An Exhibition of Two Textile Artists Carolyn Mazloomi :“A Piece if My Mind” and Heather Jones: “A Sense of Place” January 30 – February 27, 2021 Alice and Harris Weston Art Gallery, Cincinnati, Ohio

February 20th, 2021  |  Published in January/February 2021

“Every human being in the world has a “cradle to grave” relationship with textiles.” These words by Carolyn Mazloomi contextualize her choice of quilts as her chosen art medium and it contextualizes our response to the show.  We arrive to view this exhibit clothed; we are ready.

Mazloomi – Installation View

Mazloomi came to quilting from a unique position.  She was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to a family of amateur artists and painters. She graduated from Northrop University in Inglewood, California, and worked in Los Angeles as an aerospace engineer. In the early 1970s, she encountered an Appalachian quilt at a market in Dallas that began her passion for quilting. She continued her quilting experiments while earning her Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from USC in 1984. Mazloomi is retired from her job as an aerospace engineer and Federal Aviation Administration crash site investigator. Isn’t in wonderful that she lives in Ohio with her family, near enough to Appalachia whose quilts changed the trajectory of her life’s work?

I am not familiar with Mazloomi’s quilts so I brought my good friend Linda Whittenburg to the exhibit.  She is a known quilter and owner of Cabin Arts Quilts in Kentucky. Linda has known Mazloomi’s quilts over the decades and she pointed out that much of Mazloomi’s oeuvre is highly colored in nature whereas there is only one colorful quilt in this exhibition, “The Peacekeeper’s Gift.”  The exhibit features almost exclusively black and white quilts and some black and white screen prints Mazloomi envisions in future quilts. This new work is highly political so the limited palette of black and white is fitting whereas color might distract from the messages she is conveying.

The authority of Mazloomi’s vision and command of quilt making is immediately obvious. Her quits in this “A Piece of My Mind” exhibition are themes of Black oppression, Black life, and Black joy. The quilts have titles like “In the Spirit of Forgiveness,” “Wrapped in Love,”  “Certain Restrictions Do Apply II,” and “Picking Away Dreams.” For example, “Maid in America” is a vertical quilt showing a middle-aged or older Black woman mopping a floor.  I immediately thought of Gordon’ Park’s iconic photograph of a Black housekeeping staff member, tired and resigned, holding up a mop in the U. S. Capitol Building with a large American flag behind her. African-American artists made both works and both speak to the limited jobs generally available to Blacks in the land of the free. Like Parks, Mazloomi is picturing what was and what still in many cases is.

Mazloomi states: “The visual and metaphorical links between textiles and human beings are fertile ground for narrative quilts as statement. Every human being in the world has a “cradle to grave” relationship with textiles. Quilts articulate a powerful language of familiarity through which they may speak to and about our experience as human beings. I am drawn to vulnerable people – the disenfranchised, dispossessed, outsiders. The injustice and harsh realities of the daily lives of those in need motivate me to create artwork depicting their circumstances. These are people who deserved to be heard, seen and understood, especially women and children. My intention is to invite the viewer into contemplation and raise awareness concerning issues they may be unfamiliar with.”

Play Date, 2014, 61 x 75 inches, Mazloomi, Carolyn

A number of the quilts in this exhibition are large. “Play Date”,  featuring two Black children in the foreground of a park on bicycles, is 66 x 75.” The play of black and white creates a wonderful staccato rhythm to amplify the movement and joy of the smiling children on their bikes.  This is not a quilt theme! This is art! Herein lies the marvelousness of Mazloomi artwork. She draws out a powerful narrative, has the work screen-printed on ducking, a very heavy fabric similar to canvas, then painstakingly quilts the works with a long arm standing sewing machine.  Beautiful quilt techniques like meandering, pebble stitches and contour quilting keep these firmly in the realm of quilts, yet the boldness of the themes and images catapult them into the arena of fine arts, which is where they reside.

I need to address these beautiful quilt techniques: meandering, pebble stitches and contour quilting.  What they do with thread of the same color as the area they are quilting, in other words white threads on white ground, black threads on black ground is significant.  These quilting areas are the same as shading in a traditional painting. The quilt techniques create nuance, amplify the sense of the contours of the figures depicted and give us abstract effects as well.  Just like in a painting. Look closely to see for yourself.

