As an artist who writes books for children, I spend some of my time each year visiting schools where a frequent question from students is, “Where do you get your ideas?”
My answer is simple. “Art.”
Sometimes that art is in the form of words found in books or poems or magazines, or on the internet. More often, that art is found in museums or other public displays. This happened with my book of poems The Color of Lost Rooms (Blue Rooster Press, 2010), in which many of the poems are written after pieces of art that hang in Washington D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts. But no single museum exhibit has impacted my life more than the 2002 Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City.
When I walked through those rooms I was overwhelmed by the vibrant reds, the denim and the corduroy, and by the stories told by each stitch and scrap of fabric. I found something achingly familiar in the voices of these women from my home state, and yet their art reflected a life foreign to me, and their stories spilled love and pain and forgiveness and beauty. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
What if your community was so remote and isolated that it didn't have a doctor, and your mother was seriously ill? What if you were black and you saw a white person for the very first time? What if you thought the whole world was just like what you saw from your front porch, and then you found out it wasn't? What if you wanted to make a quilt and there wasn't a fabric store just down the road, and no money with which to buy fabric anyhow. How would you create that quilt?
That afternoon at the Whitney changed my life. I was filled with empathy and delight and wonder—the hallmarks of any great art experience. Eventually I wrote a children's novel Leaving Gee's Bend (Penguin, 2010), and since then I've been able to visit schools all over the country to share with them the quilts of Gee's Bend. And my artist-life expanded, too—I became a quilter. In 2011, I completed the quilt a month challenge, during which I made quilts mostly out of scraps—housetop variations and bars and stripes, improvisational pieces in the Gee's Bend tradition. I connected with quilting groups and listened as community members shared their own family quilts and the stories behind them.
That one afternoon in November 2002 set me on an unexpected journey that continues to bring joy to my life and to the lives of others. And as the quilters Mary Lee Bendolph, Lucy Mingo, and Loretta Pettway travel to Washington, DC in October to receive National Heritage Fellow honors, I will be lifting my hands in praise of this art and its makers. What a gift to the world. I'm proud to be an ambassador of Gee's Bend and hope that in some small way I can deliver to others the beauty I've been privileged to experience.