Flint Public Library tells the story of quilting’s history in black communities

Flint Public Library tells the story of quilting’s history in black communities
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Fabric can tell fascinating stories.

As a home to storytellers of all kinds, the Flint Public Library is welcoming the Flint African American Quilter’s Guild for its 29th African American Quilting Guild Exhibit Oct. 11-13. Held as part of the Greater Flint Arts Council’s annual “Flint Festival of Quilts,” the library’s showcase is one of the longest-running attractions in the series.

“Flint Festival of Quilts” features exhibits at the Greater Flint Arts Council, 816 South Saginaw St., the library, cafés, cultural centers and other locations throughout the community.

Marquetta Bell-Johnson, author of the book Hand-Dyed Quilts, will speak at the library at 2 p.m. Oct. 13.

Known as the “yo-yo” queen because of her skills in creating a circular quilt pattern, textile artist Marquetta Bell-Johnson, author of the book Hand-Dyed Quilts, will speak at the library at 2 p.m. Oct. 13.

Sarah Brooks, a lead librarian and coordinator for the event, says the Flint Public Library’s program details a particularly rich tradition of quilting and its significance to black communities.

“The different patterns have a historical value to them,” Brooks says. “Some of them were used during the time of slavery and some of the quilts would be hung up with patterns of the path North.”

There’s a distinction between the quilts displayed during the festival, which portray intricate needle work with a “design factor,” and an ordinary covering for a bed, says Brooks.

“Blankets have a utilitarian purpose, but they can also have an artistic value,” she adds.

An occasional quilter, Brooks says the hobby was popular during the 1930’s, and was so influential that newspapers published quilt patterns for their readers to use in their spare time at home. The Great Depression was a possible influence on quilters.

“People repurposed a lot of their own fabric,” Brooks says. “They would use dresses and cut them apart. They would use bags that flour came in.”

About four decades later, the hobby experienced a resurgence that lent itself to some of the interest shown by the library’s quilting audience today.

Quilt styles vary based upon the quilters’ vision. Creations range from  more  modern and artistic pieces to more traditional formats. During slavery some quilts contained hidden directional signs to safe houses.

“Right around the 70’s it came back really strong, and some of the speakers we’ve had at the library have become fifth-generation quilt-makers,” she says.

“It’s really amazing to see some of these quilts as objects that you can hang up as wall art, too,” she adds. “I think it’s a wonderful tradition and this is my tenth year” supporting the effort.

The Flint African American Quilter’s Guild’s regular display tends to attract residents outside the city into the library’s corridors. Members of quilt guilds from as far away as Lansing, Detroit, and elsewhere have shown eagerness to visit the library every year, Brooks says.

“It’s got wide-ranging appeal,” she says. “We have plenty of people who call us and ask, ‘Are you still having the quilting exhibit?’ We have visitors who travel 50 or 60 miles.”

As one of the library’s most popular programs, Brooks says the exhibition usually draws as many as 50 people each day.

Once a functional object, many quilts are now displayed as wall hangings.

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority will co-sponsor Bell-Johnson’s lecture. A widely recognized artist specializing in both quilts and hand-dyed textiles, the Stone Mountain, Ga. resident advanced her work during 11 months of recovery from a drive-by shooting injury. She went on to represent America as an international arts fellow and won a Phoenix Award from the City of Atlanta for her creative contributions to the community.

Bell-Johnson’s work is featured in prominent corporate and public collections including Coca-Cola, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. She has worked as an Atlanta Public Schools instructor and for programs including Georgia Council for the Arts.

“She’s self-taught, so that’s quite interesting,” Brooks says. “I’ve looked at her presentation a bit and it’s going to be amazing.”

The annual Flint African American Quilter’s Guild’s 29th exhibition is among the Flint Public Library’s most popular programs. The event is part of the Greater Flint Arts Council’s “Flint Festival of Quilts” Oct. 11-13.

The Flint Public Library’s quilt exhibit is on display during regular library hours, Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is free.

Visit www.geneseefun.com for more information about “Flint Festival of Quilts” locations and admission costs.

 

 

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