The Quilting Artist's Interview
Updated: Jan 19
NHQG Members from left to right: Glendora Simonson, Marcella Booker, Gabrielle Smith (Front), Jacqueline Hartzog (Rear), Miriam Aziz, Lynda DuBois-Jackson, Minnie Melvin, Carolyn Davis, and Bernice Paschal.
The Passaic County Cultural & Heritage Council at PCCC presented "Stitching Together Black Women's History: Fabric Artworks from the Nubian Heritage Quilters Guild" in our Broadway Gallery (on Broadway & Memorial Dr. in Paterson) from Feb. 15-March 31. A reception was held on Saturday March 19th where the public could meet the artists from the Guild.
FEATURING GLENDORA SIMONSON AND CAROLYN DAVIS
AB: What started the interest at age eighteen in African American art?
Carolyn Davis with her quilt "Power of Love"
CD: I wanted to learn more about my people and I started doing research on it. I saw my first piece of sculpture on the Gil Noble show, “Like It Is.” He had a sculpture in the back and I really wanted to look into who it was, so that’s what I did. That’s what started it all off. For some reason, I don’t know, it just clicked that I wanted to look into different artists. And, we used to have an African American festival and they had different arts and crafts. So then, that’s when I started getting into that.
AB: Glendora, you mentioned that your mother sewed. Did she sew anything similar to the things that you make? How did you branch off into your own expression?
GS: No, my mother sewed clothing. She made hats. She would adorn hats, and embellish it so it would match her outfits. She would apply fabrics or petals from artificial flowers to her shoes, to the hat, or to the pocketbook so she could make an ensemble. We did do quilting, but it was only utilitarian. You know, we would take old clothing, old worn out pants, rip them apart at the seams, layer fabric, and put some kind of cover over it. She also made things like curtains. She didn’t do slip covers but she did do curtains, that kind of thing.
AB: Do you use any materials in your quilts that have some sort of history in your family? Like, “Oh, this is a bit of the curtains that mom had,” or anything like that?
GS: I haven’t done that. I’ve done things that remind me of them, but I don’t have any old clothes. My mom’s still here and unfortunately, still wears some of her old clothes. You know what I’m saying? [laughs] So, it’s not like it’s being handed down yet.
AB: Carolyn mentioned that you two met in a class that you were teaching.
GS: Yes, at the Newark Museum.
AB: How did you start building that community, where now you were teaching classes?
Glendora Simonson with her quilt titled "Shake Senora"
GS: Well, that class had to be close to thirty years ago. I’ve been sewing all my life. My mom taught me how to sew, how to make straight seams, and how to do simple construction. I think I was always more detail-oriented than my mom. My mom was creative in terms of how she adorned herself and things she would do in the house, but she was not interested at all in cutting up little pieces of fabric and sewing them together. I also did crocheting and knitting, and my mother wasn’t interested in that either. She said, “I’m not going to start with some string, and then try to make it into something when I can go buy the fabric.”
Because I’ve been sewing a long time, I then discovered that I could marry art and sewing together. I was taking classes lots of places, I had taken a series of art classes at the Newark Museum, and I was taking some beginning weaving classes. I was also taking some quilt design classes early on. They got a new director who saw some of my work and asked me if I wanted to teach a class, so we kind of worked up a class. Then Carolyn was one of the people in the first one or two classes that I taught, and we had a great time. There was a lot of experimentation, exploring, and then we talked about keeping it going because it was a one day workshop. I said, “I don’t know where we could meet.”
Carolyn said, “Our church has space to meet.” And so that’s where we started. We started at her church, St. James AME Church, in Newark.
AB: Carolyn, had you made quilts before or was this the first time?
CD: No, I’d made quilts before. I’m the fourth generation of quilt makers. I wasn’t sewing the quilts until I was a young adult, but my grandmother introduced me to it. She purchased a sewing machine for me, so she wanted me to make an outfit. I made an outfit and the joke was, if you pulled the string off the outfit it would fall all apart. So I knew that was not one of the things that I would do, [laughs] in the future, is make clothes.
