Powerful Impressions, Stitch by Stitch

Article excerpt

Quilting has traditionally been a woman's art in Western society. But New York artist Michael A. Cummings is changing all that. Mr. Cummings sews right in his home, an 1886 house in Manhattan, and stitches at a sewing machine in his drawing room under chandelier light. With a pair of scissors, he cuts yards of fabrics for images that depict stories of his life experience and his African-American heritage. Then he appliques them onto cloth backgrounds along with common objects like buttons, beads, shells, and sequins.

Originally, Cummings came from Los Angeles. He draws his inspiration from Africa, American folk art, and the great quilters of the South. His vibrant quilts have been hailed as works of art and a way to retell social history through folk tradition.

This month he fills the walls of the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, with bright, bold stitcheries that tell powerful stories of his culture and the diversity of his times in ways only a collage of objects and textures can do. The exhibition "Narrative Quilts" runs through March 20. The artist's selection of vivid visual images and fabrics works to convey his strong personal narratives. "Kitty and the Fireflies in the Bush, No. 11" (at right), for example, features a group of "characters" who help explain his story of being in Central Park for the first time. A wide band of floral upholstery is appliqued across his fabric canvas along with a green-beaded lizard, a dusty pink cat with a ragged tail, and fringed flickers of gold (a swarm of fireflies, of course). The quilt is composed variously of African prints, hand-dyed fabrics, glitter, and beads. A tribal mask peers out from under the cat. The contrast of colors, prints, and textures makes for an exciting display of reality in this provocative wall hanging. But are we sure we're in New York? What's the story? The artist replies: "On one of my first visits to Central Park with friends, I had my first close-up encounter with fireflies. …