The Art of Quilting: Not Your Grandma's Bedcovers

Quilter Marion Coleman of Castro Valley is featured in the exhibit "Inspirations, Approaches to Fiber" at the Anna Edwards Gallery in San Leandro.

Photo | Lani Conway 

“This isn’t grandma’s quilt any more,” said Marion Coleman, pointing to A Gathering of Women, a colorful 46-by-38 inch patchwork depicting the lives of African women. “Quilts are no longer boring old things that go on beds, but forms of art that now hang on walls.”

It’s a busy Wednesday morning at the Anna Edwards Gallery, 237 East 14th St., San Leandro, where Coleman, a prominent Castro Valley-based quilter, is busy hanging 20 patterned textiles for the exhibit Inspirations, Approaches to Fiber, which runs through March 24. Coleman gave an artist talk at the show's opening reception March 4, 6 to 8 p.m. Patricia A. Montgomery, another artist with work in the show, will also speak. Regular hours for the gallery are Thursdays, 1 to 5 p.m., and by appointment. The show pays homage to Women’s History Month and Black History Month. It also celebrates communal women’s art with deep roots in the African American tradition.

“There are clear cultural and Afrocentric themes in the show, which opens between two monthly celebrations. I’ve sort of blended them by focusing specifically on African women,” said Coleman. There's intricate detailing within each patch: stamped and patterned cotton and polyester, indigo-dyed mud cloth imported from Mali, improvised lines of gold, red, green and purple embroidery. The completed quilt comes to life with layers of movement and texture. More important is a quilt’s storytelling element, which, Coleman says, can touch upon any theme. “In my own work, I tell stories of communities, of families, of individual people, of cultural traditions—even jazz. You name it. If it interest me, I’ll try it,” she said.

Coleman and painter Anna Edwards, who owns the gallery, are preparing the show as we talk, hanging quilts of all sizes on the white gallery walls, making sure each hangs straight. Edwards fumbles with a hook as she hangs Ebony Trace, a series that pays tribute to Jazz through black and white fabric meant to evoke piano keys. Suddenly, one of the small square quilts falls to the floor. Coleman erupts in lighthearted laughter that rings throughout the small art gallery. “We pride ourselves in the quilt world for being improvisational,” she said as she picks up the fallen quilt. Soon most of the pieces are in place, ornate tapestries that exude nostalgia. “When people think of quilts, it’s not a negative memory, but a nurturing one,” said Coleman.

On display are Rain, a deep purple cloth layered with vertically stacked, mismatched fabrics and finished with colorful ribbon and bells; Hairdresser, an earth-toned mud cloth threaded with African fabrics; and Serengeti, a vibrant orange piece that exemplifies what Coleman calls her “African travel fantasy.” “I’ve never been to Africa, but I hope to get there this year,” said Coleman.

Coleman says that quilting appears a lot more complicated than it actually is. “The hardest part about making quilts is getting all the fabrics together and piecing them,” said Coleman. “It doesn’t take long to sew, but I’m constantly experimenting. I don’t really use patterns, so I’m always improvising, thinking and looking at it on the wall as I go.” Her Castro Valley home teems with textiles of all shapes, sizes and colors. Here Coleman works not only on abstract quilts, but also on large-scale portraits, narratives and public art commissions, using techniques like strip piecing, dot tying and free-motion machine quilting.

Coleman lights up when she explains her next project: a 1970s-inspired quilt made from vintage bell bottoms and an old polyester jacket overrun with fringe and peace signs. Currently, you can find Coleman’s public work hanging in the Castro Valley Library and the San Leandro Juvenile Justice Center. She also contributed several pieces to Textural Rhythms at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, a new exhibit that focuses on jazz and quilting in the African-American community. Coleman calls new approaches to this traditional craft "the quilt renaissance.”

“More people are expressing themselves and telling their own stories in many different ways,” she said. "I think people are quite receptive to what quilting once was, but also to what it can be and is becoming.”

Originally appeared March 6, 2011 on San Lorenzo Patch