‘Quilting to Change the World’

Beach Institutes displays exhibition of traditional, handmade quilts

The Yoyo quilt can be seen in the exhibition and was made by Ruth Brown of Hudson Hill Community Center. Photo by Brandy Simpkins
Savannah quilters are keeping the traditions alive.

The King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation’s Beach Institute and The African Diaspora Museology Institute partner to present “Quilting for a Better World: The Artistry of African American Handmade Quilts.”

“Quilting to Change the World” is currently on display until Aug. 29 after opening in May. Due to the realities of COVID-19, there was no opening reception, organizers said.

The exhibition curator, Tina Hicks, said the exhibition was cultivated in celebration of the women and men in the community who make the world safe, warm, and beautiful with their artistry.

Hicks said the exhibition is informed by a quote by the daughter of two civil rights leaders, Virginia Jackson Kiah’s: “Everybody can’t be fine arts artists, but they can learn the art of good taste, the art of improving their appearances and surroundings whether at home, school, church, community, resulting in a more lasting happiness, beauty and a better world.”

This exhibit features quilts from the collection of Willis Hakim Jones, quilts crafted by Gullah Geechee artists in the 1930s, quilts inherited from grandmothers, as well as the quilts of some first-time quilt makers who made their pieces at local community centers that help keep quilting traditions robust, organizers shared.

Hicks, a quilter herself, brought together the quilts and quilt stories of 10 makers who are the epitome of “better world” artists.

“Quilts are so warm,” Brown said. “They’re made to be used, and as gifts.”

Because Hicks works for the city of Savannah as a recreational leader for the senior services’ Golden Age Program, she said that it was simple for her to find the diverse selection of quilts from community members.

“There are a lot of quilters in Savannah,” Hicks said. “They are church members, in senior programs and there are many more quilters. All of these ladies I met from working at the senior center. That’s why I know where [quilts] are hiding.”

Quilts are functional in more ways than one. Some quilts were used as tools in the Underground Railroad. Hicks spoke about a portion of the exhibition called “Freedom Trail” where some quilts display “quilt codes” that carried messages.

The quilts would be hanging outside of log cabins as if they were only there to dry, but they would have a meaning. Hicks mentioned a quilt called “Monkey Wrench” by Rebecca Johnson and the meaning of such a pattern.

“Some quilts had messages during the underground railroad meaning, ‘get ready.’ When they see that quilt it means get ready because something is about to happen,” Hicks said. “The quilts would be something normal.”

Other quilts were made for families to bond and to pass down through generations. The many quilters of the exhibition told the stories of their handmade masterpieces and their traditions as they shared their quilts with Hicks.

“They are very proud of their work and they want to show it off,” Hicks said. “And I want them to show them off.” According to Hicks, Catherine Sullivan, mother of Ruth Brown, made hundreds of tiny patches to assemble the yo-yo quilt when she was attending Pooler Senior Center.

“She would tell me a story about how her father would build a quilting frame and in the garage in the car port and they would quilt all day until finish,” Hicks said. “And she would tell me about how her mother would sit on the porch and quilt.”

On another wall there are story quilts that tell stories that are dear to the curator. Hicks said she helped make some of those quilts herself.

One of those quilts was made by her older brother, Kevin Hicks, who she said she is exceptionally proud of. The quilt called “Noonie’s Quilt” is displayed with a letter by brother Hicks saying that he used to skip out on school some days, and his mother would tell him that she needs him to cut out some squares for her and she would tell him to keep cutting until she told him he could stop.

click to enlarge Noonie’s Quilt  hangs at the Beach Institute and was made by Curator Tina Hicks’s brother, Kevin Hicks.  Photo by Brandy Simpkins - PHOTOS BY BRANDY SIMPKINS
Photos by Brandy Simpkins
Noonie’s Quilt hangs at the Beach Institute and was made by Curator Tina Hicks’s brother, Kevin Hicks. Photo by Brandy Simpkins
The letter says, “Each time I didn’t go to school I was cutting squares. After bags and bags of squares she said it was time for part two which was sewing them together. My mother sewed the first one and I sewed the rest into what you see today.” Her brother said that though the times would frustrate him, today he sees the life lesson in it all.

“Community, family,” Brown said. “That was what it was all about.”

Visitbeachinstitute.org for more information about the quilt exhibition.

About The Author

Brandy Simpkins

Brandy Simpkins is a born and raised Savannahian and an alumna of Savannah Savannah State University where she received her B.A. in English Language & Literature. Simpkins enjoys writing more than anything else in the world. She is a curious journalist, an astute essayist, and captivating spoken-word artist...
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