MY ART STORY by

Sylvia G. Stephens

Hyattsville
Maryland

sylvia-stephens-alabama-soil-quilt-.jpg

Tall quilt with concentric rectangles in browns and red

"Alabama Soil." Quilt Size: 58 inches (W) x 81 inches (L). Photo by Sylvia Stephens

Mozell Benson, a 2001 NEA National Heritage Fellow, is my mother. Mama taught me to make quilts and is my inspiration to continue to design my own quilts and to teach family members and others to make quilts using her easy, efficient, improvisational style.

Mama taught me her traditional patchwork block quilting style as part of the Alabama State Council on the Arts’ Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. After learning to quilt from my mother, I have also taught other family members—my daughters, granddaughters, a nephew, and cousins, representing five generations—to quilt under the state’s apprenticeship program.

No matter where I live, I will always see myself as an Alabama quilter.

Three of my favorite quilts made using what I now call the "Mozell Benson 7-Step Easy Improvisational Quilt" are:

  1.  “Alabama Soil” Quilt. The “Alabama Soil” quilt was made from pieces of dirt-colored fabrics gleaned from my mother’s quilt studio. While doing research on the official quilt of the state of Alabama, I learned that Alabama also has an official soil and decided to make a quilt to represent that distinction. The quilt was donated to the Alabama State Council on the Arts and in 2011 was part of the exhibit Alabama Quilts: Stitched for Warmth and Beauty at the Alabama Artists Gallery in Montgomery, Alabama. It is also included in the Alabama Folklife Association traveling exhibit Alabama in the Making: Traditional Arts of People and Place.
  2. “L♥VE One Another” Quilt. This quilt is a “healing quilt” donated to the Auburn University Women’s Resource Center’s Healing Quilts Initiative in 2012. The collection of healing quilts, placed in community health-care facilities, feature words of comfort and the beauty of plants and flowers used in cancer treatment. The “The L♥VE One Another” quilt was as a tribute to my youngest sister, a breast cancer survivor. It is framed for permanent display at the Bethany House of East Alabama Medical Center in Auburn, Alabama.
  3. “‘O’, The Obama Logo” Quilt.  The “‘O’, The Obama Logo” quilt is a red, white, and blue patriotic quilt made to commemorate the election of President Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States of America. The quilt was part of the 2009 exhibit Quilts for OBAMA: Celebrating the Inauguration of Our 44th President at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Other inspired quilts include:

  • “Holey! Holey! Holey!” Quilt. An apprenticeship quilt, made from a dream and inspired by “Snowball,” a 1950s quilt by Lucy T. Pettway, after I saw it in the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Auburn University Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art in 2005.
  • “Prayers & Blessings” Quilt. A double-sided quilt Mama and I made and donated to Alabama Public TV for a public Internet fundraising auction; owned by Dr. Maude Wahlman, author of the book, Signs & Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts.
  • “Colors of Africa I” and “Colors of Africa II” Quilts. Two quilts made for Peace Corps volunteers Cherry Washington and Glenn Smallwood from fabrics collected in Africa.
  • “Mama Mozell” Quilt. The name I call a quilt made by my nephew, Christopher Anthony Harris, as a tribute to his grandmother/my mother while he was my quilting apprentice for the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

My mother’s traditional style of making patchwork block quilts is easy, frugal, and very liberating. Sometimes I make quilt blocks from dreams and thoroughly enjoy designing my own quilt tops. Today, as I continue to make quilt tops, I enjoy the freedom of Mama’s improvisational style but I also clearly hear her saying, “Finish your quilts, Sylvia!”

Red square quilt with letters L, V, E and the O as a heart

"LOVE One Another" Healing Initiatives Quilt. Quilt Size: 30 inches (W) x 30 inches (L). Phopto by Sylvia G. Stephens

Quilt with concentric retangular bands of red and black with a red and blue symbol in the middle

" 'O' The Obama Logo Quilt." Quilt Size: 49 inches (W) x 56 inches (L). Photo by Sylvia G. Stephens