I took a class at the Montclair Historical Society. They had a quilting class, and they were into hand quilting more than machine quilting. So, I started off with that, learning how to make a quilt by hand, until I took Glendora’s class and I learned it by sewing machine. Well, by hand it takes time. It could take two or three months just actually measuring, cutting, and sewing all by hand and everything. In Glendora’s class, it took me like one hour to put pieces together. That’s when I got hooked on making quilts on the sewing machine.
GS: And, I learned new techniques by taking some quilting classes. I took a class at the Montclair Adult School, which was hand piecing. Every block we did was to introduce you to new techniques, and everything was taught by hand. Since I had a background in machine sewing, I kept saying, “This would be much faster on a sewing machine.”
It didn’t make sense to me until we were introduced to the rotary cutter, which is like a pizza wheel. We were using a cardboard template around the cutting line, and drawing the stitching line. You could measure and cut in one step, and then sew it up on the machine. It was fast and accurate, and it was more sturdy than hand-sewn. That was it! The class taught me a lot and improved my hand sewing skills that I had already, but they weren’t great. I have pretty good hand-sewing skills now, but learning how to use that rotary cutter and acrylic ruler was it. You could measure and cut at the same time, go to the sewing machine, and you don’t have to make a career out of one quilt. I tell people, “I have many quilts in my head, and I don’t have to make a career out of one. I can just go and use the most efficient techniques possible.”
AB: Do you ever reach a point where you get stuck and you don’t know where to go next, design-wise?
GS: Yes! Many times. I usually go onto another project when I get stuck. I let the solution percolate in the background while I work on, oh, I probably have six, eight, ten projects going at a time. Sure, they’re all at various stages of completion. So one is like oh, I got real excited and I pulled my fabrics together and put the pattern with it. Another one I actually started making the block. Then, other ideas would come, other things that would inspire you. So, I’ve got many, many projects that are partially completed because, you know, you gotta sleep, and you have to work, and you gotta pay your electric bill. The ideas come faster than you can execute. Yes, you do get stuck sometimes, but that’s a chance to let your subconscious work on it. Let the solution come to you. Find more fabric, [laughs] learn about a new tool or technique, and then go back to the other fabric and you complete it.
AB: Carolyn, are you the same way? Do you work on one project at a time or do you have many going at the same time?
CD: No, I can’t work one project at a time. I probably have maybe twenty that are open right now to do. But, what happens is my ideas come no matter where I am. I can actually be in a meeting, I stop listening to the meeting, and start designing a quilt in my head or on a piece of paper. So, it just hits you no matter what. Maybe at night. At one o’clock in the morning, you’re dreaming, and then you wake up and you write it down. It happens that way.
There are some quilters that actually can only complete one quilt at a time. But, I have too many ideas and I can’t. I cannot stick with one. Right now, I have four in my head that I need to write down. I know that eventually when I retire this year, I’ll able to really enjoy making these quilts that I’ve been designing for years.
GS: Now, I’m recently retired. I still work the same way. I don’t do linear, beginning of a project all the way to the end, because that’s not how my brain works either. So, Carolyn’s gonna have more time to do more quilting, but she’s not going to go and start one and go all the way to the end either.
CD: Oh, no [laughs]. Yeah, never [laughs]. That’s not how my design-brain works. My design-brain does not work in that I can only concentrate on one quilt. I have to do multiple because, as you said, you get to one point on a quilt and you may get stuck.
Or, you say, “Ok, let me just step away from it.” Because there may be a different technique that you’re working on, it could be an appliqué technique vs a piecing technique. So, you may say, “Oh, I don’t wanna do this right now because it requires some handwork.” And you’re not ready to do your handwork. So, it all depends on what you’re working on. That’s why it has to be multiple projects for me.
GS: I think in my case some of it is just distractibility. I get distracted by colors, shapes, or an event, and suddenly I’m off. I’m off and the brain starts cooking onto other things that might be tangential to what I was working on at first.
AB: Like a network of thoughts?
