Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi

Quilter, Curator, and 2014 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow for Advocacy in the Folk and Traditional Arts
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Gale Zucker

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. Lately, maybe because it’s a cold and gloomy January--I’ve been thinking a lot about the art of quilting  and how people create beautiful patterns and narratives from pieces of cloth and the result is a piece of art—that warms your body as well as your spirit. I’ve been fortunate to interview many fabric artists during my time at the Arts Endowment, including the 2014 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow for Advocacy in the Folk and Traditional arts, quilter, curator, and author Carolyn Mazloomi…. And it seemed like a good time to revisit my 2015 interview with this artist and advocate.

Carolyn Mazloomi: I firmly believe that creating art and folk art, which I call “The People’s Art”, by ordinary people, which has the capacity to affect the spirit, not all, I really feel that work is spirit driven. When you create a piece that has touched the heart, spirit, and soul of a person that’s looking at it, it no longer belongs to you, no longer belongs to the maker. It belongs to the public at large. 

Jo Reed: Carolyn Mazloomi creates quilts that tell stories of the African-American community and its history: from Billie Holiday and jazz to the march from Selma to Montgomery.  Dr. Mazloomi uses needle and thread to show the extraordinary diversity and spirit within the African American community.

Quilts aren't her first love.  Oddly enough, airplanes are, and Carolyn Mazloomi has a Ph.D in aerospace engineering to prove it.   But once she discovered quilting, she embraced it wholeheartedly.  Her work has been exhibited in galleries around the country.  Dr. Mazloomi also curates exhibits of African American quilts, and she's written many books about the art form as well, including the influential Spirits of the Cloth.  And as that isn’t enough, Carolyn Mazloomi is the founder of the Women of Color Quilter's Network: an organization created to protect the quilters and their quilts.   She is an artist with a mission who shines her light on the art form of quiltmaking and its reflection of the African American community.  It’s little wonder that Carolyn Mazloomi was awarded the 2014 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow for Advocacy in the Folk and Traditional arts.  I sat down with Carolyn when she came to Washington DC to receive her award. Here's our conversation:

Jo Reed: First, again, congratulations.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Thank you.

Jo Reed:  Can you tell me about your upbringing?  Where were you raised?  What was your childhood like?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  I was born in Baton Rouge and a very simple childhood.  I was a very quiet person and very much the bookworm and concentrated more on my studies and reading, and not so much extracurricular activities, but just a good student and always I loved books and reading. 

Jo Reed:  Were there quilts in your life when you were a kid?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Not really.  I had my grandmother who had a quilt on her bed, and I don’t know who made that quilt, but that was my only recollection of a quilt.  So, other than coming there and seeing that one quilt, I can say really I didn’t grow up with quilts.  Nevertheless, I have come to love them.

Jo Reed: You loved airplanes. 

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Yes, I do. 

Jo Reed:  Can you talk about what it is about planes that just inflamed your imagination?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  First of all, the mechanics and the design.  I think it’s just the greatest invention of all time to have a machine in flight, and I’ve always been fascinated from a child with airplanes, always.  And from a young child, I knew one day I would learn to fly; I knew one day I would be somehow involved in doing something with airplanes and it just so happened I married an aircraft engineer as well and we both have that in common. Our family, our family and airplanes. 

Jo Reed:  You have a PhD in Aerospace Engineering.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Yes, and I came along at an era when getting an education for me, it didn’t cost that much and these opportunities presented themselves to get advanced degrees and through a scholarship and I didn’t have to pay.  So, of course, I took advantage of that. I’ve always said I’ve had many careers, I’ve had many interests and I continue to have many interests.  So, along with the airplanes and along with that education, I became interested in quilt making.  I became interested in the art.  I became interested in quilt history, and that continues to this day.

Jo Reed:  Do you remember when you first became interested in quilting?  Was there a particular quilt that you saw?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Yes.  I became really interested in learning how to quilt after I saw a quilt at the International Trade Market in Dallas, Texas.  I, at that time, owned a gift shop and went there to buy merchandise for my store and it was a time when the Appalachian Cooperatives had first started selling their quilts wholesale to the trade and I was walking by a dealer’s showroom and I saw this traditional American patchwork quilt.  It was patchwork in the middle and it had an eagle in each corner, an appliqued eagle and it just stopped me in my tracks, and I think that’s the lure of quilting and quilts.  That quilt just called me and just said, “Okay, touch me.  Feel me,” and we as quilt makers know we’re not supposed to touch the quilts, but we’re the worst offenders.  It’s something about the cloth and our connection as human beings to the cloth.  This is something we’re swathed in from birth.  It’s the last thing that touches our body in death.  So, we have a lifelong love affair with the cloth.  You can’t get away from it.  You can’t deny it.  So, seeing that quilt started this journey.

