Marion Coleman

2018 National Heritage Fellow and African American Quilter
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Tom Pich

Music Credit: “Annibelle June” composed by Abigail Washburn, performed by Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck, from the cd Appalachian Picking Society, used courtesy of the artists.

*Music Up*

Marion Coleman: When I had a quilt in the Bullock Museum in Austin, Texas, I thought, “So much has changed.” I could not have imagined as a little girl having my quilts in a Texas museum as a little Texas girl. It’s just like, for me, it’s exciting for me as it is for my mother and my grandmother and my great-aunts, you know, all the opportunities that they never had that have been afforded to me. So I am them and they are me.

Jo Reed: That is African-American quilter and 2018 National Heritage Fellow Marion Coleman and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. That is African-American quilter and 2018 National Heritage Fellow Marion Coleman and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Marion Coleman creates quilts of extraordinary artistry---that reflect her family and heritage, African-American history, and memory and community—all informed by Marion’s three decades as a social worker. She’s a narrative quiltmaker who tells her stories with fabric to which she might add paper, clothing, beads, buttons, and photographs to enhance and deepen the story she’s showing. She embraces technology to transfer photo imagery to the fabric itself—which she’ll then trace, and paint, or sew into imagery. She brings a personal and distinctive voice to story, history, portrait and abstract quilts—her work has been commissioned for various public art projects including health centers, youth facilities and libraries. It’s been exhibited around the country and throughout the world. Marion Coleman also spearheaded a highly successful multi-year, multi-location project called Neighborhoods Coming Together: Quilts Around Oakland…leading the community to create quilts about the people and city of Oakland. And Marion is deeply dedicated to passing along the art of quilting to young and old alike—believing in the power of story to build community and expand the individual…a philosophy rooted in a wonderful combination of her childhood in Texas and her adulthood in California.

Marion Coleman: I was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, but I have lived in California for 50 years. I grew up in North Texas with my grandparents and frequently traveled to Central Texas to see my great-grandparents. So I have lots of memories about that and my work shows that. I went to college at the University of California Riverside and was a social worker for many years.

Jo Reed: So tell me how you discovered quilting, how quilting came into your life.

Marion Coleman: Well, my story really begins with sewing, because you have to sew to quilt, and I started to sew when I was a youngster, 10, 12. My grandmother taught me. I’m a very tall woman. I’m 5’10” to 5’11”. I’ve been shrinking a bit, but anyway, my maternal grandmother and great-aunts always quilted, but my grandmother didn’t. So when I started to quilt in the ‘80s, I was fascinated by the import of African fabrics and I began to make traditional bed quilts, that type of thing, and maybe 10 or so years after that I became interested in doing what is known as memory quilts and story quilts. That’s where I’m actually talking about my own personal history and culture and the universal African-American history and culture, and recently have also been making quilts about social justice, social causes, and that relates to my social work background. Yeah. So it’s wonderful, it’s exciting. I’m driven by it. I’m often up in the middle of the night sewing, because my studio’s at home. I converted my son’s bedroom into my sewing studio, and it’s always full of fabrics and assorted things, beads, whatever I can stuff in there, books, and it’s a place of comfort and creativity.

Jo Reed: Did you quilt, did you grow up

Marion Coleman: Yes. We had quilts on the bed, but as I said, my grandmother didn’t make them. But I’m sure her sisters and her mother made them and gave them to her, because we had them on our beds and that’s how I started, making pieced bed quilts, and I still make them. I have an African bed quilt on my bed right now, because in California you can’t tell when it might be cool, even though it’s summer.

Jo Reed: So, you really branched out.

Marion Coleman: I did.

Jo Reed: And began to combine both traditional and contemporary quilting techniques. Tell me about you spreading your wings.

Marion Coleman: Well, that really started because I’m interested in history, and I think it was probably 2002, thereabouts, there was a call by the American Quilter’s Society to make quilts about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. So I knew that there was an African-American on that expedition, and I began to research it so that I can interpret that story in fiber. The African-American was the manservant of Clark, and his name was York. So I submitted it for jury and it was selected. When it was selected, that gave me the courage to keep trying for juried expeditions and so on and on it went, and then some time later, Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi had a call for quilts about jazz. So I used old photos of my uncle and my mother and other family members, like they were in a jazz club, and I made that, called “Saturday Night Rhythms,” and that was selected and so as they say, the rest is history. I just keep trying, and since that time I have submitted work for consideration for public art projects and I’m thankful that I’ve had a number of public art projects. That means that those are artworks that are in the public spaces like libraries or hospitals, government buildings and so forth. So my very first commission I made five quilts for the juvenile justice center that was being opened near my hometown, and so that’s a multipurpose building that has courtrooms and jail facilities and the mission was to make the space more human or warm. People are already under stress because they’re having to go see a judge or they may be going to jail or whatever, so I made quilts about families, parades, boys on skateboards, that type of thing, and it was really fun trying to think of what would work for that, and thereafter I actually began to teach juvenile boys and girls how to quilt and to think about their own story. So, quilting has sort of helped move me along. So I have these sort of dual paths of doing this social work through art.