GS: It is a network. But you know, I think women think like that. Like when we tell a story, we don’t start at the beginning and go to the middle, then towards the end and the conclusion. We’ll start wherever the passion is. Then if somebody’ll ask a question, we go back and fill in the backstory. Or, women start with the end and then we’re just like, “Stay with us, we’re coming back around to it.” So, I don’t think our thought processes are linear. I just don’t think it is. I know mine isn’t.
AB: What role do you think being a woman has to do with making art via quilts?
GS: I think it’s just that quilting is traditional and is one of the things women did. I think with all of our responsibilities, to find a way to do something in a way that’s artistic that some consider mundane, tedious, or manual, I think celebrates the ancestors. A lot of women didn’t have time to quilt, or they would only do what was necessary. They may have been making children’s clothes, or putting a hem because the pants were too long, or putting a patch on the elbow that had worn out or the knee that wore out. And so, I think women create all the time and problem solve all the time and I think quilting is one way of doing that.
You got things that your family needs, and you may not have everything at your disposal. You know, we didn’t always have money to go to the fabric store but we had leftover scraps. And I know I work with scraps a lot. I’ll piece them together to make larger pieces, and then get the shape or size I want out of it. I grew up with very meager resources and I have trouble throwing things away that still have life in them. Other people like throwing away and I find myself going around collecting the scraps.
You know, I’m like “Oh, this already has fusible web on the back, I’ll take it.” [Carolyn laughs] I did that with Carolyn. We were working on our quilt, and Carolyn had put the footprints on it. After the footprints were cut out, there was all this brown fabric that still had good, fusible adhesive on it, and I collected it. It found its way into other quilts since that time, but you know I keep them. I try to sort them into little containers from the dollar store and number them from very light to dark. Then, when I have to do some appliqué and I want to put the adhesive on, I’ve got pieces that are ready to go.
AB: So, the idea of using all the resources at hand, not throwing things out, taking something that was utilitarian and finding a way to be expressive in it, feels very centered on womanhood?
GS: Like I said, my family didn’t have a lot of financial resources. So, sometimes instead of buying yards at the fabric stores, we would buy the remnants. The remnants were generally half price, all of them. So you could get the same fabric, not in the big pieces, but you might get half-yard pieces, quarter-yard pieces, and etcetera. If you were creative about how you laid things out, you could do something with that. But it also, I think, helps you figure out things. You start thinking about things in a way that’s spatial. Like, yeah, you can put these two pieces together. I’ve pieced things together a lot.
AB: Carolyn, you mentioned that you come from a family of quilters. And for each of you, what are the feelings about quilting by yourself in your own creative space, versus quilting together? Do you collaborate on quilts together? How does it feel to be in community creating versus in your own space creating?
CD: Both. I mean, I enjoy working as a community. Glendora and I finished a particular quilt that took us months to finish. But, we respected both of our ideas, her thoughts, my thoughts, and designing the finish of the quilt. So we do that.
Now, my three generations. I only really worked with one of those generations, and that was my grandmother. My great-grandmother, I always sat next to her when she was making the quilt, but I didn’t understand what she was doing at that point. You know, she gave blankets to all of us. I still have my brother’s, but the other one I do not have. I slept with it every night until it started falling apart.
I don’t mind doing my designs and making my quilts by myself. But, we all realize that we do need the community-base also, for the different ideas. Like you could talk things out and say, “I’m having a problem here, how would we be able to handle it? How would I be able to handle it?” Or, I come up with an idea for the guild. And then, it’s for everybody to make something, a block, and then we put it together. So, we do those kinds of things also. I’m a community-based person. And then, I’m on my own sometimes. Now I’m trying to learn to work in my own sense of design, and to be more conscious of what I want to do versus doing it as a group, because I start losing myself. You have to be very careful with that.
And I’ll say, “This is for the group. Oh let’s do this for the group.” And very seldom do you hear me say, “Let me do this for myself.” I’m learning to do that so I can feel much better. Because, then I sit back and say, “Gee, I missed out because I’m always concerned about the group.”
Glendora and my other friend are always complaining and saying, “What are you doing Carolyn? Have you made something?”
