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!