Meet a Fabulous Fiber Artist: Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts.

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, and Rachel Clark. 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."

Trending patterns!

Gulp.

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??

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts. This is titled Dancing on the George Washington Bridge

"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.

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts.

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...

Freshman Suzy

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. 

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts. This is titled Church Picnic

"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.

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts. This is titled We Came to America

"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.

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts. This is titled Coming to Jones Part II #6 Chasing Butterflies

"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.

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts. This is titled Tar Beach

"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).

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts. This is titled Dancing at the Louvre.

"The French Collection #1 Dancing at the Louvre," 1991 Photo cred: NY Times

What is Faith Ringgold doing now?

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts.

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.

Photo cred: NY Times

Faith Ringgold is an accomplished painter, writer, professor and quilter. By combining all of these things, she tells stories through painting in her quilts.

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!

Suzy Quilts

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32 thoughts on “Meet a Fabulous Fiber Artist: Faith Ringgold

  1. Elizabeth Ray says:

    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.

  2. Kathy says:

    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!

  3. Jill says:

    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!

      • jillmpdavis says:

        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. 🙂

  4. SuzyMcQ says:

    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.

  5. Nancy Schwartz says:

    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.

  6. Bunny Wilson says:

    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.

  7. Judymal says:

    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!

  8. Jamie says:

    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.

  9. Xanthe says:

    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!

  10. Lenny says:

    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!

  11. Jules says:

    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!

  12. Amber Foret says:

    This was just beautiful! I’ve never heard of this lady and I’m so thankful now that I have!
    Thank you!
    It’s neat how your freshman college assignment has had such a beautiful impact.

  13. Peggy Beaman says:

    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!

  14. Molly Wong says:

    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.

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  17. Barbara R says:

    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.

  18. Kate Pietschman says:

    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!

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