Many pieces to make a whole

Updated: 2013-08-18 07:49

By Chen Nan (China Daily)

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 Many pieces to make a whole

Edna J. Patterson-Petty's works function as testaments to the inventiveness of African-American culture. Photos provided to China Daily

Quilting is a uniquely American art form born from pragmatic use of old cloth. Chen Nan takes a close look at how this simple craft has evolved into stunning artwork.

In her decades-long career, African-American quilt artist Edna J. Patterson-Petty has never used patterns, photos or drawings.

"It's all in my head," says the 67-year-old artist from East St. Louis, Illinois. "My ideas come to me in dreams and from talking to people or listening to a favorite song. In essence, I draw ideas from my everyday existence."

Patterson-Petty's upcoming workshop at Beijing's Ullens Center for Contemporary Art is intended to be a cultural exchange. The artist will guide group discussions, encouraging people to jot down thoughts, words and shapes that come to mind when they think of themselves.

When she creates a new patchwork block, she simply tears up strips of cotton and folds the fabric. When she is making something for a client, she wants to hear their stories so she can get a feeling for what they really want. Then she marries her creativity with their stories to make an art quilt that is specifically for them.

"My art is more than art quilts. It is an emotional journey filled with pleasant memories," Patterson-Petty says.

Fascinated by fabrics since childhood, she started by helping her mother recycle their worn-out clothes for a bed quilt. Her mother taught her how to remove waistbands from skirts and pants and they had a jar for buttons and a bag for zippers.

She doesn't remember the first piece, but she remembers how creating it made her feel. "It makes me happy. It always allows me an outlet, a way of maneuvering through life," she says.

Her mother made quilts by hand because she didn't have a sewing machine. Patterson-Petty learned to sew by machine at high school and for a long time made her own clothes.

Her grandfather gave her first sewing machine, and she taught her mother how to use it.

It wasn't until she was a mother of four that she enrolled in art school and learned how to use dyes and paints.

"Though fabric is not my only medium, it's my first love," she laughs.

Patterson-Petty enjoys telling stories with her work and sometimes does it by combining colors, photos, collages and embellishments.

"I have always been a quiet person, and when I first started creating it was just for me. It was something that brought me joy and comfort and solace," she says.

"Along with jazz, quilting is the uniquely American contribution to world art that bears the legacy of our African heritage and carries it into our common future," wrote the 82-year-old African-American artist Faith Ringgold, who is known for her painted story quilts. She wrote the preface to the book, Spirits of the Cloth - Contemporary African American Quilts, which included Patterson-Petty's work.

Emancipation and memories are central themes in her works. They also function as testaments to the inventiveness of African-American culture.

The quilt, Blues in the Night, which was created in 1996, celebrates the development and evolution of jazz as an African-American art form. And Still I Rise is for black women who have survived adversity and oppression.

With a master's degree in fine arts, Patterson-Petty is also a registered art therapist.

"Art doesn't make the pain go away from a bad situation or loss," she says. "It just allows a way of releasing negative energy and working through the pain. Sometimes, when people can't find the words to express themselves, they can speak volumes when they create."

For years, Patterson-Petty's creativity has been breaking the boundaries between media. Her home is a big laboratory for her artworks.

Her husband, Reggie Petty, is used to finding their stairways covered with a new mosaic, a grotto added to their bathroom and their yard filled with recycled materials.

Two of her grandchildren are up-and-coming artists.

Before the workshop in Beijing, her works were on show at an exhibition, The Sum of Many Parts, which has been touring China since 2012 and included works by 25 quilt makers from the United States.

"I don't know as much as I would like to know about Chinese art," she says. "But the little I do know is astounding. I love the spirit of it. I love the delicate brushstrokes in the paintings. I love Chinese gardens. I love the aesthetics."

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Many pieces to make a whole

(China Daily 08/18/2013 page5)