- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2000

Michael Cummings from Harlem is a quilter and proud of it.

Two of the New Yorker's creations appear in "Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African American Artists." The show is being displayed along with "Amish Quilts From the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown" at the Renwick Gallery of the American Art Museum.

The 50 creations by black quilters range from abstract designs, such as those by Sandra Smith of Silver Spring; to the joyous semirealist "Haitian Mermaid No. 2" by Mr. Cummings; to Dindga McCannon's quilted reconstruction of a page in a family photo album, "The Wedding Party: The History of Our Nation Is Really the Story of Families."

In a written statement for the show, Mr. Cummings says that "As a male quilter, I am in a unique position. It forces people to reassess what they think men can and cannot do."

He says men are the ones who have traditionally worked with fabrics in Africa and other non-Western places.

The Amish women's quilts in the other show reflect the simplicity of their lives. Yet James Christen Steward, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, writes in the show's catalog, "These quilts are works of abstract art of the highest order."

The creations come mainly from Amish quilt-making's "classical period," 1880 to 1940, and primarily from Holmes County, Ohio, the largest Amish community in the Midwest. Textiles from Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas and Indiana also are represented.

American women made quilts to provide warmth, but they also wanted them to be aesthetically pleasing. Early quilters sewed two layers of fabric over an interlining, usually in a pattern of back or running stitches. The pieced, or patchwork, type was popular until about 1750, when the appliqued, or laid-on, quilt was introduced.

Both American blacks and the Amish expressed their sense of community — their sense of selves — through quilts.

The contemporary black quilters looked to Africa and their experiences in America for rich stories that included tribal celebrations and illustrations of civil rights activism. They often experimented visually, mixing cotton, silk, leather, African mud cloth and burlap. For decoration, they used beads, buttons, feathers and shells.

The Amish, who were also called "the plain people," expressed their belief that work and art were one.

A Protestant sect, the Amish split from the Swiss Mennonites in the 1690s and immigrated to North America from Switzerland during the 1730s. They isolated themselves into tightly knit communities and chose to live apart from the rest of the world. They rejected everything that was worldly and all modern conveniences, such as the automobile and farm equipment.

"They belong to a different world, one reduced to essentials and infused with worship and spiritual reflection," says Jeremy Adamson, exhibit coordinating curator.

The Amish women worked within severe restrictions set by the community. They quilted together in groups. They also could use only certain color combinations, fabrics and patterns — diamonds, squares, triangles and rectangles.

Carolyn Mazloomi, co-curator of "Spirits of the Cloth," is founder and president of the Women of Color Quilters Network. The group is described as the only national one of black quilters.

Miss Mazloomi, who is from Ohio and a former aerospace engineer, recalls that an announcement of the network's formation in a quilters publication in 1983 brought responses from only nine quilters. Today, her network has 1,700 members.

"I originally founded the network to keep the craft going among African Americans," she says. "I also wanted to educate and disseminate the cultural significance, as well as the monetary value, of the quilts they made."

She organized the "Spirit of the Cloth" exhibit for the American Craft Museum in Manhattan to show the variety of techniques, materials and individual styles.

Her group includes several men, and Mr. Cummings is one.

"Quilt making has offered me a new way to create. I was already inspired by [artist] Romare Bearden, and I saw quilting as another way to make collages," he says.

"Haitian Mermaid No. 2" — made of commercial and hand-dyed cotton, synthetic and antique fabrics, found objects, sequins and beads — is part of Mr. Cummings' series on Haitians trying to immigrate to the United States. The series was inspired by a 1987 news segment on Haitians desperately trying to reach the United States by boat. Many drowned.

Mr. Cummings also looks to the storytelling applique cloth tradition from Abomey in Benin, as well as Mr. Bearden's colorful collages.

Gwendolyn A. Magee of Jackson, Miss., uses color to create the organic, almost abstract patterns and effects she wants. "Crystalline Fantasy," of orange, rust and green cotton, netting and overlay, evokes a fantasy underwater world of floating plants and flowers.

Another quilter, Cathleen Richardson Bailey of Pittsburgh, is acutely aware of her heritage. "I am the great-granddaughter of slaves," she writes. "Margaret Maynard (1855-1946) comes into my dreams often. I am also granddaughter of Cathleen Williams Shefton (born 1893), and daughter of Christine Shefton Richardson (1912-1994). These are the women of my family who used needle, fabric and thread."

Her quilt "The Little Boy Had Nightmares Aboard the Slave Ship Jesus" is a heartfelt reminder of the cruelty of slavery. The image created with cotton, yarn, nails, rope, chain, glass and found objects is a powerful statement. "I want to my work to make people think, to make a change," she says.

The Amish quilts — which come from the Browns of Oak Brook, Ill., who began their collection in the 1970s — have their own kind of intensity.

The Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., favored the diamond-pattern quilt, which was pieced together from colorful, luminous wools. These Amish loved color. Underneath the somber-hued women's capes were dresses of brilliant reds, emerald greens, cobalt blues and plum purples. Children wore brightly colored shirts and blouses.

They never used patterned fabrics, but preferred solid colors of earthy and intense tones. Rebecca Zook's intricately embroidered "Bars" uses the colors pink, purple, wine and turquoise and geometric patterns. It predicts the work of 20th-century artists such as Josef Albers and Victor Vasarely.

The rules for quilt making changed in Ohio and Indiana to accommodate a greater variety of quilt patterns and colors. Amish women there preferred fine, plain-weave cottons to the wools used in Pennsylvania. The weight and texture of cotton, with its relative stiffness, lent itself to piecework. It was also useful for the cutting of many small geometric shapes to form an all-over pattern.

The Renwick did not plan to present these quilt shows together, but they play off each other in exciting ways. The paired exhibits provide an opportunity to contrast two different kinds of artistic expression as well as many quilting approaches.WHAT: "Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African American Artists" and "Amish Quilts From the Collection of Faith and Stephen Brown"WHERE: American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NWWHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through Jan. 21TICKETS: FreePHONE: 202/357-2700

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