By Natasha Duarte
the Durham VOICE
Shortly after moving from Eugene, Ore., to Raleigh 10 years ago, Ife Grady was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Grady, who had been making silver, gold and copper jewelry for most of her life, was forced to give up her craft. She could no longer be exposed to the fumes from soldering and hammering the metals.
She says a friend came over to sit with her and teach her how to quilt, piecing colorful fabrics together and sewing the layers by hand.
“I had been thinking about doing a softer medium,” Grady says.
Grady’s friend later convinced her to join the African-American Quilt Circle of Durham, a group of mostly women who meet at the Hayti Heritage Center once a month to quilt, talk and laugh together.
“The group filled what I didn’t even know was a void in my life, and that was the community of sisters,” Grady says. “That drew me in even more than the quilting itself.”
The AAQC began almost 12 years ago with only four women and has grown to about 80 members. The organization’s recent exhibit at the Durham Arts Council featured a diverse sampling of quilts, some sewn by hand and some by machine, some featuring elaborate images and three-dimensional elements and others grounded in more traditional quilting patterns.
Each quilt has a story and reflects the personality of the quilter. Selena Sullivan’s quilt, “Guardian of Generations,” is a product of her attempts to document her family’s history through quilts, starting with her ancestors in Africa who came to North Carolina on a slave ship, she says.
Sullivan, who grew up in Rowland as a daughter of sharecroppers, attended genealogical workshops and researched her ancestry before making the quilt.
On the bottom half of the quilt, a Maasai tribal warrior is flanked by a woman from the slave era on one side and a more modern African woman on the other side. A guardian angel hovers above them, dressed in traditional African clothing.
“In order for me to be here, there had to be a guardian angel watching over my ancestors,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan’s quilt won best in show at the spring 2008 Professional Art Quilt Alliance-South juried exhibition in Cary, beating entries from all over the world.
Many of Sullivan’s quilts are made with fabrics that she brings back from Africa, Japan and India, and they are anything but traditional.
Like Sullivan and many others, Marjorie Freeman began by learning traditional methods and quickly diverged into a more free-form style.
When she started quilting in the early ’80s, Freeman attended a workshop where she was taught to cut out identical squares and triangles, which she would piece together to form a pattern.
“They had to be so many stitches to the inch. It had to be this and it had to be that,” Freeman says.
“It was very hard for me to say, ‘Now I’m going to do my own thing,’ to break away from that mold,” she says. “Throw away that damn color wheel. Choose whatever colors you want.”
Quilter and professional storyteller Willa Brigham says a quilt is a piece of art. It starts with inspiration, develops into an idea, and can take anywhere from a day to several years to complete.
“I have a quilt called ‘It Took A Long Time,’” she says. “Why? Because it took a long time.”
The first quilt Brigham attempted in the ’80s was for her first-born son.
“I cut out all these little pieces,” she says. “About 175 — and 172 still need to be sewn together.”
Growing tired of piecing squares together by hand, Brigham attended a workshop in California, where she lived at the time.
“I learned to make a quilt top in a day — and I’ve been happy ever since,” she says.
Marjorie Barner owns a quilt shop in Zebulon called “Stitch It,” where she teaches quilting lessons and workshops.
She starts by teaching traditional patterns before encouraging beginning quilters to try more creative and free-form designs.
“Once I teach basics, I want the student to veer off into whatever area they feel comfortable with,” Barner says.
Freeman says this non-traditional approach makes the AAQC exhibit different.
“We have managed to overcome the rules that were set up by the quilt police,” she says. “We have decided to express ourselves, our traditions, our beliefs, our culture.
“Anything that anyone wants to do, everyone accepts it,” Barner says. “I get motivated and inspired by what other people are doing.”
Grady and Freeman, both breast cancer survivors, know the healing powers of a group of quilters who support each other not only artistically but also emotionally.
“We eat, we laugh, we stitch, we share, we giggle, we love, we support, we encourage,” Freeman says. “It’s the sisterhood.”
The African American Quilt Circle of Durham will have an exhibit at the Hayti Heritage Center Feb. 4 – March 31, 2011.