Jo Reed: I want to be a little practical for a moment.

Marion Coleman: To make a quilt?

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Marion Coleman: Okay.

Jo Reed: How do you start? Just walk me through your process.

Marion Coleman: Okay. So there’s several process. So if you’re making a traditional quilt, let’s say a bed quilt, there are any number of patterns or blocks that have been used through time, triangles, squares, that type of thing, where you piece them or sew them together. That’s called piecing, and when you make the top, then you put a middle layer of batting and a backing, and when you stitch through all three layers, that’s known as quilting. So I am a machine quilter primarily, although I do all of my binding or edging of quilts by hand. Sometimes I do extra embellishments. I do all that by hand. Sometimes I do “C” stitching, that’s decorative stitchings, throughout the quilt, and I do that by hand. Now, in a story quilt, that’s when you have to think about which story you want to tell, and I always started with myself, where I talk about my own stories as a child growing up in the segregated South. I use old photos of my family, of friends, and sometimes I put them on a background of other materials that sort of fill in the space of the quilt and those are meant for the wall or public spaces.

Jo Reed: Now, when you say “use photos,” do you mean using the actual photos in the quilt?

Marion Coleman: I scan the photos and then I print them on fabric and that’s, that’s been fun to learn that whole process. So in terms of learning this craft, I was inspired by my Great-Aunt Corinne, and I have another aunt, Aunt Mary. These are my grandmother’s sisters, and they had old photos that they let me have and they shared with me their old quilts, so I looked at their technique in terms of sewing, and I think I was just personally driven to it. I didn’t know enough and worried enough about mistakes, so I just did whatever I wanted to do in terms of stitching them together, in terms of improvising as I went, and then I began to read about other African-American quilters. I am particularly, I’m an admirer of Nora Ezell. She’s also a NEA Fellow, I believe, and I read a book that she wrote, the sort of a diary that documented how many hours she spent on this or that or the other, and it was just interesting to see her work, and I thought, “You know, Marion, I bet you could do that,” and so it gave me courage to try to tell our stories. Oftentimes women’s stories, stories about people of color are under told, and I wanted to be able to fill in the gaps and I wanted to inspire young people that they could also tell their own stories, even when they’re in, undergoing, adverse circumstances, let’s say, like, in juvenile hall, or someone who’s been ill. Because I visit senior centers and those kinds of things. It’s just heartwarming because we all, we’re wearing clothes all the time. From the moment we’re born until the very end, and so this is just an instrument, another way that we comfort ourselves, and I know when I visit juvenile hall and I take in bags of fabric and you see young men and they’re tying it around their heads, they’re tying it around their waist, and, “I want a pillow,” or whatever. It’s an exciting field to be in and I’m happy that I’ve learned the craft and that there have been so many people who have been willing to help me.

Jo Reed: I’ve never seen work like yours.

Marion Coleman: Well, thank you. There’s so many fine quilters out there.

Jo Reed: Oh, I’m not saying they’re not.

Marion Coleman: Oh, I know you’re not. I’m just saying that I’m just-- that they’re inspirational, and I belong to the African-American Quilt Guild of Oakland, and I belong to the Women of Color Quilters Network, and all of those women and men, because there are a number of very fine men quilters too. You know, you look at that and you think, “You know, maybe I’ll give that a try.” You see a technique or some idea and, “If I could put my own swing on it to see how it works out,” yeah.

Jo Reed: Can we talk about a couple of specific cases? And this is one, and I’d just like you tell us the name and if you don’t mind describing it and then how you put it together.

