Thursday, April 29, 2010

My American Series - The Friendship/BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport Quilt

OK, I am finally getting back to the My American Series postings. After being chided by Dr. Gaither at her NAEA workshop about my having taken several "breaks," I am back to write up the last quilt that hasn't either received one of the in depth MAS postings or been the subject of several postings.

The Friendship/Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport Quilt is a somewhat tricky quilt to write about. This quilt took Dr. Gaither's concept of community involvement from community provided stories and images to a new level with community members assigned different squares on the quilt to take home and sew. Dr. Gaither conceptualized the quilt and pieced it together, but the actual sewing of this quilt was done by many hands with the final product pulled together by Dr. Gaither, Yvonne Henry, Peggie Bessicks, and Dr. Gaither's sister and mother.

The Airport Quilt came about as an extension of Trails, Tracks, Tarmac. While TTT was on display at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, NACPS started working on several satellite exhibitions including a few small displays of objects and small quilts for display at the BWI Airport. BWI currently sits on land once occupied by African American communities, including several featured in TTT. (Note: the final "T" in TTT stands for Tarmac - as in airport tarmac.) During the run of TTT, the Northern Arundel Cultural Preservation Society began working with airport officials to curate an art exhibition featuring works by several local artists. Dr. Gaither served as the curator for this exhibition and contributed a few pieces to the show. She decided to create a quilt especially for this exhibition that features the people and places associated with the history of BWI and the land it sits on.

The airport site is significant in Northern Anne Arundel County, Maryland history. Formerly an area of farming, tobacco and cereal crops, it has been a place where African Americans have lived, farmed and owned businesses and land. Many family names, including Blackwell, Brooks, Domney, Edwards, Gaither, Green, Hines, Jakson, Marshall, Meacham, Murry, Oden, and Woods, are a part of this site’s history. This quilt illustrates the community’s connection to the land and the airport.

As I mentioned before, this quilt was sewn together by several community members and then pieced together by Dr. Gaither and a few friends and family members at the very end. This method of quilting has created an interesting dynamic between Dr. Gaither and this quilt which did not become apparent until quite recently. As I have worked on pulling together information on her work for various projects, I have discovered an extreme lack of information on this particular quilt in comparison to all of the other My American Series quilts. It is also the quilt that Dr. Gaither spends the least amount of time discussing when she talks about this series. I would be interested to see how much information and documentation I could uncover on this quilt if I could bring all of the quilters together.

While this is a community-sewn quilt, it is not necessarily a communal quilt as the community worked individually rather than all together to put this quilt together. When working on the next quilt in the series (J2WH) Dr. Gaither incorporated elements of the community quilting from both the Airport Quilt and the TTT Quilt. She used community members to help her sew the quilt together just as she did with the Airport Quilt, however this time the quilt stayed in one place and the community came to it. Just like TTT, she allowed the community to bring stories to the quilt, only on J2WH the community added the stories, emotions, and names to the quilt themselves rather than having her do it for them.

The Airport Quilt was the first quilt Dr. Gaither created after I met her and I remember the debut of the work at the BWI exhibition. The exhibition opened with great fanfare including an opening ceremony with over 100 people in attendance from the community, BWI, airport patrons wandering through, a community choir, and the exhibiting artists just to name some of the people there. I didn't really know Dr. Gaither very well at that point, but I do remember sitting behind her during the ceremony. Just prior to the start of the ceremony, she told a few of the people seated around her about the creation of the quilt and how, just like every other one of her quilts, it was a race to the finish, but with all of the extra hands working on it she had been able to get some rest at the end. A minor miracle considering she always finds something to continue "tweaking" on her quilts.

When I look at the Airport Quilt, I think it is the quilt that visually makes the connection between the Brown's quilt and the other quilts in the series. It has a greater proportion of the muted colors that make up the Brown's quilt than the others in the series surrounded by the traditional My American Series border. Perhaps that is a result of the disconnect between Dr. Gaither and this quilt. While the quilt was pieced together by her, she did not sew each square. I have observed that Dr. Gaither really edits and changes her quilts as she works through each individual piece. Since she did not spend as much time on this quilt as the others, she did not necessarily have the opportunity to edit and change as she normally would. This is neither good nor bad, just different. When all six quilts go on display at School 33 in Baltimore, MD this summer, I encourage you to come visit and put my theory to the test and see if you agree. In the meantime, you will have to make do with the pictures here.

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