It is also very important to speak to Carolyn Mazloomi’s  decades-long achievement as she worked tirelessly in the 1980s to bring the many unrecognized contributions of African American quilt artists to the attention of the American people as well as the international art communities. She helped found the African-American Quilt Guild of Los Angles in 1981 and the Women of Color Quilters Network (WCQN) in1985. Mazloomi’s goal has been to educate the public about the diversity of interpretation, styles and techniques among African American quilters and educate a younger generation of African Americans about their own history through the quilts the WCQN members create.

She has an extensive exhibition history participating in over seventy-four exhibitions in venues such as the Mint Museum, American Folk Art Museum in New York City, National Civil Rights Museum, Museum of Art and Design, Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum, and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Her quilts can be found in private collections around the world as well in distinguished museum collections in the United States. As a curator Mazloomi has curated twenty-one extensive exhibits of quilts made by members of the Women of Color Quilters Network, many of them traveling exhibits. As an author she has published twelve books highlighting African American-made quilts.

She has been the recipient of many state and national honors, among them the 2003 Ohio Heritage Fellowship Award, the first such award for any Ohio citizen. In 2014 she was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and was awarded the Distinguished Scholar and Celebrated Artist Lifetime Achievement Award by Faith Ringgold’s Anyone Can Fly Foundation. In 2016, Mazloomi was inducted into the Quilters Hall of Fame Museum. Just now, in February 2021, she received a USA Artists Fellowship, an unrestricted award celebrating artists and cultural practitioners who have significantly contributed to the creative landscape and arts ecosystem of the country. These awards aim to promote the work of these visionary practitioners to a broader public. How fortunate we are that the Weston arranged this exhibition and during its run Carolyn Mazloomi has received yet another major national award. You simply must see this exhibit and see for yourself why she has received such national acclaim.

Jones-Installation View 1-14-21

Heather Jones “A Sense of Place” is an interesting contrast to Mazloomi’s narrative quilts. Though they are in about two shades of white and two shade of black, the textile works are exclusively bold and geometric in contrast to Mazloomi’s narrative/political works.

Jones says that her work is “steeped in the history of quilt making and a vast group of unknown female makers, and the subject of my work is unequivocally feminist” though I see her work to be Bauhaus basic design and simple construction techniques rather than containing any historical view of quilt making.

Jones uses several subtle colors of black and whites, which add visual interest to these basic geometric compositions.  I can’t see her sense of place and her overarching statement: “ I am interested in the historical and socio-political relationship between women and textiles and women’s work. I explore the relationship between gender, place, time, and culture in my work, as a way of connecting with my Appalachian ancestors who settled into southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky, many of whom made goods with their hands as their livelihood and connection to their ancestral homes. Conceptually, my work carries on the tradition of woman as maker, pushes the boundary between fine art and craft, and questions the definition of painting.” This is simply not in the work.

I think of all the Bauhaus experimentation with textiles (Annie Albers, Sonia Delaney), the use of craft materials, the wild theater and costume experiments and all Jones comes up with is cut triangles and rectangles sewn not expertly and in need of ironing as they are displayed like paintings on the wall. The selvage on the backside needed to be ironed toward the darker fabric so as not to cast a distracting shadow, something that anyone who sews knows. Maybe the works are intended to be casual. If so, they are less formally moving than if they were taut and crisp renditions of classical 20th century abstraction.

In spite of my lukewarm response to her work, Jones has  accomplishments. She is a native Cincinnatian, receiving both Bachelors and Masters degrees in art history at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning, Her work has been exhibited widely at national and international venues including the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH; Art on Paper, New York, NY; Aqua Art Miami, Miami, FL; Marta Hewett Gallery, Cincinnati, OH; Iowa Quilt Museum, Winterset, IA; New England Quilt Museum, Lowell, MA; the University of California, Berkley, CA; Boecker Contemporary, Heidelberg, Germany; drj- dr. julius | ap, Berlin, Germany; Five Walls, Melbourne, Australia; and M17 Contemporary Art Center, Kiev, Ukraine. Jones’ first book, Quilt Local: Finding Inspiration in the Everyday was released in October 2015 by STC Craft, an imprint of Abrams, New York.

Come Back and Bring Me with You, sewn cotton, 36_ x 36 inches, Jones, Heather 2020

–Cynthia Kukla

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