Marion Coleman: We’re looking at “Trail Blazers.” It’s part of a series about black cowboys. I’m from Texas but I’ve never been on a horse, but I’m fascinated with the West, and so I started to attend the Black Cowboy Parade that’s held every October. As a matter of fact, it should be coming up and I visited the parade and I talked with a number of the cowboys and they agreed to let me take their photos and then I used it as a model for making the pattern. So on this particular quilt “Trail Blazers,” it has a mixed patchwork, random patchwork background, with two horsemen facing each other, and part of the fun of this was looking for as many different kinds of fabrics that would be interpreted as horses because they come in so many colors. So in this case we have one that’s sort of a dapple gray and white and the others are solid brown, and so you can see their rigs and their clothing and all of the kind of metalwork that might be on saddles or other parts of their cowboy rigs. There are five pieces in the series so far. I did one about “Buffalo Soldiers” and then I have one where a guy’s actually standing on the saddle called “Riding High.” So it’s been fun seeing the cowboys themselves were being playful and I wanted to make these quilts as playful as I remember seeing them when I went to that parade. So that’s “Trail Blazers.” It’s part of the Black Cowboy series. I use what I call free motion stitching. I don’t plan how I’m going to stitch it. I sort of do it as I go on my on my home sewing machine.

Jo Reed: Even though you’re making figures, you don’t plan it?

Marion Coleman: I do plan the pattern for the people and everything.

Jo Reed: Okay.

Marion Coleman: But when I’m stitching it, that’s when I’m stitching between the three layers. I’m not using a set pattern or design--

Jo Reed: I see.

Marion Coleman: --that you might find in a traditional quilt.

Jo Reed: I see, and I just got that visually, what you meant.

Marion Coleman: Right, mm-hm, mm-hm. Right. Yes, so in terms of the process, I usually use just like a plain piece of muslin fabric as my canvas and then I draw the figures. Now, in this case, I take the photos and I make a transparency so that I can project them using an old-school sort of projector to draw in the figures and then I fill it in like if I was painting it, only I’m using pieces of fabric. So the people often say, “Well, how long does it take you to make these quilts?” and I always say, “It’s the thinking about it that’s the longest, and deciding on the materials, getting that all together,” and then once I’m going, it’s like I’m always thinking about it, so I’m subject to get up in the middle of the night and sew some because I’m already thinking about it anyway. So it varies, depending on the size of the quilt and how complex, how many figures, how much action is actually happening in it. But it’s an appliqué process of putting those pieces in instead of stitching them together.

Jo Reed: And this is another one I’d really like you to talk about, because this has photographs in it.

Marion Coleman: Yes, it does. Full garments in it. Yes, so this particular piece I made and right now I made it in conjunction with a project with the Hayward Historical Society. Hayward is the next little town next to me, and we received a grant to document the stories of a part of Hayward that was known as Russell City. So in this case, it has a photo of what I call a juke joint, kind of a little black club, and it’s-- they called the club the Russell City Country Club, which is a play on words. But this has records throughout. I’ve stitched the names of blues musicians throughout, and it has a black party dress sewn on the top, another one of my thrift store specialties. But you see peoples dancing, and I have a blues singer on the left and it’s all in red, because those clubs often use kind of red, the red lights. So that’s it, this Russell City Country Club, and talking about the blues tradition in Russell City. Every summer they still have a Russell City Blues Festival that’s held in downtown Hayward, so this piece is in the Hayward Historical Society’s collection.

Jo Reed: I want you to talk a little bit about your work with the African-American Quilt Guild of Oakland.

Marion Coleman: I joined the guild probably in 2001 or 2, I think, and the rest is history. I was president of the guild for two years. I continue to be a member. I was exhibited here. We did a big project where we did stories about Oakland and we exhibited them in I think six or seven different venues throughout the year of 2016. I did one, of course, about “Trail Blazers,” the Black Cowboys. But I also made a quilt about I call it “Firestorm,” that was about the big fire that they had in the ‘80s in the Oakland Hills, and of course, we know since then there have been any number of big fires. But the guild itself is committed to doing community work. We meet once a month the fourth Saturday at the local library and once a year we have our Black History Month event where we invite community members to come in and make small quilts and we work with them one-on-one so they can make their own small quilt and take it home with them. We go out into the community and talk to schools and senior groups and junior colleges and so forth. So, we really try our best to continue to engage multi-generations in an art form and to keep it alive. We’ve been pretty successful. We’re often invited back each year to various venues, and it’s exciting for to see children when I take history or story quilts and they can say, “Oh, I know that person,” “I know this.” It’s a wonderful organization, and I’m glad I belong to it.

Jo Reed: And you helped head a project called Neighborhoods Coming Together: Quilts Around Oakland, and that was an exhibit of more than 100 quilts?

Marion Coleman: Yes.

Jo Reed: Whoo.

