It’s easy to see how a community could spring up around a personality as dynamic as that of Candace Thomas. A member of the African American Quilt Circle, which meets the first Saturday of each month at the Hayti Cultural Center in Durham, the Los Angeles-born, Compton, Calif.-raised Thomas first came into contact with quilting as a high school student watching her aunt Will Lela sew. Being involved in all aspects of quilting agrees with Thomas, who, at 51, has the calm, smooth face of a 20-something-year-old and the spiritual demeanor of someone who is on their correct path. And she very well is, as quilting is again on an upsurge as an art form displayed in museums and galleries alike. Thomas’ work is currently featured in two local exhibits, and the quality of her work makes it easy to see why museum curators are on the prowl for new stars. The Hayti Center is hosting Family Stitches: Work by the African American Quilt Circle, curated by Thomas and Keisha Roberts and running through Feb. 28; her exhibit at the Greensboro Cultural Center kicks off the African American Arts Festival and runs through Feb. 27.

We recently talked to Thomas about quilting, community and the healing power of art.

Independent: What was your inspiration to start sewing quilts?

Candace Thomas: I have a dressmaking background since I was in high school back in 1960-something. I was being really out there in my designs and discovered quilting. In grades six through 11 I watched my aunt sew and my step-grandmother quilted, and now that I’m in it I can remember watching them quilt when I was very young. I didn’t participate back then, but it did rub off on me. What type of art did you study in school? The public schools that I went to in California had good art programs. I was having a ball in school. I enjoyed everything but PE. We were allowed and encouraged to do art at home. Later I took classes in design, but school did not influence my quilting.

Is there a certain subject matter that inspires you now?

I’m working on a Middle Passage series based on the slave trade, but most days I sit and sew in my studio with 50 bins full of fabric, every notion known to man and seven sewing machines, and make what feels good at the time. When I am in my studio, I go in and–during the process–I get closer to the earth. I find out what inspires me if I try to write about a piece after it’s made. The work ends up being everything that is Candace Thomas.

Explain the African American Quilt Circle.

Our first meeting was in March 1998. People come from as far away as Wilmington and Fayetteville, and one member moved to Virginia provided that her husband bring her back once a month to the circle. So it’s tight, but also widespread.

Does quilting form communities where there were none?

It brings together people with a common bond. There are members who know the history of quilting, those with incredible quilt memories for old and new patterns. It doesn’t matter what type of quilt you like to sew, anyone interesting in quilting can join the circle even if they don’t sew.

How does the AAQC community relate to communities in the Triangle?

One thing we do is a lot of community outreach in the AAQC. We do donation quilts for the children who are graduating high school from out of the housing authority or Section 8 program. We take what we do and spread it out to others. None of the children have yet to join the circle, but they look forward to graduating from high school and a quilt from the circle is an incentive to them. We get tips about when certain children will be graduating and work on quilts in advance. It’s a blessing to be able to give, because you receive so much more when you do.

There are a lot of folks in need these days.

If more people got together to quilt, things would be better. When you have a group you can be close with, you find ways to solve problems and that can go beyond quilting. How would you describe your work? I don’t know if you know anything about string quilts or scrap quilts, but you take a small piece of thin fabric, and take strips and sew them down. I also make quilted handbags, costumes–even a wedding gown once. That was not what you might think: It was a classic white wedding gown that you wouldn’t even know I made.

What do you think about the sewing the Amish do in Pennsylvania?

They are amazing. You won’t see one stitch out of place, except when they do it on purpose. Only God is perfect, so the Amish always put one thing out of shape or stitch out somewhere so as not to upset God.

Sometimes your stitches are not used in a typical quilting way, but become part of the art. How did that start?

You mean like this [she picks up a handbag with bold fabrics and intricate stitching patterns to demonstrate]? Well, it starts when I have many small pieces of fabric to put together. I don’t throw anything away, so if there are pieces and scraps lying around I use the scraps. It’s called “thread painting.” There are other people out there doing this, but no one I’ve seen uses my combinations of fabric and stitches.

You use shells in a lot of your work. Is there a particular place where you get your shells?

I started collecting cowrie shells years ago, so everything has become cowrie shells, and I have a lot of friends who send them to me. I’ve got over 10,000 cowrie shells ready to be used now. The same is with the dolls. Once I get started with something it just keeps going. I have hundreds of dolls.

Did you make these dolls?

Well, I made some of them, but there are also Ndebele dolls from South Africa. Once I taught children how to make these dolls in a class at the Edgemont Community Center before they closed the Few Gardens housing project.

Kids will explore any medium you have to work with in ways that are unexpected and amazing. Art is as natural as breathing [to them], and I think it’s a shame when public schools don’t have the resources to offer art to everyone. Kids want to create.

When did you realize you could make a life of quilting full time?

The people who influenced me were aunt Will Lela, of course, [and] my mom and my sister encouraged quilting. This meant that I had a firm base and have always been confident that I was on the right path. The more involved you get with your art, the more your art becomes involved with everything you do.

In addition to the cowrie shells that appear regularly in your work, I noticed some grass-like material hanging from a piece called “Untitled.” This looks a long ways away from quilting.

That’s raffia; it’s made from the leaves of the raffia plant. That untitled piece is part of a challenge quilt.

What is a challenge quilt?

That’s a challenge where the circle uses the same African fabric and each person makes a design that incorporates the fabric into any type of story or quilt. As the curator of that exhibit, it was hard to know whether to hang a separate piece of the cloth so people could easily see how each sewer had used it.

In my case, I made the circle and scrunched the sides to make the bowl that the shell sits in. The raffia hanging from the bottom is not meant to represent any one thing, so each viewer is free to interpret what the piece is about. That’s why I didn’t put a title on it.

But it is small and doesn’t look like a quilt.

Some people would label my work art quilts, but all quilts are art quilts.

A fabric piece qualifies as a quilt when two layers of fabric are bound together with a third layer in between. So even though it is a very different type of quilt, the piece up in the Hayti qualifies.

Is there a new direction in quilting on the horizon for you?

Well, I make a lot more than quilts, and I have loved making handbags lately. Sometimes I make wearables, then switch to wall hangings–heck, I could cover a ’57 Chevy with a quilt if someone wanted it done. As for [new] horizons, I say we should make sure women have a place to create. That keeps women healthy and healthy women make healthy families, and that makes a healthy community.

I’m an optimist. I don’t think we are put here to destroy others. This period is a test.

And what is your ultimate goal as a sewer?

I don’t strive for product, but for process, and working with other people. As the process is refined, you find that the people you are working with are fascinated by talking about how they decide to put pieces of cloth together. Finding the new process and taking it out to the edge of the envelope is a daily habit, and you don’t know whether you’ve reached your goal until you’ve already been there a while.

Candace Thomas’ exhibit in the African American Atelier at the Greensboro Cultural Center runs through Sunday, Feb. 27. Contact the Center for details and directions at (336) 333-6885. The Hayti Heritage Center exhibit, Family Stitches: Work by the African American Quilt Circle, runs through Feb. 28. 804 Old Fayetteville Street, Durham. 683-1709.