stories,” on Anansi the Spider who appears in Ashanti tales. “In the book I used Anansi was chosen to disseminate stories all over the world,” Hicks said. “In my piece there is a spider web covering the earth and in the center a charm that says faith. At the bottom there is stitching that tells about the story.”
Sauda Zahra was a seasoned sewer who delighted in textiles but had never quilted. When Howard invited her to the circle’s first meeting, she savored the prospect of learning something new.
“The art of quilting has taken me on a journey that I never would have envisioned at that first meeting,” Zahra said.
The circle has quilters of all ages and experience and who do hand stitching, use machines or a combination of both. “This also makes the group interesting because we can always learn and be inspired by each other’s work and skill level,” said Zahra, whose challenge quilt began with her desire to use a peacock she had cut off an old skirt years ago. She then found a Nigerian folktale about a vulture that rules over all birds and marries a peacock, only to be mortally poisoned by the peacock who frees the birds.
Zahra hand quilts but occasionally uses a sewing machine. “There is something about the closeness I have with the cloth when I am hand quilting that I don’t feel with machine sewing,” she said. “I just love that personal connection.”
A traditional block quilt made by member Joyce Dark is being raffled off as a fundraiser at the Aug. 24 reception. Members donated the colorful African materials and Dark volunteered to make the 73X90 inch piece.
Zahra is the unofficial historian of the circle, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary in March. “We are proud of how we have grown as a group,” she said. “I would say in the state we are a point of light.”
The Hayti Heritage Center is open Monday, 5 to 8 p.m., Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.