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The quilt as a symbol of warmth, community and the resilience of Black Americans

Dittmar Gallery exhibit showcases quilts made by Northwestern professor and ‘quilting sisters’
Quilts by Tracy L. Vaughn-Manley “Praise Song for Amber” from the collection of the artist and “Cool Jewels” from the collection of Margo Culley.

Quilts have played an important role in the history of Black American folk art specifically and American folk art in general.

However, for Tracy L. Vaughn-Manley, an assistant professor of African American Studies at Northwestern, and “sister quilters” Betty Joy Bonds of Chicago and Melissa Blount of Evanston, quilts and the process of quilting have been and will continue to be literal and figurative cultural signifiers for protection and warmth, creativity and community, and the brilliance, resilience and radiance of Black American people.

The Dittmar Gallery presents “Radiant Compositions II,” Jan. 12 to March 4, 2023, at the Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive on the Evanston campus.

The two characteristics that distinguish the works by these quilters are their use of non-traditional materials and the improvised methods in which they use them. 

Rather than being pieced together by hand from fragments of rough, leftover fabrics, they are crafted from the finest cottons, silks, velvets and wools available. They are spontaneous compositions sewn without patterns or — in many cases — sewing machines. Vaughn-Manley’s quilt artistry is done primarily by hand, relying on color and fabric pattern to determine what goes where until the quilt “feels” complete. 

“To look at a quilt today is to behold history. Individual quilts have long been sought out as relics of a family’s life over time,” Vaughn-Manley said.

“Quilts are more and more frequently being presented in museums and exhibition spaces as high art. In this context, the quilts are no longer useful, intimate bed coverings but are rather transformed into objects that invite one to reflect on their beauty and the ways in which quilts are also representative of American cultural expression overall.” 

Visitors can meet the quilters at the opening reception 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 12 in the Dittmar Gallery.

The gallery is admission-free and open to the public. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Mondays through Sundays, except when a new exhibition is being mounted.

Dittmar Gallery is part of the Northwestern Arts Circle, which brings together film, humanities, literary arts, music, theater, dance and visual arts.