Brookhaven, GA, July 7, 2017 — by Emily Morris for The Post — A burst of colors, upbeat strains of R&B music, and the cordial atmosphere of new and old acquaintances mingling marked the festive opening party for Phyllis Stephens: Story Quilts at Oglethorpe University Museum of Art on June 24th, 2017. The label of each work reads “every quilt tells a story,” and Phyllis Stephens’ quilts tell the story of her craft over time.
A quilter for thirty-five years, the museum features Stephens’ earlier work such as A Little Exposure, produced in 1998, to one of her latest pieces of 2017, Silent Enforcer. The compilation of works in the exhibition reflects an evolution of style as well as information gathered over time to affect Stephens’ subject matter leading to her role as both artist and advocate of civil rights.
The African American experience plays a major role in Stephens’ work, and many of the themes of her story quilts highlight close-knit family ties, perseverance in the face of adversity, domestic life, and Christian faith. The domestic and family themes recall memories of Stephens’ time among her family in Athens, Georgia, where she was born. Although she moved with her parents to Connecticut at six months, where she lived until adulthood, she eventually returned to Georgia which she considers her home.
Years in New England were punctuated by summers with family in Athens, where Stephens, a fifth-generation quilter, especially enjoyed taking part in quilting circles. She jokingly claims that in Athens at the time, young people had three choices of entertainment, “you could either throw rocks, roll tires, or quilt.” Quilting made the most attractive option for Stephens. The pastime allowed her to beat the heat of a Georgia summer and sit in front of a fan, listening to the chatter of adults.
While Stephens’ roots forged her passion for quilting, her world travels influenced her style and continue to contribute to its evolution over time. An observation of Stephens’ work reveals fabric of many diverse patterns and colors. A fourteen-month stay in West Africa further enhanced her use of color, fabric, and style, and she continues to travel often to Ghana, “the Fabric Capital of the World,” to collect new material for her work. Her trips to places such as New York City and Instanbul played a role in her creation of the background of such works as Lovers Lane, in which the buildings surrounding the avenue resemble a New York City street, and the tower in the background echoes the form of an Istanbul minaret. The disparate elements create a fantastical and romantic cityscape for the lovers walking down the central lane.
As well as the telling of tales of love, life, travels, childhood, and family values, Stephens delves into darker themes from Black History in her work. One of the most powerful of Stephens’ projects, featured within a glass display case, is her limited-edition portfolio and quilt storybook “For Crying Out Loud,” which highlights the activism and captivity of children involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
After reading an article in Essence magazine which discussed the fate of thirty-three young girls promoting civil rights who were arrested and imprisoned, Stephens created a compilation of quilts following their harrowing story. Stephens asserts that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was really a young peoples’ movement, in which the youth, often minors, fought for equality when their parents, threatened by the potential repercussions of job loss, harm, and punishment, stayed behind but encouraged their children nonetheless. Stephens created “For Crying Out Loud” as a means to shed light on the role that so many young adults and teens played the movement.
Another piece with an intriguing backstory is one of Stephens’ most recent, entitled Silent Enforcer. Comprised of swirls of fabric in orange, vibrant blues, greens, and gold, the quilt depicts a dark-skinned samurai warrior and draws influences from traditional Japanese art.
The story of the piece came from Rickey Harris, who commissioned it. He told Stephens the history of Yasuke, the African man brought to Japan in 1581 as a slave of Jesuit missionary Alessandro Valignano. Yasuke was taken under the service of the Japanese warlord Oda Nabunaga and trained as a samurai warrior. Since Yasuke has not received widespread recognition, Stephens titled the piece Silent Enforcer and she is proud to create discourse of his history through her work.
From the variety of colors and origins of the fabric, to the rich history and sentiments behind each work, visitors to the exhibition will notice that “every quilt tells a story” while viewing the work of a local artist.
Phyllis Stephens: Story Quilts is on display at Oglethorpe University Museum of Art from June 24th through September 17th, along with two other exhibitions: OUMA Collects: Recent Acquisitions 2016-2017 and Rwandan Reconciliation.
Visit the OUMA website for more information: http://museum.oglethorpe.edu/.