In my journey to learn more about the history of quilting and fiber arts, I have discovered some incredible makers, artists, thinkers and leaders. A couple weeks ago we talked about one of our founding Quilt Mothers, Nancy Crow, Marti Michell, Rachel Clark and Judith Scott. Today, I bring you someone who is not just a quilter and fiber artist, she is a painter, a writer, a performance artist, a mixed media sculptor, a university professor and one of my long-time heroes. I'm talking about Faith Ringgold.
I was first introduced to Ringgold in my first semester of my freshman year of college. I was a stressed out, over-achiever who thought a steady 4.0 grade point average was a reasonable goal. (Oh how much I have changed...) Over the course of the semester my fellow Design 101 students and I had to recreate an object in many different styles of art. It was kinda like an art history lesson mashed up with basic drawing, painting and sculpting skills.
And I was crushing it. And by crushing it I mean I made zero friends and worked around the clock. Exactly what freshman year is supposed to be about.
For our final project, the professor assigned each student an artist whom we were to use as inspiration to recreate our object. (I guess at this point I should tell you that my object was my glasses. Like I said, I was working all the time so my poor little glasses were never too far away at any given moment.)
Using the style of that artist I was to recreate my glasses in some kind of 8" x 10" format. Since I was the only declared fiber arts major in my freshman class (fancy that!), when the professor got to Faith Ringgold's name she looked up from her clipboard, cracked a small smile and said, "Ms. Williams. This one's yours. Let's see what you can do."
Being the 2004, pre-smartphone era that it was, after class I booked it to the library to look up this Faith Ring-gold. And my gosh did my brain expand to the point of hurting. Did you know that you can paint on fabric and then turn it into a quilt? Did you know that you can write whole stories on fabric and then sew them into beautiful tapestries full of life and color and family and tradition??
"Dancing on the George Washington Bridge," 1988 Photo cred: craftinamerica.org
Well I was learning all about my new hero and I was not going to let her down. My final project needed to be epic.
I didn't have a photo of my mini quilt, so last week I called my dad and asked if he could take one for me. Below is that picture...I'm pretty sure he walked into a dark closet before snapping the shot, but, I'm grateful that after all of these years he still has it. It currently lives in their house in Missouri. From the many art projects I made my freshman year, this is the only one that stuck around.
In the top and bottom strips of fabric, I wrote a little story about one of Faith Ringgold's common characters, Momma Jones...
"I remember waking up to the soft hum of a sewing machine. Momma Jones always had a smile while she worked. I loved to just sit and watch her work. Sometimes she would let me try but I usually messed up and she'd have to pull out the stitches. She never seemed to mind. No matter how hard things got or how little money we had she always saw the best in the situation. It was like she was wearing rose-colored glasses."
And here are those infamous glasses...along with my 18 year-old self...
Love, Family and Racism
Faith Ringgold was born in 1930 in New York City, where she was given the name Faith Willi Jones as well as a love for storytelling. She was the youngest of three children, and her parents, Andrew Louis Jones and Willi Posey Jones, were artists who incorporated creativity into every day family life.
"Church Picnic," 1988 Photo Cred: HIGH.org
Her mother was a fashion designer, and her father, was a creative storyteller who immersed Faith in the vibrant and thriving Harlem art scene. Although Ringgold struggled with chronic asthma, she found joy through a deep love of drawing and sewing.
“I grew up in Harlem during the Great Depression,” Ringgold once said about her childhood. “This did not mean I was poor and oppressed. We were protected from oppression and surrounded by a loving family.” The love, poetry, music and people that surrounded her when she was little had a big and beautiful impact on her, unfortunately so did her experiences of racism, sexism and segregation.
"We Came to America," 1997 Photo cred: NY Times
All of these experiences came to a head in 1950, when Faith Ringgold set out to major in art at the City College of New York. Even though art was her passion, the college pushed her into the school of education – women were only allowed to enroll in certain majors. (insert massive eye roll by me)
She adapted her course of study to include Art Education, and continued to study alongside other artists until she graduated in 1955 with her bachelor’s degree. She later went on to receive her master’s in 1959.
The Art of Faith Ringgold
Although, like I mentioned before, Faith is pretty much an artist of all trades, it’s her quilting that really inspired me. Ringgold’s quilts tell stories… literally.
Quilt making has its roots all around the world, but Faith’s study of pre-civil war slave culture revealed the deeply dynamic ways that quilts have been used historically to tell stories. In her exploration of craft and history, Ringgold takes quilt storytelling to a whole new colorful level.