Marion Coleman: Yes. See, we received funding that allowed us to buy supplies and go out into the community and have community members make quilts. That’s how we ended up having as many as we did. We wanted them to be able to make them, exhibit them and then keep them. You know, take them home with them. We did a project with the Women’s Cancer Resource Center, where I know those women made over 20 quilts and 60 quilts themselves were made by guild members on various topics, various sizes.

Jo Reed: Where were quilts exhibited?

Marion Coleman: We started initially at the Oakland, City of Oakland, Rotunda gallery. Then we went to a local community gallery, went to Laney College. It’s a junior college in Oakland. Highland Hospital, which is a county hospital. So they were all over the place, and we were so excited to be able to see them, and I think it was just good. It encouraged community members to think about what they knew about their own community. That was our goal is for them to what story could they tell about their community? What story could they tell about themselves? Because they are the community, and that worked out quite well. Yeah. We were very thankful that The New York Times heard about that project and did a nice spread on us about that. Quilting is fun, and we’re trying to pass it on. Do you quilt?

Jo Reed: I don’t quilt.

Marion Coleman: Oh, well. See, you need to come to Cal--

Jo Reed: But I’m not dead yet!

Marion Coleman: No. You need to come to California.

Jo Reed: But I do love to embroider.

Marion Coleman: See, that’s a needle art. This is good. ‘

Jo Reed: Let me just ask you this. What do you think it is about quilting, or fabric art, that allows people to see or take in those stories in a way they might not if someone was just talking about it? Or if they were reading about it in the paper?

Marion Coleman: I think it’s because it’s touchable. You know, that’s the one thing that we’re always telling people. The natural tendencies to get up and touch it and feel it, because you can feel the threads moving through it. There are different types of materials, because people may mix cotton with something else. That’s one thing, okay, and I think if I say, “This is my story,” and I have a picture of myself in it as a little Marion or my grandmother, then they think, “Oh, yeah. I remember visiting Grandma So-and-So,” or, “Yeah. I remember when I was learning to ride a bike,” and that’s a story, but people say, “I can’t draw,” and I can’t. “But I might be able to trace a picture of myself and put it in fabric and cut it out and apply it to another piece of fabric,” and that’s something that I’ve made and I own it and I did it and I can have pride in it, and I don’t have to be scared about it, there’s a sense of freedom I think when you’re quilting. When you’re doing more arty story kinds of quilting, and even if you’re making patchwork, the improvisational quilters like Gee’s Bend, they show us that you don’t even have to worry about those lines aligning. You know, they can be free, and there’s something about that too that’s liberating and encouraging at the same time.

Jo Reed: Now, I know you’re really fierce about wanting to pass this along and making sure that you do. How receptive are younger people to learning how to quilt?

Marion Coleman: They’re very receptive. It’s exciting to see. We try to make them small enough projects that you can have some success. Because I think that’s the key to it is like if you can make a little one, then through time you may be able to make a bigger one, and on and on it goes. So we’ve been very successful in getting people to work in our workshops. In January I’m going to go to the high school, and I always just bring all my extra sewing machines. I leave them up there for a week, I let them play with them. I don’t worry about what happens to them. I bring extra needles, and they’re just trying their best and trying all those different colors, and I’m just fascinated to see what they come up with and, you know, just to praise them. “See, you really could do that. You don’t have to--” you can be fearless and I’m not going to be judgmental about it. You know, there’s the freedom that I’m trying to establish for any budding quilter, yeah.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Because you do. Your work is so contemporary, and you’ve taken this tradition and it’s as fresh as tomorrow.

Marion Coleman: Well, we hope so, because that’s how we continue to engage a new generation. It has its foundation and the tradition and we have to understand that. You have to understand about piecing and stitching and so forth, and then you really want the next generation to see how they can interpret it and move it forward so that you keep the foundation but you can embrace the new. It won’t be static.

Jo Reed: Yeah. It’s like jazz.

Marion Coleman: Mm-hm. Yeah.

Jo Reed: You have to know-- you need a foundation in music before you can just take off.

Marion Coleman: That’s right. You have to understand it, and so we try to talk about that in terms of stitching and hand-eye coordination, fine motor, that kind of thing, and that’s good for many things.

Jo Reed: When you’re teaching, what is it that you’re trying to impart to your students?

