Academic journal article Studies in Art Education


Academic journal article Studies in Art Education


Article excerpt

In July 2010, I made a trip to Sebring, Florida, to meet with a collector I met during one of my Florida Humanities Council talks on folk art. Some of her works were exhibited in the gallery where a reception was held after my presentation. Betty Ford-Smith's collection is focused on Haitian, African, and African American art. Intrigued by both Betty and the objects that were displayed, I envisioned an exhibition of Haitian art that would demonstrate resilience, spirituality, and Haitian ways of living in the world. Given the recent earthquake, it seems especially important to understand Haitian culture, as many outsiders help rebuild this devastated country.

I quickly realized that one long day would not be enough time to see Betty's vast collection and that I didn't have the expertise and educational background to understand many of the objects. What I did understand, however, was that her artworks spoke to her about the ways in which people of African descent use objects to negotiate their spiritual space in the world. Often that negotiation focuses on establishing a participatory space of beauty.

Betty's objects all have stories connected to them. In the process of collecting artworks, she experienced Vodou rituals in Haiti and danced to drums in various African countries. Her interest in the spiritual beliefs embedded in objects made by people of African descent was inspired by her father, mother, and great-grandmother from South Carolina, whom she often traveled from her home in New York to visit. The Civil Rights Movement, part of the social landscape at the time, was also influential. As a child in the 1950s and '60s, Betty understood that her great-grandmother had special powers that were passed down through the generations. These powers were both feared and embraced by neighbors.

During and after the visit, Betty and I began making a plan for a Haitian exhibition that would explore, among other things, where Haiti's source of power and resilience comes from. But in doing so, another artist's work In Betty's collection began to stand out to me, and Betty also could not stop talking about her. I continued to think about this artist well after my visit.

This elderly African American quilter named Arlean Dennis - or more simply, "Miss Sue" - was a Sebring resident whom Betty had befriended. Miss Sue, who recently passed on, had lived an extraordinary life. Born in Quincy, Florida, she grew up on a farm and learned from her mother to quilt and make clothes. Her father taught her how to make moonshine. She and her family moved to Georgia, and in her adult years, she married and had 1 2 children. She lived through a lightning strike, a car accident, several surgeries, and a murder attempt during which she shot and killed the man who stabbed her in the head!

Betty apprenticed herself to Miss Sue, who was well into her 90s, in order to learn to make a pine cone quilt. Betty was clearly taken by this unusually strong woman whose great passion in life was to sew. I, too, found her hand-sewn quilts beautiful, but even more exciting to me were Miss Sue's dresses. She would purchase old dresses from thrift shops, remove the bodice from the skirt, and then sew different sections back together, creating a look that boldly claims an African aesthetic of clashing colors and patterns. In re-crafting these dresses, Miss Sue performed an artistic piecing-together that Eli Leon refers to as affirming "an innovative process that originates beyond the conscious domain and is basic to improvisation" (Leon, 1987, p. 24). In other words, Miss Sue knew that there were no mistakes to be made with patterning. In fact, mistakes, misjudgments, and unexpected challenges can make the finished product even more compelling. Or as one Dagomba drummer once said to one of his students, "Every mistake is a new style" (in Leon, 1987, p. 24). Because Miss Sue's dresses are worn, they have a function in everyday life. Many of us can imagine Miss Sue, or perhaps ourselves, wearing these mixed-matched, (and from an Anglo perspective) extremely vibrant patterned creations. …

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