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Journey of the Spirit: The Art of Gwendolyn A. Magee
July 28, 2005 by Lynn Lafoe

An unusual exhibit of quilts entitled "Journey of the Spirit: The Art of Gwendolyn A. Magee" will open August 5 at the Wetherbee House Galley in Greenville. Organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art, working in conjunction with Washington-based photographer and quilt collector Roland Freeman, the exhibition is the first to survey 15 years of the artist's efforts. It includes about 25 stunning quilts, 20 of which will be shown in the Greenville exhibit. Twelve of the quilts are from a series that was inspired by the song, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

"It's a very powerful and moving song," Gwen is quoted as saying. Long referred to as the national anthem of black Americans, the song was one of Gwen's favorites and she wanted to illustrate or interpret various lines from it through her quilts. The result is a dazzling display of art in fabric through which the artist explores her cultural heritage as an African American.

Growing up in High Point, North Carolina, the adopted daughter of middle-class parents, Gwen was protected from the atrocities of racism that many experienced. Her mother's love of arts and crafts instilled in her a love of creating beautiful things and a "can-do" nature that took over when she matured. As a child she spent many hours "amidst doll making, doll collecting, leather working, jewelry making, crocheting, knitting, weaving, ceramics, and just about any other craft you can name - except quilting."

Gwen and her mother also took trips to New York City each summer where Gwen was exposed to the arts and theater, and at home she spent long hours devouring the 24 volumes of Art Treasures of the World. When she began quilting 15 years ago, the influences of her favorite artist, Van Gogh and Gauguin were evident. "Since childhood, I have been fascinated by color - any color, as long as it is intense, intriguing and/or vibrant," she says. "However it was not until I started working with cloth and fiber that I found a medium in which I have the ability to manipulate color to achieve that type of patterning and effects that please and excite me."

Having come of age in the Civil Rights era of the 1960's, Gwen was deeply affected by the changes taking place throughout the country. She became acutely aware of the prejudices and inequalities around her that her parents had protected her from most of her life. As one of the only five black students [in the freshman class ] at the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina in 1959, she experienced first-hand the isolation of segregation. She also began to see and feel the realities of racism as she listened to the stories her roommates told about their lives.

After graduation and graduate school, Gwen came to Mississippi to work with the Tufts-Delta Comprehensive Community Health Action Center in Mound Bayou. There she met D.E. Magee Jr., a Greenville native and fourth year medical student. They were married in 1969 and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for his three-year residency. After that they decided to return to Mississippi to become a part of the social changes occurring in the South.

As she reared her own children, Gwen relied on the arts and crafts she had learned from her mother, but she didn't get interested in quilting until her oldest daughter left for college. "I decided to make quilts for my two daughters to take to college as an expression of my love and a reminder of their home," Gwen says in an interview with Eleanor Dugan. "However, I knew absolutely nothing about quilting." She took a six-week "how-to" quilt course at Joy's Craft Shop in Jackson, subscribed to quilting periodicals and took some one-day wokshops at Ann's Quilt Shop in Clinton. By the time she finished the first class she was hooked. She even joined an all-white quilting group in Clinton and later the Jackson Quilters and the Mississippi Quilt Association. At the time she was the only African American member of the groups.

"After I really became interested in quilting, I started looking for information about other African American quilters, and at first, the only references I could find highlighted us from the 'folk art' or 'outside artist" perspectives, and put forth all kinds of theories that stopped just barely short of saying that we were not capable of matching points and putting together intricate and 'well-made' quilts. This was one factor in my determination that no one would ever be able to say that my workmanship was shoddy, Gwen says.

Over the past 15 years, Gwen's quilts have progressed from traditional patterns to her own abstract designs that range from geometric to free flowing to figurative. She uses many types of fabrics and materials and incorporates hand-dyes, braids, netting, tulle, organza and metallic threads in her designs. Her quilts have been exhibited extensively and have appeared in Roland Freeman's "A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers and Their Stories."

In the Acknowledgements of the front of the book accompanying the exhibit, Betsy Bradley, director of the Mississippi Museum of Art, writes, "Rarely does an individual who has experienced oppression and prejudice find the means of expressing her experience with such masterful skill, in such an appropriate medium, and with such an embracing, uplifting tone. We are honored that Gwen allows us to share this journey with her, and we thank her for her discipline and determination in embodying her spiritual journey so that we may begin to understand the sanctity of human dignity and of our relationships with each other."

An affiliate of the Mississippi Museum of Art, the Greenville Arts Council is able to bring this outstanding project to the Delta where it will run August 5 through September 2.


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