Some of the nation’s finest practitioners of the African American quilting tradition will gather in Durham during the Juneteenth holiday to lead a series of workshops, networking events, and a pop-up quilt show.
The conference, titled Kindred Spirits: A Convergence of African American Quilters, is sponsored by the Durham-based Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. In addition to marking Juneteenth, the conference also coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Bull City’s quilt circle.
Candace Thomas, who cofounded the African American Quilt Circle of Durham in 1998, has been sewing virtually her whole life. Her work has been widely exhibited, including at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, and graces the conference’s marketing and media kits. In the early days, the quilting circle first met at Stanford L. Warren Library, before finding a home two blocks away at the Hayti Heritage Center. The group of about 75 members now meets once a month at the center.
“We had our first quilting show in 1999,” Thomas says. “Now we have one every 18 months.”
For Thomas, the art form helps to build community.
“It brings together people with a common bond,” she told the INDY in 2005. “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 [interested] in quilting can join the circle even if they don’t sew.”
A slate of quilting stars will lead workshops at the June 15-17 conference, including Kena Tangi Dorsey, a self-taught artist, teacher, and owner of a quilt studio in Los Angeles. Dorsey began quilting more than 20 years ago while living in Harlem, with a style influenced by a wide range of interdisciplinary Harlem Renaissance artists like Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes.
Then there’s Aisha Lumumba, an Atlanta-based quilt artist whose lushly colored work celebrates “the greatness of both our African and American experiences,” according to her website, and South Florida resident Kianga Jinaki, who creates dolls, quilts, and mixed-media work that celebrates Black life.
Kindred Spirits conference director Kimberley Pierce Cartwright will also be sharing her skills and experience at the Juneteenth event. A native of Hallsboro, Cartwright has been living in Durham since 2002 and says she joined the African American Quilt Circle of Durham a few years later, at the behest of Thomas.
“A mutual friend told me Candace and I would be a good match because we both liked to sew,” Cartwright tells the INDY.
They weren’t. Well—not at first.
“Candace blew me off,” Cartwright says, laughing at the memory. But she says Thomas apologized the second time they saw each other, and asked her, “You sew, but have you ever made a quilt? If you make one, we’ll put it in the African American Quilt Circle show.”
Cartwright hadn’t ever made a quilt, but she nonetheless visited the Scrap Exchange and bought a bag of fabric. Serendipitously enough, some of the fabric was already sewn together—likely the remnants of another quilter’s project.
Cartwright says she made a small quilt with tiny, intricate geometric shapes and took it to the quilt circle. When its members saw her work they all stood and applauded.
“I thought, ‘These are my people!’”
The African American quilting tradition has historically embodied the adage of “making something precious out of nothing.” In her essay “The Stories behind African American Quilts,” writer Deanna Parenti points to the story of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly, an enslaved woman in the mid-19th century who provided “food for herself, seventeen other people, and her master for over two years, all from selling her intricate quilts.”
Parenti wrote that Keckly was able to save enough money to free herself and her son and move to Washington, D.C., where she “became a professional seamstress and quilter for the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, and the Congressional wives.” While working in D.C., Keckly created the famous Liberty Medallion Quilt from strips of the First Lady’s dresses.
Consider, too, the observations of scholar Floris Barnett Cash in 1995.
“Quilts can be used as a resource in reconstructing the experience of African American women,” Cash wrote in a paper. “They provide a record of their cultural and political past.”
Cash asserts that, through quilting, Black women, with their voices “largely unknown,” have often created their own lives and become the voices of authority on their own experiences.
“The voices of Black women are stitched in their quilts,” Cash wrote.
In downtown Durham, the small but influential group of quilting professionals will celebrate the legacy of Juneteenth by stepping into this rich tradition. The event is beyond special for the Bull City.
“This is the first-ever national African American quilting conference ever held in Durham,” Thomas says.
In addition to the workshops, Reneé Anderson, collections manager at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is scheduled for a panel in conversation with Marshall Price, chief curator at the Nasher Museum of Art. And then there’s the conference’s pop-up exhibit, titled Deconstructing the Mammy Archetype through African American Art Quiltwork, which the public will have a chance to view on June 16 from six to nine p.m. as part of Durham’s monthly Third Friday celebration.
After that fateful visit to the Scrap Exchange and joining the quilter’s circle, Cartwright’s work was featured at that year’s quilt show.
“I thought, ‘This must be what I’m meant to do,’” she says.
Since then, her work has gone on to find widespread acclaim: One of her pieces graced the cover of Quiltfolk Magazine last year, and another is currently on exhibit at the Nasher as part of its Reckoning and Resilience: North Carolina Art Now exhibition.
Cartwright began dreaming up the idea of hosting the national conference when she attended the National African American Quilt Convention in Lawrence, Kansas, in 2018.
“It was one of the joys of my life,” she says. “I met so many beautiful quilters who are my friends to this day. It’s not often that Black women get to go to conferences. I want that same spirit here. A place where African American women can get together to talk about our quilt work as art rather than as something that’s viewed not as art but as something used for warmth or a place to rest. I don’t make quilts for the bed. I make quilts for the wall.”
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