Quilts in national exhibition
By David J. Craig
As a physician at Boston Medical Center, Michele David keeps her Haitian heritage close to her heart: she specializes in treating Creole-speaking women, and when she's not performing physical exams and health screenings, she researches the health-care options for Caribbean women living in Boston.
But after work, David's thoughts of Haiti become more poetic. A creator of fine art quilts as well as a MED assistant professor, David spends her free time combining fabric scraps and found objects to make abstract designs recalling her homeland's colorful and hilly landscape, and its spiritual and cultural traditions.
“The colors in Haiti are among the things I miss most,” says David, who came to the United States in 1974 to attend college in Chicago and has practiced at BMC since 1996. Most of her family still lives in Haiti. “The sun is so bright,” she says, “the colors so sharp and vivid, and the light all around has such contrast.”
David's use of vibrant colors, and her apparently innate knack for design — she has had little formal art training — help account for her quick success as an artist. She picked up quilting just four years ago, and three of her works are currently being displayed in a national exhibition entitled Threads of Faith, at the American Bible Society Gallery in Manhattan through April 17. The juried exhibition is sponsored by the Women of Color Quilters Network, a 1,700-member organization of fine art quilters, which put out a nationwide call for submissions. The 53 pieces on display are scheduled to subsequently tour the United States for two years.
David took drawing and painting courses sporadically before she began quilting, but says she never felt truly inspired until viewing a fine art quilting exhibition in 2000 at the New England Quilt Museum, in Lowell, Mass. “I always liked to sew and to work with cloth as a child, making costumes and outfits,” she says. “And a few years ago I took a traditional quilting class, which gave me a good grounding in technique, but I didn't really like traditional, utilitarian quilting. When I saw the exhibition of contemporary art quilts, I said to myself: ah, this is my medium. And I ran with it.”
Fine art quilting, like traditional domestic quiltmaking, involves sewing together two or more pieces of cloth, with soft batting sandwiched in between. Artists often use commercially produced fabric, but may dye, paint, or otherwise manipulate it. The quilt, which can be of any size or shape, then is usually decorated with other pieces of cloth and found objects to produce an unconventional design that resembles a collage.
David always has an eye peeled for interesting fabric and objects — from discarded earrings to buttons and beads to feathers. Many of her ideas result from simply playing with the materials she collects. While recently painting a piece of white fabric using “a stream of consciousness” approach, for instance, she imagined it juxtaposed against another nearby piece of cloth, and saw a mountainous landscape. And the starting point for Church Ladies, one of her quilts being displayed in New York, was a piece of fabric she found that featured images of women in traditional African dress. It inspired childhood memories, she says, of women in her Port-au-Prince home “who got all dressed up fancy, wearing big hats” to attend Sunday services. She promptly cut out the figures and arranged them in a circle against a simple background, creating a stark design reminiscent of traditional Haitian and African art.
“When I'm manipulating fabric, it just feels right to me,” says David, who spends as much as 120 hours on a quilt, typically using a sewing machine. She currently is discussing plans for a solo exhibition at the National Center for Afro-American Artists in Roxbury, Mass., for sometime in 2005. “There is a physical nature to textile art that I relate to,” she says, “and which I think pulls in people who view it. When you look at a quilt, you don't want to analyze it intellectually. It's made of materials that everybody is familiar with having touched, and that makes for an intimacy that I like.”For more information about the American Bible Society Gallery exhibition, visit www.americanbible.org/whatwedo/thegallery.dsp, or call 212-408-1500.
27 February 2004