"Coming to Jones Part II #6 Chasing Butterflies," 2010 Photo cred: NY Times
One of her most famous story quilts is called Tar Beach, and it weaves the story of a young girl laying on a rooftop one hot summer night who shows the world that anyone can fly. This quilt later became a children's book.
"Tar Beach," 1988 Photo cred: VMFA
Ringgold’s quilts are a perfect marriage between art and activism. Faith both confronted and subverted racist prejudice by depicting stories of ethnic tensions and race riots in her quilts, but also highlighting strong, positive role models for African American kids. She, herself, is a strong, successful, heroic African American women, who has always taken that role seriously, and has been a leader for positive change among both fellow artists and her students (she taught art from 1987 to 2002 at UC San Diego).
"The French Collection #1 Dancing at the Louvre," 1991 Photo cred: NY Times
What is Faith Ringgold doing now?
Tar Beach was Ringgold’s first published book, and it has won more than 30 awards, including the coveted Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King award for best illustrated children’s book of 1991. Ringgold later went on to complete sixteen other children’s books, and her own personal memoir, We Flew Over the Bridge, was published in 1995.
She received two honorary doctorates, one from Wheelock College in Boston and one from Mollow College in New York. She’s still active in her studio in Englewood, New Jersey and also has a second studio in La Jolla, California, where she continues to make beautiful and revolutionary work.
If you haven’t seen any of Ringgold’s children’s books, get yourself to the kids section of your local library STAT. These books are not just for kids – you will love and be inspired by her storytelling. That’s a Suzy Quilts guarantee.
I've already started curating my baby's personal library and I'm only 16 weeks pregnant! Cassie's Word Quilt is making the cut. Here is a video of Faith Ringgold, herself, reading Tar Beach...
Are you familiar with the work of Faith Ringgold? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!
35 thoughts on “Meet a Fabulous Fiber Artist: Faith Ringgold”
I had the pleasure of attending a fantastic and inspiring lecture by Faith Ringgold a few years back at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in my town. They have her quilt, Maya’s Quilt of Life. (The piece was commissioned by Oprah Winfrey and given to Dr Angelou (1928-2014) on her birthday in 1989.) Fabulous artist and person, truly. Thanks for sharing more about her.
I’m going to dream about getting to be in a room with Oprah, Faith Ringgold and Maya Angelou tonight! Thanks for sharing your experience, E!
Oprah, Faith, and Maya. Really? That is sooo pretentious! Why do Black people have to be ancient years old and more accomplished than Jesus to impress white people. Any given Black person over the age of 60 has stories just like Faith’s. They are EVERYWHERE. Want to meet my mom!? Not to mention, there are Black people making history right now, but we get treated with disdain by white women who act like mean girls at work and at school.
Ironically, it is nearly impossible for ACTUAL Black people to meet these legends. Their red tape and monopolization of their attention by white people creates huge barriers to meet them. My sister had to win a prestigious, competitive scholarship to meet Rosa Parks for five minutes. I studied art history in college and we had NO classes on Black history or global history AT ALL. I had NO access to meet even local Black movers and shakers in the arts. It’s just annoying. I’m in a bad mood tonight anyway.
Hi R, I don’t want to downplay your experience, but I do encourage you to read the latest installment of the Fab Fiber Artist series. It’s about a very impressive young Black woman – https://suzyquilts.com/bisa-butler/
Fascinating! I live on the other side of the world and I’ve learnt so much from reading this article – thanks!
A great testimonial to a great artist, great job Suzy. It’s quite clear you were an overachiever at college! X😉
I’m a retired first grade teacher. I read “Tar Beach” to my class every year. Her illustrations were very different from what they were used to seeing. It was always a great teaching moment!
You sound like the best teacher!
Thank you for this wonderful, inspirational article. I’m going to learn more, RIGHT NOW!
Oh wow! Thanks for reminding me of Faith Ringgold. When my daughter was in elementary school one of her teachers was a big fan and they used to read Tar Beach and do projects based on the book. What a great book. I forgot about it but now I will have to get it for my granddaughter. Along with Cassie’s Word Quilt!
They are such unique and special books! I love that children can learn about the beauty of quilts so young 🙂
PS. If you haven’t heard of it, I highly recommend a book called “The Paper Princess” by Elisa Kleven. It reminds me a lot of Tar Beach. Flying, city scenes and the gorgeous artwork! The author likes to use collage and watercolor and fiber in her drawings. I have one copy that I let anyone read and then I have “my” copy! I love it so much it makes my heart hurt lol. 🙂
Suzy, I am so grateful for this series, and continue to be amazed at the work and artists you are introducing us to. Thank you so much for all your hard work compiling these inspirational bios.
