Mecklenburg County (96 x 72), 2008, Michael A Cummings
This is a first in a series of 3 blogs of interviews with African American quilters exhibiting at the The Festival of Quilts 2022.
Michael A Cummings is considered to be the leading African American male quilter. His exhibition, Translations: Trans-Atlantic and other Journeys, is at The Festival of Quilts at the NEC Birmingham from 18 - 21 August 2022.
Michael, it’s an honour to have your work at The Festival of Quilts this year. In your 30 year artistic career, this will be the first time your quilts have been seen in the UK. How important is this moment for you?
It's always exciting to have a show anywhere at any time, but it's extra special to be in another country to introduce my work to people that haven’t seen it before or that maybe haven’t heard of me before. Also to be in a context with other quilters because this is an international event with quilts from all over Europe, as well as America. I’m excited to know that I’ll be near the International Quilt Museum gallery because they own two of my quilts. I haven't shown too much in Europe at all so this is a big first for me. It's an introduction and I'm very excited.
Image: Cotton Club, Michael A. Cummings
Your narrative, story-telling quilts are the culmination of extensive research in African American culture, history and quilt making, with references to historical figures, ritual and religious iconography. Can you tell us a little about the quilts that visitors will see in your Festival of Quilts exhibition?
I've chosen quilts with names that are internationally known, like Josephine Baker, the African-American singer, actor, dancer and model. I read a lot about her and wanted to do some quilts relating to her in my style. Another quilt in the show will be an homage to Nelson Mandela who is another person I admire. The quilt looks like a shrine with satin, curled flowers, an African mask, African printed fabric for his face, symbols and embellishment on the surface. Then I have a quilt called James Baldwin from a series of four quilts called Born into a Lie, which talks about how, as a black person, you think about the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, land of the free, but when you grow up, you realize that there's voting restrictions, segregation and racism. You can't do this, you can't do that. Another quilt will be Henri Matisse in Harlem's Cotton Club which explores the artist’s visits to the famous Harlem jazz club which was exclusive to the white population but had all black performers. Then there’s President Obama Goes to India, where I show Obama as the Indian deity, Shiva, and Miriam Makeba, a famous South African singer.
You began your quilting journey with collage making, teaching yourself to hand- and then machine sew. What is it about fabric that first drew your attention and has its appeal changed as your quilting style has developed?
When I was about 12, growing up in Los Angeles, I went to a museum on a school trip. There was an exhibition of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and seeing that painting sealed my future. I wanted to be a painter and to paint just like that, thick paint on canvas. So I proceeded over the years to try to train myself to be a painter. I went to school a little bit. I painted in the garage because my mother didn't want me to paint in the house. Oil paints were no good for me because I have asthma, so I had to use acrylic paints. But once I moved to New York when I was 25 and started moving around different galleries, I discovered Romare Bearden, a famous African-American artist who was famous for his collage work. I was so fascinated by what he did that I moved into that media and started to recreate images and tell stories. After that, there was a point in time when I was working for the Department of Cultural Affairs here in New York City. We held creative public events around the city and, one time, we were at the American Craft Museum on 53rd Street, right across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. The event activity was to make a banner and fly it. It was a family event where people could come in with their children and we had free fabric in boxes so they could make banners of some kind. They could use glue or they could sew it. The staff were supposed to make one just for fun, and that was my first entry into trying to create something with material or fabric. So I created something but I didn't know how to sew it. I took it to some tailors but couldn’t afford for them to sew it so found a woman that made clothes. She offered to teach me to sew using a sewing machine, but when she talked about the bobbin, the thread, the needle and everything, it just was so confusing and seemed so complex. I couldn’t do it, so I sewed it by hand with an up and down stitch, in and out, in and out. After that, the museum director, Paul Smith, introduced me to their resource library and I got books out on hand embroidery which I taught myself. Working with fabric was easy and I liked the cleanliness of it, plus the cost was much cheaper than buying tubes of paint, paintbrushes and canvases. Fabric drew me in with its colors and prints, and all the possibilities of what I could do with it. All I had to do was cut out a shape , and with fabric, you could buy so many yards and then fold it up and good to go. Now, since I've been working with fabric for so long, everything's been expanded because I can see all the new technical possibilities. Seeing what other quilters and artists are doing with textiles is exciting and the possibilities are endless.
Image: Egungun (68"X50"), 2021, Michael A. Cummings
Has the appeal of fabric that you first felt when you were starting out changed as your quilting style has developed? Are there particular types of fabric that you've grown to love?
I lean towards natural fibres, linen, cotton, cotton blends, silks, but I do use some synthetic fabrics. That's something I've stuck with continuously. It's just a matter of where I go - I could see variations of colours and patterns and prints that entice me to buy them. I've also expanded my toolkit of embellishments with African masks, clothes, beads, buttons, plastic and metal, all of which I’ve sewn onto quilts.
You’ve recently downsized from a large museum-like Harlem townhouse to an apartment. Can you tell us about your working environment?
I had lived in my home for 40 years. It was built in 1886 in Queen Anne style with four storeys, and I created a workspace there on the huge parlour floor where I created all my work. The museum element came by way of my collections of African masks and artwork, Oriental rugs, period furniture and chandeliers, so the environment was very conducive to stimulating me in colour and form. Plus, it had huge windows so there was lots of natural light to work in. When I went into the room, I would put on music, I had African arts surrounding me, I had plants in the room, so it was just a world that I had created for myself. With all these different elements, it was very stimulating. I just let my imagination and creativity connect into that energy and I just went from there.
But as I’ve got older, I wanted something simpler to take care of and to live in. Now I'm in a one floor apartment, I don't have to walk upstairs anymore, and I’m renting a studio in the Soho area of Manhattan downtown which I’m just setting up now. Some of the African masks, artwork and paintings have made it onto the studio wall – they’re like old friends.
