"Anything I Can Stick a Needle In": An Interview with Yvonne Wells

Article excerpt

In this interview, artist Yvonne Wells discusses the origins and early years of her quilting career, the development of her "story quilts" and "picture quilts" on religious and sociopolitical themes, her working process as an artist, her esthetic preferences, and her dealings with the art world and fellow artists in contexts ranging from the local to the international. In addition, Wells offers her interpretation of several specific quilts that are reproduced with the interview. What emerges is a rich portrait of a steadfastly independent and prolific artist.

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Introduction

Quilted garments date back at least to the time of the First Dynasty of the Egyptian pharaohs in 3400 BC (Orlofsky and Orlofsky 1-2). In its American incarnation, settlers from the early 1700s onward stitched together pieces of fabric over a layer of insulating material and bottom layer of fabric "backing" as a way to reuse available material for further functional ends as bedcovers and the like. (1) Given this context of everyday use, quilting was long perceived as a practical craft, but since the 1960s' US revivals of interest in creative expression by women and folk communities, an increasing number of galleries, scholars, and formally trained artists have come to recognize quilts as an art form possessing substantial esthetic qualities.

Located deep in the US South, Alabama possesses a rich heritage of quilting traditions--particularly among the state's African American communities. For example, in 1966 a group of women from in and around the tiny community of Gee's Bend formed a quilters' cooperative in connection with the Civil Rights Movement, raising money for the movement by selling individual quilts at auction in New York City and later spurring economic growth by doing contract work for national department stores like Sears (Callahan 19-30, 68-90). More recently, the quilters of Gee's Bend have gained acclaim through a series of exhibitions of their work in prestigious art museums including the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. (2) In 2006, their work appeared on a series of official United States postage stamps.

Alabama also has produced famous individual quilters such as Mozell Benson, Nora Ezell, and Yvonne Wells. (3) Yet, where both Benson and Ezell learned to quilt from family members and began putting their skills to use in earnest during early adulthood, Wells did not come of age as part of these quilting traditions. Although her mother occasionally stitched together items into makeshift bed coverings, Wells explains that no one in her family had previously been a quilter. Moreover, Wells did not take up quilting until she was beginning to approach middle age in 1979, and was essentially self-taught in the enterprise. In fact, Wells worked fulltime for decades as a physical education teacher in the Tuscaloosa city school system until her retirement in 2000.

By the mid-1980s, Wells had added "story quilts" and "picture quilts" involving the use of cut-out applique figures to her repertoire of traditional piecing work. In keeping with her unusual route to the medium of quilting, Wells also sometimes incorporates unconventional materials that range from bits of metal and discarded clothing items to flags and fragments from pre-existing quilt tops. In 1985, with encouragement from friend and local art dealer Robert Cargo, Wells exhibited her quilts at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in neighboring Northport, Alabama. Originating in 1972, the Kentuck Festival attracts a wide variety of artists working in diverse media from across the United States and has developed a special reputation for the richness of its displays by folk and self-taught artists. Much to Wells's surprise, she received a "Best in Show" prize her very first year at the festival. Since then, her fame has grown exponentially, and her quilts have been exhibited in both art and history museums across the United States--from the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City to the White House--and around the globe from Japan to Italy. …