LS: Art of Quilting Column January 25, 2009

Obama backers make quilts as he makes history

Quilter Susan Walen of Bethesda, Md., calls herself an Obama-mama.

Before the election, she stitched a pictorial quilt titled “Dear Mr. Obama ...” It contains an image of Barack Obama looking out the panes of a window as if contemplating the troubles of the world. The nine window-panes also are pages of a letter Walen wrote to Obama.

The letter starts by thanking him for “bringing back hope,” Walen says.

After the election, Walen says she thought there must be “quilters out there across the country that have been so moved to make Obama art.”

Soon, she was putting out a challenge to all the “wonderful Obama-mamas out there” to make quilts for a special exhibit.

Her efforts have culminated in “President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts,” scheduled Feb. 9 through March 5 at the Cafritz Foundation Arts Center in Silver Spring, Md.

It will include the work of 60 fiber artists from all over the nation and from as far away as Australia.

“Our work is in tribute to our new president, in gratitude for the hope and inspiration he has brought us,” Walen says. “We present these quilts at an unforgettable moment in our country’s history.”

Also, many of the contributing quilters have been interviewed by the Alliance for American Quilts, and their stories will be saved in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Read about them at

In our nation’s capital, another quilt display already is open to the public. “Quilts for Obama: An Exhibit Celebrating the Inauguration of our 44th President” runs through Jan. 31 at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

About 60 art and interpretive quilts from the United States, Ghana, Liberia and South Africa are being shown, as well as one quilt made by Carrie Nelson of Georgetown, S.C., the oldest living member of first lady Michelle Obama’s family.

This exhibit is a partnership of the Historical Society, the Women of Color Quilters Network and the Group for Cultural Documentation.

Guest curator Roland L. Freeman is a folklorist and photo-documenter whose career began during the Civil Rights movement. He is a research associate for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Freeman has a passion for quilts and quilters and for four decades has documented the world of black quilt makers. This developed into a national tour and book titled “A Communion of the Spirits,” published in 1996.

In describing the genesis for the Washington, D.C., exhibit, Freeman says that in his lifetime he has known three black men whose message of peace, love and racial harmony profoundly moved the masses.

They are Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Obama.

“King said, ‘We shall overcome;’ Mandela forgave his oppressors; and now Obama has inspired Americans to come together for change for a better tomorrow.

“I asked myself what I could do to help celebrate this victory, and it occurred to me that a commemorative quilt exhibit was just the thing. And so it is,” Freeman says.

Some of those who have quilted Obama art have made multiple pieces and will display their work in both exhibits.

Carole Lyles Shaw of Columbia, Md., is one of these quilters. Her quilt titled “Hail to the Chief” includes a copy of a letter President Truman sent to Shaw’s grandmother, acknowledging her father’s service in the U.S. Army. Shaw also printed a small photo of her father on the letter.

Her quilts are not portraits, Shaw says, but narratives about the historical significance of Obama’s election.

“I remember that my father’s generation served in a legally segregated armed forces until 1948 and, even after that, most ordinary African American men and women served in very restricted roles,” she says.

Her art quilts reflect “pride and joy” that today’s black soldiers will serve under President Obama.

Hail to all these Obama-mamas and any papas inspired to make presidential quilt art.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these two quilt exhibits toured the United States and were shown at a venue near us?

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