Friday, February 6, 2009

Gwendolyn Magee in her own words

Textile artist Gwendolyn Magee presents an impressive resume. "Her work is found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Mississippi Museum of Art and has been exhibited internationally. It is archived at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. In 2007 she was named a Ford Fellow by United States Artists - it came with an unencumbered $50,000 award.

2006 she was named as an "Honored Artist" by its Mississippi State Committee. In 2005 she was awarded an Artist Fellowship Grant by the Mississippi Arts Commission and selected in 2004 to represent the state on, a showcase "…spotlighting the diversity and achievements of outstanding artists who live and work in the South." Gwen was recognized by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters as Visual Artist of the Year in 2003." -- from her website. And most recently her work and those of several fellow artists have been the subject of controversy based upon Jo-Ann Fabric's decision to ban the March issue of "Quilters Home" from their stores. This issue includes the article, Shocking Quilts, written by Jake Finch. Other artists featured in this article include SAQA members Shawn Quinlan, Mary Beth Bellah, and Randall Cook, as well as Gayle McKay and Diane Johns.

Now, in her own words --


What is it about the artwork imagery featured in the March 2009 issue of Quilter's Home that is so objectionable that two major retailers decided not to make it available to their customers? Is there something intrinsically offensive about these artworks because of their subject matter, point of view, or style of execution that any who view it would swoon or get the vapors? None of the quilts can be described as being sleazy, debasing, or as portraying graphic sex or violence. From what exactly did the customer base of these merchants need to be protected?

I have not a clue.

As one of those whose art is featured in the article, I have been in turn amused, baffled, and even flattered about the banning. Responses by the art quilt world have ranged from outrage over the censorship to total support for it (which in itself is a little strange if you think about it). What puzzles me most, however, have been the accusations seeking to demean the work by implying or outright stating that artists who produce work beyond the province of abstracts or landscapes only do so for its "shock value".

I've never thought of my work as being shocking; controversial, perhaps. Thought-provoking, definitely – because that is exactly what I strive to achieve. From my perspective, art is about communication – the communication of feelings, the evoking of emotions, and the contemplation of ideas. It raises questions, examines perspectives, and depicts points of view. It is about creating dialogue and with engaging viewers to think about and/or otherwise react to the artwork. This has long been the primary goal for my art. I seek for it to be infused with meaning, for it to be imbued it with relevance, for it to engage the viewer in an extended internal dialogue.

My use of the quilt form as the medium through which my art is expressed is deliberate because ancestral matriarchs toiled untold hours in servitude as slaves, as sharecroppers, and as underpaid domestic servants. To keep their families warm during bitterly cold winter nights when "the hawk" came sweeping through the cracks and crevices of the shacks and shanties in which they were forced to live, they painstakingly made quilts using whatever materials they could find and whatever time they could manage to eke out of their bone crushing days. It is in their honor that I now tell their stories through the medium of cloth.

This is how I have been chosen to speak for those Big Mama's and Aunt Effies and Muh Dears and for the countless others that had no voices, or whose voices were silent or silenced. I find it fitting to use versions of those humble/homespun/unpretentious quilts to tell their stories and those of their descendents; to use the quilt format as the medium through which are represented their trials and tribulations from the horrors and degradation of slavery to the havoc that its aftermath of oppression, segregation and discrimination has wreaked on the minds, bodies and spirits of African Americans for well over 300 years.

I am fully aware that the dissonance is palpable between this medium through which my art finds expression and the subject matter that it articulates. I know that the quilt form usually is associated with feelings of warmth, comfort, serenity and security and that my subject matter often is harsh, intense, somber and frequently brutal. However, viewers of the art frequently convey to me that they find the work to be compelling, evocative, meaningful and riveting.

From my perspective, the offensiveness that those retailers found expressed in my art and that of the other artists featured in the Quilter's Home article resided only "…in the eye of the beholder…"

--Gwendolyn A. Magee

To order a copy of the book, visit Mississippi Museum of Art
Photos: Southern Heritage/Southern Shame: This was my response to the failure of a referendum to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag. God of Our Silent Tears: An execution scene addressing the disproportionate percentage of African-Americans given the death penalty and executed. It does not address the question of guilt or innocence, but questions whether or not our system of justice is truly equal for all. (Lift Every Voice and Sing series) These two quilts were included in the magazine article.

Mark Lipinski, publisher of Quilters Home wrote on his blog "
However, the issue has been still been banned, which I find personally upsetting because I think it’s a good article, but also upsetting as part of the press being censored, art being censored, and as a quilter who is one who doesn’t believe that a quilt is only for use on a bed, that women/quilters can make their own decisions
about what they’d like to read/see, and more, that it pains me that the industry at large is still so seemingly out of touch with who the 2009 woman/man/quilter is, as we continue to fight the stereotype that we are all not little old boring subservient church ladies."

(As of yet, I have not heard word from Jo-Ann Fabrics.)


shawn quinlan said...

I really enjoyed reading and learning about Gwendolyn- keep up the great work. And as one who also has a quilt represented in the Quilter's Home article I concur with everything that Gwendolyn said.
Shawn Quinlan/Pittsburgh, PA

Cathy in gorgeous Sonoma County said...

I have found Gwen's work evocative and artistically meaningful. I have appreciated her ways of showing the world the truth of how the African slaves were and how their descendants have been treated in America. More power to her and those others who try to bring change through art: Shawn Quinlan, Mary Beth Bellah and many others. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I didn't think Gwen would post this story, so I will.


Anonymous said...

There is a need for clarity and understanding regarding African American history. Gwen Magee’s art places the tragic events and circumstance of the Black Holocaust in plain sight where it belongs, and serves as a wake-up call to never forget our past. The Black Holocaust, indisputably one of the most overlooked documented major events in world history, cannot be denied. It refers to the millions of African (American) lives lost during the centuries to slavery and
oppression. Gwen’s works are a tribute to those who suffered the worst elements of human brutality and the strongest elements of survival. In the name of truth and justice I look forward to your new body of work.

Carolyn Mazloomi, West Chester, Ohio

kimberly shaw said...

I admire Gwen for her fearless ability to stand up and make a difference. This was so enjoyable to read, as has been all the other quilters spotlighted here. You are a blessing to them and to us for learning about them.

Sorry it's been a while since I visited. My plate has been really full.