Marion Coleman: Well, I want them to know that they can be creative, that they can make mistakes and it’s still okay, everything is a journey. You know, that you can try this, explore it, keep going if it didn’t turn out. If it didn’t turn out the way you want it, make it over. You know, you have another chance. So it’s okay to make mistakes because we learn from our mistakes. Everything is not smooth and it’s richer actually when you have some ups and downs, because it gives you something to reflect upon in how you would change it. And if it’s not working, take a break and do something else and come back to it. Because I do that. I have a lot of UFOs, unfinished objects. You know, I start on it and I think, “Well, I don’t know if that’s quite right,” and so I have folded it up, and then I’ll come back to it, and then it comes together for me like I want it. So it’s like many things. You don’t have to rush through it and try to make it happen right away. Take your time, and that’s what I want people to see, you know, that you can surprise yourself. I say the quilts are talking to me. You know, they have a mind of their own sometimes. I see things in them that I didn’t necessarily plan, but that was the way it was supposed to be.

Jo Reed: Your work has been in museums around the world.

Marion Coleman: Yay. Yes, it has.

Jo Reed: Do you remember the first work of yours that was in a museum? Does that stand out for you? Because it would for me.

Marion Coleman: Well, I think more than in the first museum was the first time it was exhibited, so that was good. But thanks to Dr. Mazloomi, my work was in the Museum of the African Diaspora and lots of other places, and I think one of the most exciting places, of course, was the Underground Railroad and Freedom Center in Cincinnati. I was really so excited to have work there, and as a Texan, when I had a quilt in the Bullock Museum in Austin, Texas, I thought, “So much has changed.” I could not have imagined as a little girl having my quilts in a Texas museum as a little Texas girl. It’s just like, for me, it’s exciting for me as it is for my mother and my grandmother and my great-aunts, you know, all the opportunities that they never had that have been afforded to me. So I am them and they are me.

Jo Reed: I know it’s probably different for each quilt, but generally, what is it that you want people to take away when they see your quilts?

Marion Coleman: Well, I want them to be moved by it and I want them to think about their own lives and stories. I’m a storyteller and I use fabric to do it. So if they can think about their own stories, I’ll be happy or some other quilter will be happy to help them learn it if that’s the way they want to tell their story. I want them to think about the past and how they want to impact the future, because we all have a part of it. So, there’s a whole thing about thinking about family and memory. I’m committed to people embracing their past and thinking about what they want for the future.

Jo Reed: Do you think quilting can bring communities together?

Marion Coleman: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely, and all of these projects, let’s say, the Neighborhoods Coming Together, that was so well received. When that first exhibition opened, people were just hungering to come and then when we had those community workshops throughout the year. We started in January and it went until fall. We had very good turnout for people wanting to be able to participate in that and have something of their own where they could tell their own stories, yes. So it definitely brings people together.

Jo Reed: And you have won so many awards.

Marion Coleman: I’m a very fortunate woman.

Jo Reed: Tell me what receiving a National Heritage Fellowship means to you and to your community, to your quilting community and to your physical community.

Marion Coleman: It is, of course, one of the highest honors that I could’ve received. When my Congressman Eric Swalwell called to tell me, I was just crying. I was having a hard time being able to talk to him until I took some deep breaths, and I still feel that way periodically. It’s something that I could not have imagined, and for me, as I say, I’m doing it for all the other quilters who have supported me, that have helped me along the way, and I’m particularly doing it for my mothers of my aunts, because they lived in a generation where this would’ve been unimaginable. So it’s just heartwarming.

Jo Reed: And so richly deserved. Thank you so much, Marion. It was such a pleasure.

Marion Coleman: Thank you so much for having me.

Jo Reed: And congratulations.

Marion Coleman: Thank you so much.

Jo Reed: Your work is just fabulous.

Marion Coleman: Thank you. I appreciate that.

*Music Up*

Jo Reed: That is 2018 National Heritage Fellow African American quilter Marion Coleman. You can see Marion’s wonderful quilts at marioncoleman.com. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts, so please do and 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.

2018 National Heritage Fellow African American Quilter Marion Coleman is a story teller with fabric. Her narrative quilts depict personal stories, history, and portraits…from small nightclubs in Oakland to a series about Black Cowboys to the life story of the first African American woman pilot—Marion’s quilts create visual stories. She’s combines both traditional and contemporary quiltmaking techniques, using ceramics, whole garments, buttons, paper, and photographs in her quilts. Sometimes, she transfers photo imagery onto the quilt itself—which she then fills in with fabric. Her distinctive way of looking at the world is apparent in her conversation as well. Listen to the podcast and follow Marion from Texas to Oakland where she had a thirty year career as a social worker and became one of the most innovative quilters of her time.