Jo Reed:  Did you go out and buy quilting material and get to work?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I left Dallas and I came back home with a determination to learn how to quilt.  Unfortunately, I could not find any classes at the time.  So, I just got a “how to” book and I taught myself how to quilt. 

Jo Reed:  How were those early quilts?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Terrible. My first quilt was a simple nine patch quilt and I had this “how to” book and I wanted my quilt to be an authentic American quilt.  I wanted cotton batting and I couldn’t find any cotton batting at the time.  I could only find the poly bat, which was really popular back in the ‘70s.  So, I went to the drug store and got the first aid cotton.  For those people that are my age and older, over 65, they’ll remember the Red Cross cotton in the box and you get a little pad of cotton about maybe four by four inches and I got boxes of that and I kept running out of it and I would have to return to the pharmacy to get more of these boxes of first aid cotton.  And finally, one day, the pharmacist stopped me in the store after I don’t know how many trips to get this cotton and he told me; he says, “Dr. Mazloomi, I hate to interfere in your personal life, but I have to say whoever in your home is sick, I think you should get them to the hospital right away.”  So, that was my first experience making a quilt and then I really didn’t follow the directions and prewash everything and I washed it after my little kids got it dirty and dried it in the dryer and the middle of the quilt stands up like an egg.  And it looks quite three-dimensional.

Jo Reed:  You were ahead of your time.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Hey, you know.  So now, I just pay my kids not to show anybody that quilt, but I’d like to think I’ve improved a little bit.

Jo Reed:  But, it sounds like the passion you had for quilting was there right at the first one.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Anybody involved in quilting, I guess in any hobby, it becomes an all-consuming entity, you know.  It’s like breathing.  It’s inseparable.

Jo Reed:  What’s your process for making quilts?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Well, I keep diaries of my thoughts and my dreams and I refer back to those diaries when I get ready to design a quilt.  And I can see it in my head.  The quilt design depends on the story I’m trying to tell and I work on more than one project at a time, several actually at a time, and I will draw the piece out first, draw the images. Each individual quilt determines the process.  So, it can be either appliqued, painted, or stenciled and I work exclusively in black and white now.  I started out making black and white quilts.  So, I’ve dabbled in other designs and what not.  However, I find that I don’t like using a lot of colors in my quilts.  I love black and white.  I like the drama of it.  I like the simplicity of it, and those two colors become a part of my story.  I look at life, everything is black and white, everything.  Everything from me is pretty much cut and dry with the story that I’m trying to tell.  And then, the work reminds me of linocuts and I collect linocuts.  So, I’m happy doing the black and white.

Jo Reed:  You mentioned telling a story, and that brings me to your writing about African American quilting, You've written that's there's a great diversity of quilts in the African-American community, but there really seems to be a focus or a lot written about one, and that's the improvisational quilt.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Yes. Within the African American quilt community, you find a variety of quilts. We’re not just relegated to making improvisational quilts. I’m very happy to receive the Heritage Award and come here and talk a little bit about those quilts because, prior to this time, I noticed that most of the honorees in the quilt section, you know, they’ve been traditional quilters leaning towards improvisation.  That does not describe the depth of what can be found in the quilt community, in the national African American quilt community.  Improvisation is just one type of quilt, and when you survey all of the quilts within the community, you’ll find that that’s just a tiny percentage.  It’s less than one-percent this improvisational quilting.

Jo Reed:  Can you explain what that is?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Improvisational quilting means to make a quilt without benefit of a pattern or a design.  It’s free-hand cut.

Jo Reed:  And you think that there’s really an overemphasis on the improvisational quilts that African Americans create?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Definitely.  The variety of quilts found within the African American community are just as varied as we are people. You can find art quilts, traditional quilts, folk art quilts, as well as improvisational quilts. You can find narrative quilts, abstract quilts: everything you would find in the white quilt community, you can find in the African American community. The only thing that sort of separates it is the spirit, the spirit with which it’s done. The spirit makes the difference. The colors make the difference. The story makes the difference. I collect and specialize in narrative quilts and we own our story. No one can tell our story like we can tell our story. That sets us apart because it’s a unique story to African American culture, African American history.

