Telling Hidden Stories: An Apprenticeship in African American Quilt Making


ACTA - Posted on 24 April 2012

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Helen Anderson (apprentice, left) and Patricia Montgomery (master, right) holding Anderson’s quilt, The Answer Prayer.For much time, historians and researchers have found it necessary to look to expressive culture to re-imagine histories of communities that did not practice a written culture.  Communities in the Rio Grand Texas Valley have found song forms such as the corrido as informative to the on-goings within this region.  Similarly, in Puerto Rico, la plena, the Afro-boricua music style, has served as the local newspaper to communicate occurrences throughout the island.  Researchers and communities have learned to read public visual art as statements of community sentiments.  Significantly, in the African American community quilt makers have continuously contributed in documenting through their art tradition the joys and atrocities experienced throughout history. These expressions tell the hidden stories that are not documented in history books or literature, nor shared with schools and students as part of required curriculum.  ACTA is proud to have supported as part of its Apprenticeship Program in 2011, two talented representatives of this art form, master artist Patricia Montgomery and her apprentice Helen Anderson of the East Bay area.

Patricia Montgomery is a master quilter who began her artistic career as a painter.  She is grounded in the tradition of African American quilt making, yet offers wonderful innovations to the art form in various manners such as exploring new techniques, utilizing a vast range of materials, incorporating other visual effects, and engaging histories of other communities and their relationship to African American communities.  She engages her art as a form of rhythm and as movement, especially in the process of stitching.  Utilizing a sewing machine Montgomery shares ideas of "free motion" stitching, in which the quilter must literally guide or rather "push and pull" the material as if they were dancing with it.  This ultimately creates a breath of movement within the quilt.

Montgomery is adamant about researching history, art, and culture, suggesting books, articles, and attending lectures to understand the landmark events that inform a group’s history as a whole.  Today the stories presented through the quilts, however, are informed by both the documented and the local hidden stories that are maintained by a community, as well as by the artist’s re-vision of the stories.  Through research, Montgomery also illuminates her knowledge of how different cultures processed fabrics, materials, and quilts to demonstrate a connection between the African American tradition of quilting to cultures in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  These types of connections become realized in the types of exhibition in which Montgomery participates.  For example, she has been a well-received artist in various Dia de los Muertos events and installations in the Bay Area for several years.

Helen Anderson completed three beautiful quilts during her apprenticeship with Montgomery.  She shared that it was a process that moved from antagonism and contention, to "wandering" and exploration, finally arriving to a "healing" when she opened up to learning different techniques and ideas, and finding her own voice in the artistic tradition.  She shared that it was this negotiation of process that bonded mentor and apprentice in a spiritual manner.

See Patricia Montgomery’s Apprenticeship Blog to see the progression of her mentorship with Helen Anderson.  For more information on Patricia Montgomery, visit http://dragonartplace.com.

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Telling Hidden Stories: An Apprenticeship in African American Quilt Making

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1.Helen Anderson’s 1st quilt, Recalling the Journey, developed under the Apprenticeship Program (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Helen Anderson’s first quilt, Recalling the Journey, developed during her apprenticeship with Patricia Montgomery.

2.Detail of the Adinkra symbol of the Sankofa bird, a symbol for learning from the past (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Detail of the Adinkra symbol of the Sankofa bird, a symbol for learning from the past.

3.Detail of log cabin block pattern (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Detail of log cabin block pattern.

4.Detail of log cabin block pattern (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Detail of log cabin block pattern.

5.Helen Anderson (apprentice, left) and Patricia Montgomery (master, right) holding Anderson’s quilt (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Helen Anderson (apprentice, left) and Patricia Montgomery (master, right) holding Anderson’s second quilt, The Answer Prayer (working title).

6.Helen Anderson’s 2nd piece (working title) The Answer Prayer (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Helen Anderson’s second quilt, The Answer Prayer (working title).

7.Detail of center piece (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Detail of center piece.

8.Detail of the center Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame, which represents the presence of God (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Detail of the center Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame, which represents the presence of God.

9.Detail of hand – representing the reaching towards God’s altar (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Detail of hand, representing reaching towards God’s altar.

91.Detail of Nyame Nti (ferns), which represent the grace of God (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Detail of the Adinkra symbols Nyame Nti (ferns), which represent the grace of God.

92.Batik backing material of Helen Anderson’s quilt The Answer Prayer (Photo: Russell Rodríguez)

Batik backing material of Helen Anderson’s quilt The Answer Prayer (working title).