Then when I do make something, I’m like, “Wow this is really great.” So I’m learning with that. But it is definitely community. It is, most importantly, community. When we started the guild, our first day, we said we wanted to have fellowship. That was the most important thing, just being as a group, learning from each other, and teaching others about the craft. And that’s what’s really important, to pass it on to the next generation. And that’s important to me and to our group. That’s important to all of us, that we want to pass it on to the next generation.
GS: I think when we do design work; I think that’s a solitary activity. I think, you don’t want somebody else’s thoughts intruding in the development of whatever idea you’re inspired by. And then, when you get stuck, maybe you want to invite somebody in. When you’re not sure of a fabric selection maybe you might throw it out there. If you’re considering altering the composition, adding something or taking something out, that might be when you ask somebody.
But when we start things that we’re inspired to do, the creative urges take over; I don’t like doing that with anybody else. Like later, maybe, but right now I got something working and that’s not a group activity. And anyway, sometimes we work together but we could be working on something different; we’re just near each other. You know, like in child development, parallel play rather than collaborative play. So if you’re near each other doing your own work and you can talk to each other, you’re sharing creative muses so to speak. But, you’re each working on your own individual project.
We also work on group projects together. So, we kind of do all of it. But in terms of design, less is better in terms of other people. We have any window of projects we work on as well as group projects, but Carolyn comes up with many ideas about group projects. Many, many ideas [Glendora and Carolyn laugh]. And sometimes, they get in the way of her completing her own individual items. So another friend and I, we try to push, prod, admonish, you know, “Go back and work on your own stuff.” But we do all of it. I don’t think, if you’re really creative, that you only do something one way. I think it kind of depends.
AB: Yeah, I mean, it’s like you were talking about before, having twenty projects going at once and the idea of a network of thoughts as opposed to linear.
GS: And you had a funny reaction when I said, “Ten, twenty projects.” Your eyes were like this! [Widens eyes, laughs]. Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes, starting on one project will lead you directly to another one. When we did our project on the African American suffragists, I was researching the two women I wrote about. That was the only project I was focused on. That’s when I discovered they each had a stamp, a US postage stamp. And then that led me to see what other African American women also had postage stamps. There are many. I think I have thirty-seven on that quilt I did. So, it started with one thing, and then it kind of percolated, and then it led me to something else. They both got finished but it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’ll finish this and then I’ll go look at the other thing,” like a separate pile.
AB: Just hearing you each talk about it, the reason why I reacted that way is because it does sound overwhelming. The idea of having so many projects going at once, and then like you said, also needing to work, take care of kids, and all the things that you’re doing. So the idea of making space for that is incredible.
GS: Mhmm, well listen, you have to make space for that or you are not pleasant to live with. You know what I’m saying? You have to make space for it because your brain needs to do it; your hands need to do it. If you’re a dancer, you have to move. You can’t sit in a chair all the time. You have to stretch, and leap, and twirl, and dance. It’s what you’re put here to do. So it’s like telling, I don’t know, it’s like telling a dog, “You can’t run around and chase your tail, or you can’t bark.” They have to do that because that is who they are. We are fabric artists, we have to do that.
AB: What themes do each of you like to explore in your work?
GS: I know I like to do African American situations, history, movements, social justice, and civil rights. I also like to do some geometric things that have not much to do with a social aspect, other than the way in which you might use the fabrics, etcetera. Like, my favorite quilt block is a log cabin [a quilting technique]. It starts with a center square, and it has strips that you get around in concentric circles, getting bigger and bigger. It doesn’t have anything to do with African Americans per say, but it’s a very archetypal design. It was on mummy wrappings in Egypt. It’s considered quintessentially Americana. But, if it was on mummy wrappings it didn’t just start with America. So, sometimes it’s in all the shapes that resonate with you. That, in and of itself, sometimes appeals to me. Just like, “What can I do with it?”
CD: I work with social justice, and then I do a lot of stuff outside the box. What do I mean? Like the color-coordinating is totally different from a lot of people’s colors. I just do a lot of crazy stuff.
CD: Unconventional stuff, you wanna call it? Ok. Like, this may be pink and blue, but sometimes it may be another color that you would never think it would go together. I may throw green in there; I may throw all kinds of colors. I just like funkadelic colors. I always said that I am a frustrated hippie. I’m not at that age, I was never a hippie, but I always call myself a frustrated hippie. So that’s all those funkadelic colors and things, that’s what I get involved in.
