African American quilters on display the Museum of the Gulf Coast

“Happy People” by Georgia Williams. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Georgia Williams’ “Happy People” evokes a smile. In each of the 13 bright orange diamonds, a figure dances — each individual locked in their own box but determined, nonetheless, to express themselves.

This is just one of a many varied pieces on display in the exhibition, “African American Quilters of the Gulf Coast,” on display through Dec. 3 at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur. The show opens with a free reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 1.

The exhibition is organized by the National African American Quilt Guild. Co-founder Rhonda Masters, who lives in Port Arthur, has been quilting for 10 years and is the latest in a familial line of practitioners.

“My grandmother and her sisters sewed and quilted, and my mother sewed, so that sparked my interest,” she said.

“Black Thought” by Rhonda Masters, with quilted garments by Rachel Clark. Photo by Andy Coughlan

However, it was not until she moved to Port Arthur from Austin that she learned quilting. After seeing a display by the Golden Triangle Quilt Guild, Masters decided to join the group.

“I always was interested in quilting, and I was not working at the time,” she said. “Years ago, when my grandmother passed away, you know, you go to the home, and you pick an heirloom or keepsake. I actually picked her sewing chest, and inside the sewing chest were several incomplete quilts that she had started but that she had never finished. There were only two completed quilts, and they went to other people in the family. Some people were sad because they didn’t get a quilt. I said, ‘Well, you know what, I’m gonna learn to quilt one day and give each one of my cousins one of these quilts.’ So, that was always in the back of my mind and drove my desire.”

The Golden Triangle Quilt Guild has been active since at least the 1980s, Masters said. Through the club, she met Laura Casmore. They found they were picking different subject matter and using African American fabrics. Looking to show the work and have a broad audience for their work, they formed the NAAQG.

“We want to show the scope of African American quilting,” Masters said. “Quilting is a vital American art. There’s traditional quilt, there’s all different types of quilting. Some of the things that make ours different (are) we use African American fabrics a lot, or our subject matter may be something that’s coming out of our culture.”

While many of the NAAQG quilters use traditional methods, there is often a storytelling component to the designs. One of Masters’ pieces in the show has fabric squares that form an ornate border around a picture of Martin Luther King, hr., Malcolm X and Barack Obama. Its title is “Black Thought.” Several other quilts incorporate photographs.

“That’s part of the advances in quilting — they call it art quilting,” Masters said. “That goes with the storytelling component, maybe because we want to express our point of view or tell things from our perspective.”

“I Can’t Breathe” by Georgia Williams. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Williams has another piece in the show that is different from “Happy People.”

“I Can’t Breathe” is split down the middle — half black and half white. On the white side are written the names of African Americans who have been killed. On the Black half is a Black man whose tears form a pool with the words “Black Lives Matter” on top.

Another non-traditional quilt is “Say It Loud” by Kianga Jinaki. It incorporates beads, paint and other embellishments.

“Say It Loud” by Kianga Jinaki. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Masters said that all quilters have a lot of fabric and often trade among themselves. Sometimes they cut up old clothes — upcycling. And African Fabrics are more readily available nowadays.

“I used to get them all the time at different outdoor festivals where somebody would be out there with music and selling African goods — but now they have become much more readily available,” she said. “There’s online fabric stores, or traditional quilt shops that may sell African American (lines). Some of the main designers are printing multicultural fabrics, fabrics with African American faces. Also, (there’s) custom printing where you can customize your own design.”

Masters said the exhibition will appeal to those who like and those who like quilting.

“Quilting has changed so much over the years from the times of our grandmothers — the fabric choices have changed, the styles have changed,” she said. “But we’ve always been a part of it, and we just want to keep on promoting it, and keep on advancing the art form to a new generation.”

The Museum of the Gulf Coast is located at 700Procter St. in Port Arthur. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is $8.

For more, visit www.museumofthegulfcoast.org.

This story first ran in the Sept. 23, 2022 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.

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