Southern Style section
Covering the issues - Quilter comments on life through craft
June 3, 2001 by Lori Herring
Gwendolyn Magee's quilts could be considered her songs of faith.
She remembers getting her faith this way: singing Life Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson in school and community programs and assemblies as she was growing up.
"…Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,/ Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us…," part of it goes.
"It's a very powerful, emotional, uplifting song," says Magee of the son's resonance in her life.
And so her quilts have become that as well: powerful, emotional.
One portrays silhouettes of women kneeling at a cross against a fire-red background (Full of the Faith).
One has silhouettes of lynch victims against a background of the Confederate battle flag. In the foreground, overlaid in wispy gauze, is a white cloak (Southern Heritage/Southern Shame).
"Music inspires me," says the petite, fiery woman.
She mentions Oscar Brown Jr. and Nina Simone. Billie Holiday. Strange Fruit.
"Southern trees bear strange fruit,/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees," goes the song first sun by Holiday.
"I listen to the songs over and over, and they reverberate in my mind," Magee says. "It gets to the point where I have to deal with it."
So she creates art quilts in response, merging contemporary art with a decades-old craft.
This culmination, Magee says, allows her to manipulate color to her satisfaction.
"I don't know why," she says, "but working with fabric, I'm able to manipulate color in a way I have not been able to do with paint or anything like that."
"She has the color sense of a painter who uses fabric instead of paint," said René Paul Barilleaux, chief curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art. "She seems to have a very intuitive sense of color."
Magee started quilting in 1989 because her oldest daughter, Kamili Ayanna, was going off to college, and Magee wanted her to have a piece of heart and home.
"I knew I wanted it to be a quilt," she says. "The problem was - How do you make a quilt?"
So she signed up for a class, planning to make only the class practice quilt, then two others for each of her two daughters.
She realized hers might be more than a passing hobby when Magee's husband, D. E., an ophthalmologist in town, refused to put her quilt on the bed because it was too beautiful.
Form had overridden function. D.E. told her it was art.
Curators at institutions like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. might agree.
The National Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian recently acquired Magee's Crystalline Fantasy for its permanent collection.
Crystalline Fantasy is one of Magee's more abstract designs - like her earlier work. The abstract design work, like her present work, has a cultural relevance, utilizing African fabrics and colors.
Her present work has evolved into images, such as the series based on Lift Every Voice and Sing that's she's working on now.
"Since I am adopted, I essentially have no real past, so I have to look to the future," Magee says. "(Quilting) becomes my way of doing that."
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