Jo Reed:  You also curate exhibitions of quilts and you curated one that opened very recently. What’s the name of it?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  “And Still We Rise”. Raise culture and visual conversations. It’s a traveling exhibit and it traces 400 years of African American history, from 1619 to present day and what I did for this show was create a timeline of events that were unique to African American history, that impacted our history in some way as to inflict a major change. And it’s an extraordinary exhibit of narrative quilts.

Jo Reed:  Carolyn, why this exhibit? Why “And Still We Rise”, focusing on African American history?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  It’s easy, I feel, to learn about history through visual arts as opposed to reading. Statistics show that most Americans don’t necessarily get their historical information from reading. So, I thought it would be an easy fix to put this visual survey, historical survey together to talk about African American history and events that have impacted us and created the exhibit also to let people from outside of African American culture know about the contributions to American culture by black people and what are some of the trials and tribulations that black people have gone through that have shaped our lives and, hopefully, the exhibition can start a conversation as well about race relations in this country.

Jo Reed:  I wanna just stop you right there Carolyn, because I really would like you to address the ability of art to start these conversations, to, not just to instruct people, but to move them.

Carolyn Mazloomi: I firmly believe that creating art and folk art, which I call “The People’s Art”, by ordinary people, which has the capacity to affect the spirit, not all, I really feel that work is spirit driven. When you create a piece that has touched the heart, spirit, and soul of a person that’s looking at it, it no longer belongs to you, no longer belongs to the maker. It belongs to the public at large.  It’s a teaching tool. That’s what the quilts are in “And Still We Rise”. Each one is a powerful tool to impact the viewer in such a way as to make them stop and think.

Jo Reed:  How did you organize that exhibition? Are you doing it by period, by concept? How did you approach it?

Carolyn Mazloomi: The Exhibition is divided according to the era in our country’s history. There’s one section that is devoted strictly to the Civil Rights movement. Powerful quilts.  During the time the show was up at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, I would sometimes just go and sit and watch people walk through that show to see their reactions to the piece.  And sometimes, I would go and speak with them, especially young people because so many of them, so many young African Americans don’t know their history.  They don’t, and it’s eye opening when I talk about the quilts and tell them the stories.  And many of them just don’t know and they just don’t understand, and I’m with them in that particular section and I explain the quilts and I ask them a simple question, “Would you put your life on the line for freedom?  Can you do that?”  I believe it was Maya Angelou that once said, “Every young African American has been paid for.”  This is such a true statement, such a true statement.  They’ve been paid for by the struggles of so many people that have come before, that have enabled me to get an education and be who I am today and my children.  So, I ask, “Would you be willing to put your life on the line for freedom?”  That’s a powerful, powerful statement and it’s a powerful gift that the freedom workers, freedom marchers have given to young African American people and they can see that in that time line and this exhibit.  And to me, as a curator and as an artist, it’s important that the exhibition has something important to say that’s of value to humanity.  It’s important to make a statement to educate people, to make them think.  

Jo Reed:  Do you think that’s one of the reasons you tend to work in a series and you do a series?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Definitely.  Most definitely.  I’m doing a series now about disadvantaged children around the world.  I just finished a piece about Syrian children that are working, picking potatoes on farm.  They’ve been displaced, their families displaced and their circumstances are dire and anything that concerns children and women concern me.  Every other quilt I make deals with the status of women, the most important human beings on the planet.  They have the most important job as first teachers of their children.  It’s the most influential position on the planet because we influence every human being on the planet, women, women.  Our job is not easy, but it’s the most important and sometimes, the most overlooked. 

Jo Reed:  No argument here. You founded in 1985 the Women of Color Quilters Network.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  Tell me about that.  What was lacking?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  I founded the Women of Color Quilters Network in order to educate African American quilt makers not only about the cultural significance and the history of quilt making, but also to educate them about the monetary value of the quilts because I saw at that time, in my travels, quilts in art galleries and the galleries were asking enormous sums for the quilts and the quilters were just giving them away because they had no monetary value attached to them.  That’s not fair.  So, if you’re going to sell your work, you need to know what the work is worth so that you can get a fair price for your work.  At the time I started out, we had cooperatives popping up all over the United States of quilt makers.  So, you had many women making their living making quilts.  So to me, it’s important that you know what the quilts are worth.

