Thursday, January 21, 2021

Appliqué Assignment

When I was twelve, a youth leader took me to see the musical Quilters at the local opera house and I was immediately sold on the idea of quilting: the aesthetics, the history, the symbolism--I loved it all! My mom taught me how to use the zig zag feature on my sewing machine to appliqué dark blue fabric hearts onto light blue squares, which I later pieced together to make my first quilt.

I introduced my art class to appliqué technique and history as our final part of the textile unit, by introducing them to Harriet Powers, a freed slave who was born in 1837 and grew up near Athens, Georgia. She and her husband eventually bought land and started a family cotton farm near Atlanta. Powers never learned to read or write, but she knew the Bible stories and illustrated those stories in quilt squares (see above). During hard times, she reluctantly sold the quilt for $5. She asked for $10, but the patron was an art teacher and didn't have ten. The Bible quilt was later exhibited and Powers was commissioned for a second quilt. These two quilts now hang in the Smithsonian and the Boston Museum of Art. The thing that is so wonderful about this quilt is the stories it tells: Adam and Eve, Cain slaying Able, Jacobs Ladder. But the fabrics themselves tell stories too. Blue figures may have been part of a dress worn by a family member. The cut shapes of animals that Powers probably never saw (this was before the days of internet), so she ends up with a lion that looks more like a goat. There's also story telling in the technique. Appliqué is a technique that is used in West African textiles. My sister brought me a fabric picture of a bird from Benin where she was studying as an African art historian. So the fact that this Georgia woman was stitching cut fabric shapes to tell stories on quilt squares says something about her African lineage as a slave, and how mothers passed these skills down from generation to generation.

For my project assignment, I began by asking students to illustrate a story with a drawing in marker. This is just a warm up and an introduction them to the idea of illustration. Then I had them pick a story, either from their own life, a famous story, or from the article I read them about the real "Lord of the Flies" boys from Tonga who were ship wrecked for 15 months. (I always try to go back and review topics from previous weeks). Second they drew the key elements from the story they chose with simplified shapes that fill the page. These shapes can be cut from paper to be used as fabric patterns. Ultimately, they were required to use at least five shapes of fabric to illustrate their story. My students used glue to "collage" their fabric pieces rather than stitch them. This image os of the Tortoise and the Hare.

One student (work shown above) created an image of the day when he had to leave school early. Another, (work shown below) illustrated her story of Christmas morning, when she opened her gifts and got a purse from her aunt. 

Thinking skills improve when students make connections, when they compare and contrast aesthetics  qualities and techniques of various textiles we studied. Having them help organize the information into a Venn Diagram is a way to assess that they're actually learning something. 

Textiles such as clothes, towels, blankets, are often taken for granted. It's important to stop and think about the people who designed and made the things we use and step back to see things in a global and cultural perspective.

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