Tell us about your trusty sewing machine that has made so much of your stunning work
I’ve made nearly all my quilts on a 30 year old basic sewing machine. I call it my ‘dance partner’ because it knows all my quilting moves! Sadly, the dance partner passed away about two or three years ago as I couldn’t get parts for it any more.
A friend of mine, the famous New York quilt maker Victoria Findlay Wolfe, heard about my dilemma and offered me one of her sewing machines. So, two years ago, I started learning to operate what I call a modern sewing machine that threads itself. I was so amazed by that that I felt I’d been working in the dark ages, trying to make the light brighter and adjusting my glasses, always struggling to thread the needle. But with this machine, you push some buttons and it just zips it in there. I said to myself: “Oh my goodness, where have I been all these years?!" The first large quilt I made with the new sewing machine was dedicated to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for US President. That quilt is going to an exhibition at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, Arkansas. Hilary Clinton commissioned 18 quilters to create quilts for the Year of the Woman. Each quilt represents a woman that has made a unique contribution to the empowerment of women. However, because of Covid, that exhibition has been cancelled three times.
Your work has featured in significant national and international collections, in museums, galleries, books, films and TV documentaries. What role have quilts played in telling the story of Black American history and will they continue to be relevant in the future?
The African-American quilt goes way back to slave times. It's what I would call a memory, a keeper of times, as it passes on the memory of what the ancestors had to live through. The ancestors created quilts basically in the beginning for a functional purpose to keep the family warm. They didn't have much to work with, but they made something out of nothing. I read that early quilts for the slave people were stuffed with straw, paper and grass to try to make more warmth. With the quilt tops, a lot of them showed the capabilities, skills, and knowledge of appliqué and patchwork that they brought with them that nobody, particularly the slave owners, knew they had. They started to create designs that were really atypical of what was being made at the time with different rhythmic patterns in the base colours. All of that was a door to a culture that wasn't talked about. But as time went on, and I guess in more modern times, there were advocates that promoted African-American quilts to show how much they were a part of American culture and how they influenced other people and other things. They showed the survival abilities of people that had to go through suppression and rejection. These early quilts were made by people that weren't allowed to read or write, so with their own capabilities and from what they remembered from the past and that was passed down to them, they created these quilts that gradually grew into different forms that got more creative. There's one woman named Harriet Powers. She was considered the first to have a story quilt where each block showed some event that took place in her life in the 1800s. She even shows a meteorite that was going across the sky which was documented by scientists. Then you have the Gee's Bend quilters that were discovered in an isolated area in Alabama, and that were considered modern artists. All of this is just textile work, passed from generation to generation. It’s grown and is a huge volume of history that shows how African-Americans are integrated into the culture and how creative they are. Quilts are a very important element in the whole history of America, and quilt-making will probably continue in more high tech terms. A lot of textile individuals are going more towards the computer to design and they're using automatic machines to create. Bisa Butler has really taken off as a superstar, and she’s using all sorts of modern techniques to create her imagery, taking old photographs of African-Americana from different periods of time and reintroducing them in fabric. Those are fascinating and it’s a new way to draw in younger generations to see quilts. I'm considered a traditional quilter so I still do my appliqué, with three layers sewn together. Quilting will continue in traditional and computerised designs. Quilts are relevant because they have a universal language, and Black American history is always evolving. Younger quilters are introducing new approaches to construction and telling their stories. The art community is now embracing textile art equally with paintings and sculpture so there are new venues for quilters.
Image: Homage to Mandela (80 x 53), 2015, Michael A. Cummings
Which African-American and Black quilters are producing work that excites and interests you currently?
I have to mention Faith Ringgold because she's the grandmother of all the modern quilts in terms of her vast career, and Carolyn Mazloomi who has spearheaded and really promoted African-American quilts and history in the last 20 years. Then there’s Alice Beasley and the young male artist, Stanford Biggers, who is translating textiles in a new way through clothing and all sorts of fabric. Many of these art quilts that we are talking about aren't functional, they're more decorative to hang on the wall. Of course, I have to include the Gee's Bend quilters because I love modern or abstract art and their quilts are just beautifully constructed with blocks of colour. I met the Gee’s Bend quilters at an exhibition at the Whitney Museum some years ago. It was an honour to meet them and I told them I was a quilt maker. They looked me up and down and said, "Oh, that's nice!". I tried to recreate one of their favourite quilts called Housetop. It's just blocks of colour, but a very intricate white. It looks simple when you're looking at it, but I tried to do it. It’s about 10 feet long and six feet wide, and once I finished it, I said, "Wow, they had to do all of this in their mind. It looks so easy, but here I am working it out and I'm struggling." I finished it and am happy with it, but it made me realise how complex their thinking was to create what they did, and with no exposure to art schools or modern art or anything.
Is there a subject or period of Black history that you are yet to explore, but would like to in the future?
Well, I would like to get more into the civil rights era. I was a teenager at the time and have only made one Martin Luther King quilt. I want to really show the activity of people marching and the interaction with the police, with the sheriffs, in the south. Then a fun theme that I would like to embrace at some point is reflections on me growing up in Los Angeles, California, because I moved to the east and the east and west are so different – the climate, architecture, the way people live. I grew up with Palm trees, the beach, the park and green grass all year round, and flowers. My grandmothers had gardens and I’d like to reflect that in my quilts and tell some stories about growing up. Those are two things that I gravitate to.
To find out more about Michael A. Cummings work, visit his website here.
Especially for Selvedge readers, The Festival of Quilts are offering a discount of £1.50 off adult advance tickets and £1.50 off concessions using the discount code: SELVEDGE22. Please note that the discount code expires at 23:59 on Wednesday 17 August 2022.