AN AFRICAN AMERICAN
PERSPECTIVE OF QUILTING
Master Art Quilter Cely Pedescleaux at Le Musee de f.p.c.
By Sara Hollis, Ph. D.
The title refers to the results of her research into the use of quilts as guides and secret messages along the Underground Railroad. Inspired by the 1999 book on quilting during slavery times, Hidden in Plain View, by New Orleanian and Howard University professor Raymond G. Dobard, Jr., and Jacqueline Tobin, Pedescleaux began researching the quilt designs they described as being used as signals along the Underground Railroad.
Quite annoyed that some White quilters have questioned the validity of Dobard and Tobin’s research and even suggest that quilt designs by African Americans were based on European or Euro-American patterns, Pedescleaux has interviewed countless African-American quilters and descendants of quilters from all over America and continues her research to bolster the assertion that those antebellum quilts were indeed used to communicate messages to slaves seeking freedom.
She speaks often of this research in public lectures and in discussions with her quilt group at her church, the Beecher Memorial United Church of Christ on Miro Street in the 7th Ward. She even discovered one such quilt, a traditional log cabin quilt with a black center, indicating a safe house, on a visit to a plantation. She has reproduced a number of the Underground Railroad quilt patterns and includes many of them in exhibitions and workshops.
In an article I wrote about quilting for the Gulf Coast Arts and Entertainment Review in 2001, I asked Pedescleaux to comment on her work.
“I can’t describe my quilting style. It keeps evolving,” she said. “I do have a love affair with the traditional patterns. It is almost like a memorial to my ancestors. Every time I work on a traditional pattern, my thoughts go back to older days and how hard it was to get fabric, to find the time to stitch, and how many uses the quilt had to accomplish. Then the joy of life meets the hardships, and the traditional pattern takes on a whole new wonderful life.”
In recent years, she has shown her quilts in many venues in the United States and across the world, including France and China. Here in New Orleans, she has shown both traditional quilts and art quilts at such venues as Beecher Memorial Church, the New Orleans African American Museum of Art, Culture and History, Jazz and Heritage Gallery, the CAC, Stella Jones Gallery, Southern University at New Orleans, the JW Marriott and the New Orleans Museum of Art. She has demonstrated her art at both Jazz Fest and Essence Festival Marketplace, involving interested viewers in decorating fabric that she then turns into huge quilted wall hangings. Many are displayed in Jazz Fest offices.
And she is especially excited about having her exhibition at Le Musee de f.p.c.
“It is awe inspiring and frightening all at the same time. It is a one-person exhibition so my work has to carry the whole show. I have designed it so there is a theme for each room, a cohesive whole, not just a cockamamie bunch of quilts,” she says.
And about the house museum dedicated to the history of free people of color, she adds, “I wish more people would go see the collection they are pulling together. It is so meaningful to have it in that neighborhood, that section of the city.”
I first became aware of Pedescleaux’s tremendous talent when I saw her entry in the Inspiration Exhibition that I co-curated with Don Marshall almost 20 years ago at the Contemporary Arts Center. Artists invited to show in the exhibition first came to SUNO’s library to choose an example of African art in the collection that would serve as their “inspiration piece”. The inspiration piece and their original work were shown together. Some 78 artists were in the exhibition. The huge bright quilt she made included several African symbols. The predominant one was the Ashanti Adinkra symbol Gye Nyame from Ghana, which means “accept God”. Her piece was spectacular, combining traditional and personal quilting techniques with very fancy beadwork. It created a lot of excitement at the exhibition. She subsequently invited me to view an exhibition of quilts she and the members of her quilt workshop made. The exhibition was beautiful, and we brought it to Southern University’s Art Gallery for Women’s Month in 2001. In connection with the exhibition, Pedescleaux gave two lectures, showing quilt after quilt she had made. She also gave a workshop for the National Conference of Artists on SUNO’s campus.
“I love New Orleans with its melting pot of nationalities- Caribbean, African, Hispanic, Native American and European-flamboyant colors, fragrances, and sounds. These serve as a catalyst for my creations, and I sometimes venture into brilliant colors, beadwork, and embroidery that I use as pieces for my quilts and wall hangings. My pieces are made up of 75 percent research, 15 percent cloth, and 10 percent heart. My inspirations flow from books by Roland Freeman, Cuesta Benberry, Gladys Marie Fry, Faith Ringgold, Maude Wahlham, Carolyn Mazloomi, David C. Driscoll and others. These people have taught me that it is okay to be me. Every corner does not have to meet, and every stitch does not have to be straight, this is my creation.”
Not only is Pedescleaux a master quilter herself, but she has also been teacher and inspiration to a whole generation of quilters who belong to her quilt group or have been inspired by her works in exhibitions and her many lectures here and across the country. And says she in turn is inspired by artists and quilters in her group who introduce new mediums. Techniques she has used in her quilts include, patchwork, trapunto, beading, thread painting, three dimensional cloth flowers and figures, cloth collage, wax batik, and photo transfer. She also makes clothes and accessories out of material she has designed and quilted. She has taught children in schools in both Orleans and Jefferson Parishes and has run workshops for the elderly.
“A self-taught quilter, I began quilting in the early ‘60’s by making Christmas presents for my family and friends,” Pedescleaux says. “A hobby turned into a passion and has taken me down many paths in the past years. I started with familiar quilt patterns from the early colonial and pioneering American era, and realized my African-American roots were entwined in these designs. My research for these designs came not from the normal quilt books, but from old cookbooks, wine making, agricultural and architectural books which had comments on African-American (slave) occupations.”
The development of the current trends in traditional quilts and in art quilts is perhaps the biggest silent women’s revolution in the country. Just as in previous eras, women are getting together to create beauty with their hands and talk about their times and lives as they work. A number of local, national, and international quilting organizations have sprung up over the last several decades. The Studio Art Quilt Association, for example has several thousand members living all over the world. Certain American towns and cities have become centers for the contemporary excitement over quilting and draw thousands of quilters to major quilting exhibitions and conferences. And Pedescleaux has attended many of these.
Annually, in America alone, quilting supplies, publications and equipment has become a several billion dollar industry. And this is an art form that can be pursued with a needle and thread and old clothes.
“My quilts and art pieces have lots of color and embellishments. I use all types of fabrics, thread, and yarns. I experiment with different techniques of sewing, paints, prints, knitting, crocheting and felting,” Pedescleaux says. “My inspiration comes from Mary McLeod Bethune, who said, “I teach what I know.”
Sara Hollis, Ph. D., is a Professor in the Master of Arts in Museum Studies Program at Southern University at New Orleans where she joined the Faculty in 1973. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some quotes in this story are from an article in the Nov.-Dec. 2001 issue of the Gulf Coast Arts and Entertainment Review and are used with permission of publisher Renae Friedley.