Jo Reed:  How many members are in the network?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  There are 1,700.  Approximately 1,700. 

Jo Reed:  You sometimes represent women when collectors are calling and they’re looking for quilts.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Yes.  I have many times sold quilts on behalf of network members or facilitated sales on behalf of network members, yes. I charge nothing for that. 

Jo Reed:  And in fact, all the money you make you put into the network.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Yes.  After 30 years of trying to get a grant, we’ve just got a great from the NEA.

Jo Reed:  Whoo.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  A $30,000 grant from the NEA to do the catalog for “And Still We Rise.”  Like many grassroots organizations, money is very difficult to come by and I, in the last 30 years, have, with one other network member, underwritten all of the cost for the network.  I write the books.  I publish the books.  I underwrite the exhibitions.  We’ve had nine major touring exhibitions and I’ve underwritten all of them over the years.  For me, I feel, that’s my mission, to carve out a piece of American quilt history for African American quilts.  That’s important.  It’s important for me to know that African American quilts have a presence in American quilt history and it is documented as such.  It’s important.  It’s important to me.  It’s important to my children, their children.  We are a part of history and that should be duly noted.

Jo Reed:  you quilt, you write, and you curate exhibitions and, that’s a lot of balls to be juggling.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Definitely.  Curating an African American made quilt show is difficult.  Finding the quilts and asking people if they would agree to loan me those quilts for two or three years while these quilts are traveling, it’s difficult because they didn’t make the quilts with that in mind.  They made the quilts for their family or friends or church.  They weren’t thinking about a museum show.  So, that’s a whole education all unto itself, and it is ongoing. 

Jo Reed:  You’ve written extensively about quilt making and probably Spirits of the Cloth is one of the best known.  That was a very influential book. Can you talk about that book?

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Well, it was the first book ever written on African American quilts that encompassed all styles, contemporary, art, traditional, and improvisational.  So, it broke ground in that way.  Since that time, I’ve written several books and actually, the books served as catalogs to touring exhibits on many topics, jazz, women’s history, African American history. So, that documentation is important.  We have to document what we do.  I don’t curate any show without writing a book, but Spirits of the Cloth was the first and it laid the groundwork for what was to come.

Jo Reed:  And this summer, you were in South Africa.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  I curated an exhibit, co-curated with Dr. Marsha MacDowell an exhibit that opened in Johannesburg.  I did not go for health reasons.  I couldn’t go, but 80 network members did go, and that was one of the dreams of the founding members of the Women of Color Quilters Network, to do a quilt show in Africa and travel to Africa.  So, we’ve gotten that off our bucket list.  And the show celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela.  Half of the quilts, 40, came from the United States and half came from South Africa.  I curated the half that came from the United States and Dr. MacDowell curated the South African portion and it was just filled with spectacular works of art to celebrate a great man’s life, spectacular works. 

Jo Reed:  You were given the Bess Lomax Hawes Fellowship.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Yes.  Its exciting to be recognized for doing something that I so love.  But in receiving this award, it also calls attention to the art of the African American quilt maker.  That’s even bigger for me, calling attention to the art form.  So for me, the award is really for every African American quilt maker that has ever put needle to threat to create a quilt.  It’s about them.

Jo Reed:  Thank you so much.  I really appreciate you giving me your time, and many congratulations for a work so well done.

Carolyn Mazloomi:  Thank you.

Jo Reed:  Thank you. We were revisiting my 2015 interview with the 2014 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow for Advocacy in the Folk and Traditional arts, quilter, curator, and author Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi. You can keep up with her at  carolynlmazloomi.com  where you can find out about her more recent work,  including the exhibition and book, “We Who Believe in Freedom.”    You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow Art Works wherever you get your podcasts and then leave us a rating on Apple, it helps people to find us.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

 

 

In this 2015 podcast, National Heritage Fellow Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi takes us through her own history with quilts and quilting. She discusses her first career as an aerospace engineer and then her discovery of quilts, especially African-American narrative quilts. She talks about her own process for quilt-making, her work as a curator--including the exhibit of narrative quilts And Still We Rise, which traces 400 years of African American history, her founding in 1985 of the Women of Color Quilters Network, her determination to carve out a place for African-American quilts in American cultural history, and her ground-breaking book. Let us know what you think about Art Works—email us at artworkspod@arts.gov. And follow us on Apple Podcasts