Thanks for the great history lesson on a true american artist. Did not know anything about Faith but will spend time learning more about her now.
I’m new to your blog & newsletter and was thrilled to see the content included this about Faith Ringgold. What an incredible artist! Thank you for offering so much more than the usual quilting blog… not that the usual is bad, lol. I love most all quilting blogs, but this post is just special.
Thank you so much, Bunny! I really appreciate that.
This woman is amazing- and a role model for all of us. I first learned about Ms. Ringgold on a PBS documentary about several fiber artists and have been inspired by her ever since. Thanks for sharing!
very very very great post….thank you.
I attended a lecture by her at The St Louis Art Museum. We stood in line to get to shake her hand and have her autograph my copy of Tar Beach. As an art educator, I used her story quilts as inspiration for our fiber arts unit at all age levels. She is so very inspiring to me.
Wow! What an inspiring and beautiful woman. So much strength in her face, and a good dose of cheekiness too, by the look of that little side-eye haha! Thanks for the introduction, Suuuu-zeeeeeee!
Thank you that was great. I’m inspired to read her biography.
Thank you for these postings Suzy, and your tributes to great female artists. I’m a beginner quilter but your recent post about Nancy Crow and now Faith Ringgold have given me so much inspiration and sparked my interest to learn more about them. I bought Nancy Crow’s book and absolutely love her work. Can’t wait to learn more about Faith Ringgold. Thank you for providing this community!
I’m also new to your blog and this is such a fascinating article. I’ve not met Faith Ringgold until now. Wow! Love that you studied her so young and have hung on to her work. I really like her quilts with the children playing (or flying) as I’ve had one in my head with children playing in my backyard for awhile now. Too much real work gets in the way of my creative play/work!
I’ve been following you on IG and now enjoying your writing. Thanks!
This was just beautiful! I’ve never heard of this lady and I’m so thankful now that I have!
It’s neat how your freshman college assignment has had such a beautiful impact.
When I discovered Faith Ringgold’s quilts and books a few years ago I fell in love too. Thank you for teaching us more about these amazing quilt artists! Such a great series!
p.s. I’m so glad your rose colored glasses quilt came out of the closet. It is AMAZING!
You’re so kind, Peggy! Faith Ringgold is a national treasure and I’m happy to have a forum to talk about her.
As a school librarian and a quilter Faith Ringgold is a favorite. I am lucky to have two projects at school this year where I will be able to have students dig in deep with her work and let it inspire their own. Thanks for this piece – you pulled together a wealth of information I can share with my collaborating teachers.
My elementary students studied Faith Ringgold. We read Tar Beach, viewed her paintings, sculptures, and her quilts. The students chose a family story of their own and created a paper quilt in Ringgold style. The students enjoyed the personal aspect of Faith Ringgold’s art work.
What a wonderful project for kids!
I absolutely loved the reading – I always find any work is best when read or described by the author/artist. What a treat!
I remember when Tar Beach was published. Just about every quilt/fiber arts magazines I subscribed to had wonderful write-ups. Sometimes I wish I could retain all I have read and devoured but alas my mind tends to hold the feelings rather than the facts. I bought or read every children’s book I discovered on quilts or stitching. My bumpkins poured over every book I brought into the house. Sometimes when we are super giddy we start reciting various lines we remembered. 🙂
I have a decent collection of children’s literature I can’t remember at the moment if I own any of Faith Ringgolds’ books but I imagine I would love her biography – going to see if the local library has it.
Thanks for these wonderful snippets into lives of those who inspire(d) many folks!
I am so happy for you that you got a chance to experience Faith Ringgold as such a influential part of your life.
I was introduced to face by one of her then calendars that she had out with her quilts this was about 20-plus years ago the picture that struck me the most was a bride running away from the groom with a bridge.
At that time I was in my early forties and I had wondered if I had made the right decision not to marry at a young age. A do wish you the best as a professional artist and Mom you can do both
I’m retired social worker and I am starting my second quote in life but I wanted to tell my story and I’m often relate back to Faith
feel free to keep in touch
Later to the party but love the story and am online ordering the books now. I might even share them with my kids. What a great tribute and thanks for sharing her with us.
lived in Teaneck, FT LEE and now in ENGLEWOOD I was a quilter 70 years ago and fell in love with your work Gave lots away to kids grandkids and now have 7 greats Where can I see your quilts?
Hi Ethel! If you’re looking for more of Faith Ringgold’s work, you can check out her website here: https://www.faithringgold.com/