Besides that kind of stuff, I do believe in the social justice and I do believe in ancestries also. Like, I want to go back and do things that were in the past, and put it there in a quilt. I like telling a story, that’s what I like to do. I like to tell a story.
AB: Do you feel that it resonates with you and gives expression to a certain part of yourself? Like when I’m making things, I think about the way that it’s giving a piece of me back to myself, you know what I mean? So, when I hear you talk about that, that’s what I think of.
GS: Sometimes, when I’m working on a piece, I feel like I’m channeling, I don’t know, if not an ancestor, a time, a place, a feeling.
CD: Sometimes I can feel...I made the quilt for my brother. It’s called “Power of Love.” And when I was making it, I just started off just doing a couple of techniques on it. But then, as I was going more into it, I was praying as I was working on it because he wasn’t feeling good. And then I was praying with it, I asked god to put an angel to make sure the angels were there for him when he covered himself with it. And he always told me he always felt better when he would put the blanket around him. So, that kind of thing. There is a spiritual piece that I never really said too much, to anyone. But, there’s a spiritual piece to my quilting also, and I feel it and I just keep working on it until I finish it.
It could be a funny one. It could be like the one, “Cats at the Movies.” I had a piece with cats at the movies, and they were eating popcorn and pretzels, and I had all these embellishments on it. But the funny thing was, it was making me laugh, and it was a spiritual thing to make me happy. I was very happy when I made that particular quilt. So that’s how it is for me when I work on them [laughs]. Are you a cat person?
AB: Oh, sure! I love cats.
CD: Yeah, [laughs] you were smiling. I was like, “Oh look at that, she’s a cat person!”
AB: Yeah, any animal really! And I love what you said about humor as well as the spiritual aspect. You mentioned some future projects that are in your head. I was wondering what’s percolating, what’s next, or what sort of exhibits are you looking forward to next?
GS: One of the ones I’ve started, I guess it was politically motivated. Well, two of them. One had to do with the January sixth insurrection. And I keep thinking, “That’s treason.” How is it that the attackers consider themselves patriots? And how do some of those people say they’re law-and-order advocates? I’m like, “You clearly didn’t care about the officers that were there at the capital at the time.” That’s one of them. So, whenever I see that “Blue Lives Matter” flag, I keep thinking, “blue lives didn’t matter January sixth, with all the officers that were hurt.”
And the other one I keep thinking about is how it got to that point, where the former president assembled this cast of nefarious people and put them in charge of our government. I keep thinking about them as like mob bosses, or fat cats, that were used to privilege and money and being above the law. I keep thinking about them as these fat cats, smoking stogies, wearing pinstripe suits, and corrupt. So, those are two of them that I’m thinking about.
CD: I’m working on a lynching series. So I’ve done three panels. And you have those say, “Black Lives Matter.” And then I’m working on another one with a map of the United States, and then the areas of where there have been lynchings. And then I’m working…I’m looking for a fun one that is just a woman dancing, and she’s just having a ball. I see her legs up and I see she has all this hair all over the place. So I’m working on something like that also. So those are the two. So it’s something fun with something that I have to finish. And the lynching story is something that I have to finish. It’s emotional, it’s moving, but I have to do something that’s fun also. So those are the two that I have in my head right now that I’m working on.
AB: Both feel vital, I think. To need to express your reaction or rage to what’s going on politically, and it’s also just as vital to be able to make room for joy. And it’s just as much an act of resistance, right?
CD: Yeah, I like the way you said that.
GS: I do too, “an act of resistance.” And artists often depict and serve to offer a visual reflection of a consciousness. Or, to raise an issue in a way that’s not necessarily wordy, but is graphic and reflects the times. I think that’s part of what we’re compelled to do. We’re not the only ones that are impacted by this, but we’re gifted to be able to express it a certain way.
CD: I really think so.
AB: Yes, I love that. Thank you, both of you, for talking with me and sharing ideas about your art. It was really valuable to listen to both of you.