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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

Fabric art at Stark tells African-American history


Last updated 3/5/2024 at 10:48pm

Dr. Sarah Boehme, curator of the Stark Museum of art, shows a miniature of the quilt fabric art depicting Cathy Williams, the woman Buffalo Soldier. The miniature was commissioned by the museum so people could touch it and see the layers of the fabric artwork in the unique exhibit Black Pioneers: Legacy of the American West. Other works show Estaban, the slave who arrived in Texas in 1558 with Spanish explorers, lawman Bass Reeves, bull-dogger Bill Pickett, and Stagecoach Mary.

Quilts have long been a way for women to display artistic skills, but do not expect to see any of the "quilts" at the Stark Museum of Art on a bed. These quilts were mean to be hung and displayed as they show the history of African-Americans in the West.

The museum now has on display the first of its kind showing of quilting artists who have made simple "paintings" to collages of materials to tell history stories. The exhibit is Black Pioneers: Legacy in the American West.

Stark Museum Curator Dr. Sarah Boehme said the quilts "tell stories with fabric art."

The quilted artworks in the show come from 47 different contemporary artists and display a look at characters and events from the first African arriving in the 16th Century to Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American to win an Academy Award.

"When African people were brought here, the brought with them needlework skills already; so it was easy for enslaved Africans to be taught how to make quilts," said Dr. Carolyn Maztoomi, who curated the special collection, which was organized by The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

"We as African-Americans have participated in the making of this country since we stepped off the boat," Dr. Maztoomi said.

This Saturday, March 9, at 2 p.m. the Stark Museum will present three of the featured artists, Barbara McCraw, Carolyn Crump, and Georgia Williams to talk about the quilts and their art-form during a presentation at the Lutcher Theater.

The theater is across Green Avenue from the Stark Museum. After the theater talk, the museum will have an opening reception for the exhibit from 3 to 5 p.m. The reception will allow people to meet the three artists and see their work. Live music will be in the museum along with appetizers and beverages from Free State Winery in Orange.

Entrance to the museum and the theater lecture is free.

The exhibit starts out with a tribute to Estaban, the African slave brought to the New World by Spanish explorers. Those who remember their Texas history know he ended up landing on Galveston Island. Estaban is considered the first African in the Americas.

Other famous African-American men of the west who are featured on quilts include bull-dogger Bill Russell. The legendary rider is from Texas and his quilt includes the state flag. Lawman Bass Reeves, now a character in a popular TV show, includes his Oklahoma heritage.

Another famous African-American gained his reputation as an early film director. The quilt paying tribute to Oscar Micheaux is like a multi-media display of cloth and stitches. A dapper man wearing a fedora stands behind a 1920's film camera in front of miniature movie posters.

Historical events depicted include the 1921 Tulsa Massacre in which an angry white mob attacked a thriving black community known as the Black Wall Street. The mob murdered dozens of people and burned businesses and homes.

While some of the men in the quilts are famous, African-American women have been left out of many history books and stories. The quilts bring them to life for all generations.

Kathy Williams was a female Buffalo soldier. The artist who did her quilt is Georgia Williams, who will speak on Saturday. Stark Curator Dr. Boehmes said the artist is not related to the Buffalo Soldier.

The museum commissioned Georgia Williams to make a miniature version of her quilt. It is one that adults and children are encouraged to touch and study. Dr. Boehme said the miniature has different layers that can be opened so people can see the details of what it takes to make the fabric art pieces.

Madame C.J. Walker, the first African-American millionaire, has a quilt, as does Malinda Russell, the first African-American to write a cookbook.

Estabon quilt

The most unusual quilt shows "Stagecoach Mary." Instead of a square or rectangular work of art, Stagecoach Mary is a cutout of a woman holding a rifle. She was Mary Fields and also had the name of Black Mary or White Crow. She was the second woman and the first African-American woman to be a mail carrier. She worked a 15-mile route in Montana from 1895 to 1903. Standing si feet tall, she was know for drinking, wearing men's cloths, and carrying a rifle.

Black Pioneers: Legacy in the West will be on exhibit through August 3. The Stark Museum of Art is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with no admission charge.

The 10th Annual Juried Student Art Exhibit will be open rom March 27 to May 15. Select works by school students in the region will be displayed. This year, the theme was coordinated with the African-American pioneers show.

Also, Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, another one of the Stark Cultural Venues, will feature "quilt gardens" with flowers and plants in designs of quilt patterns.


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