Gwendolyn Magee



How did you get started?

I decided to learn how to make a quilt in 1989 in order to make a special gift for each of my daughters to take with them to college as a reminder of home and as a tangible symbol of my love for them. So I looked in the yellow pages of the telephone book and found a shop that taught a six week course on how make a traditional quilt.

Over the following five years I gradually moved away from a focus on making pieced bed quilts into creating the art that now drives my work.

How long does it take?

This is difficult to answer because a very labor intensive and time consuming process is involved. Additionally:

1. I usually work on more than one piece at a time and alternate between them depending on my mood, degree of difficulty, and need to fulfill obligations such as preparing for presentations;

2. The conceptualization process alone can take several months to crystallize before the first piece of fabric is cut because many things have to be decided including, among others:
What is my objective for creating the piece?

Is there any specific inspiration or concept that's guiding the vision? If so, how important is it that I stay "true" to it?

What should immediately and/or primarily engage the viewer's interest - subject matter, coloration, dimension, shape, texture?

Do I already have an idea about what I want the piece to look like - Is it going to be abstract, realistic or distorted (surreal); figurative or non-objective? Have I sketched it out or jotted down the idea(s)? How wedded am I to this initial conceptualization?

Is there something specific that I want to communicate (a feeling, a mood, an idea or point of view)?

From what viewpoint is the viewer to be engaged - outside the scene (as an onlooker) or as one of the characters in the scene?

What will be the viewer's perspective - above, below or at eyelevel; close or distant?

What will be the best size for this piece?

Are there any practice, play or unsuccessful pieces that can be effectively incorporated?

Will there be one or several points or areas of emphasis? Should any one be more important than the others?

How should the viewers' eye move across or around the piece?

Should the elements be directional or randomly placed?

What color scheme will be best suited for this piece?

To what extent should symbolism be incorporated? Should it be subtle or "in your face"?

Should any special techniques and/or materials be used?

Should the primary shapes be organic and flowing; sharp and geometric; intertwining or separate?
3. Many other decisions (such as finalizing which fabrics, textiles and threads will be used) have to be made before the piece is begun; and

4. Size and complexity also are critical and determining factors.

Where do you find your fabrics?

Many people mistakenly assume that the highly texturized surfaces of the fabrics and textiles in my work were bought that way. They are not. They are created by me through the application of densely applied threadwork using freemotion embroidery and specialty threads.

I purchase fabrics at stores locally, while traveling, and online. Although I have dyed some fabrics myself, there are now so many wonderful hand-dyed fabrics available commercially that with few exceptions I no longer have the need to do so.

Do you use a special type of sewing machine?


My only requirements are that the sewing machine is reliable and has zigzag and freemotion stitch capability. I have a Bernina 1530 and a Janome 6600P and use them for all of my work.

What Influences your work?


The degradation of slavery, along with its aftermath of oppression, segregation and discrimination has wreaked havoc on the mind, body and spirit of African-Americans - as individuals and as a people for well over 300 years. My primary body of work is a dramatic, visual representation of these experiences, depicting the associated violence and despair as well as the attendant hopes for the future.

Making quilts became one of the primary methods used by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers to try and keep their families warm when "the hawk" came swooping through the cracks and crevices of the dilapidated shacks and shanties in which they were forced to live. It is the tradition of quilts like those that our "Big Mamas" and "Aunt Effies" so painstakingly made that is the essence of the medium through which I now visually represent their trials and tribulations and unfailing capacity for hope eternal.


I grew up in a southern town and attended a segregated school system. Our parents and community worked hard to shield us as much as possible from the degradations of Jim Crow laws, but they couldn't shield us from everything.

However, they made a concerted effort to combat the continual overt and subtle assaults to our sense of self. They sought to instill in us pride in self, pride in heritage, pride in community and in the belief that we could overcome whatever racial prejudice or discrimination that was thrown our way. James Weldon Johnson's monumental anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" played an important role in that effort. It was sung at every school assembly and at some point during almost every community program or event.

It is this anthem that has become the basis for the scope of work that is my own personal "journey of the spirit" and fulcrum for my true artistic awakening.

You seem to have a deep commitment to your work. Would you elaborate?

The direction in which my art has evolved is directly related to my own personal search for connection, for roots, for a sense of belonging that also stems partially from the fact that I am adopted. On the one hand, the work is forming a bridge to the future because it is tangible, and therefore some part of it will be around long after I as an individual have ceased to exist. And on the other hand, it forms a bridge to the past as it focuses more and more on the issues and cultural heritage of what has not been stripped from me - essentially, the African American experience.
I see myself as a culturally committed artist. To date all of my narrative work is a representation of some aspect of the African American experience, either historically or present day. Even my abstract work has a decidedly ethnic "feel" about it.

I strive for mastery, which to me is a combination of technical skill, artistry, and vision that coalesces to produce work evoking a sense of wonder, depth of thought, and/or a deep emotional response in the viewer.

I want my legacy to be a body of work that not only is meaningful, but is compelling through its use of color, design and/or subject matter so that the viewer is truly engaged, is drawn into it and, hopefully, back to it repeatedly

What are the primary techniques and materials you use?

I work with textiles and fabrics and fibers instead of with canvas or marble or clay; with threads instead of paints or glazes. I manipulate the materials with which I work into highly textural surfaces using a sewing machine instead of a paint brush or hammer and chisel.

A combination of machine appliqué, freemotion embroidery, fusing and layering predominate my work. Dense threadwork is the norm.

Do you work alone?

I work alone in my studio and the art is created without any thought or reference to utility or function.

Is your work "cutting edge"?

Being on "the cutting edge" is not the focus for my work. My primary interest is in figuring out how I can best make a connection and have a meaningful dialogue with the viewer. To this end I am open to using any combination of techniques and materials, traditional or otherwise, that enables that to happen.

Why is the work seldom available for purchase?

The art flows through me, but does not belong to me alone. It speaks for those who have no voices, whose voices have been ignored, whose voices have been silenced. It relates history and circumstances that must not be forgotten. It is meant to be shared, and therefore the work is most often on exhibit.

That being said, some of the art does become available occasionally, and at some point in the near future, very high quality gicleé prints will be made available.

Your work looks like paintings. Why don't you just paint?

Why don't painters just work with cloth?

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