Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The "Portraits" Project



Various Images of my grandparents in Pensacola, Florida during WWII in the 1940s, as well as various vintage family photos taken in Montgomery, Alabama beginning in the 1950s that inspired my Portraits Project in Art quilting

The Portraits Project

My second solo art quilt exhibition entitled “Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris” has been very exciting to develop as a follow-up to my first, “Portraits from Montgomery to Paris,” which debuted at Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama July-September 2008 and was also featured at the Carol Tatkon Center Art Gallery at Cornell University in 2011. Four pieces from this show were also featured at the Mairie du 5e in Paris, and two at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in the city when I was invited to the city as a “Cultural Envoy” by the U.S. Embassy in France for the Paris opening of its national quilt exhibition, “Un Patchwork de Cultures,” under the sponsorship of a grant from the U.S. Department of State in its Speaker Series. Selected works from this show have also been featured in several other places, including a 2009 exhibition on “Black Debutantes” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

The body of quilts from “Portraits” are the subject of the short film by Anne Crémieux and Géraldine Chouard entitled “A Portrait of the Artist”(2008), which was shot on location in Paris, France and highlighted an interview with the scholar Patricia A. Turner. Pat Turner also discusses the “Portraits” project in her book Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters. Quilts from “Portraits” are also featured in Lauren Cross’s film The Skin Quilt Project (2010).

Already, works from “Portraits II” have been in circulation. In January 2009, the very first quilt produced on the road to this new show, which features President Obama, was first presented in Paris, France prior to the inauguration in the U.S. and went on to appear in Roland Freeman’s “Quilts for Obama” at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. for most of that year. It is also featured on the commemorative poster for this monumental quilt exhibition, which went into two encores, including a final encore on request of the Congressional Black Caucus and the mayor of Washington, D.C. My quilt featuring Michelle Obama was added to the final encore of “Quilts for Obama" that began in September 2009. The Obama quilts that led off “Portraits II,” as well as those featuring Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison, were also featured in the exhibition at Cornell University at the Carol Tatkon Center Art Gallery. The production network for “Portraits II” is hard at work and very excited about the new show opening in January, 2015 and aims for it to be featured in several venues.

“Portraits” included four series in all, including “Family,” “Paris,” “Political” and “Hollywood.” Smaller series within the “Family Series” include series entitled “Wedding,” “Baby,” “Self-Portrait,” “Education,” and “Debutante.” Portraits II continues to develop all of the foundational series and incorporates several more, including “Black History,” “African American Literature,” “Alabama Women,” and new versions of “Daughters of Africa” and “Delta,” which I began in the early 1990s. The “Portraits” project recalls May Day celebrations in Montgomery, Alabama dating back to the 1950s, as well as Easter parades, school programs, and birthday celebrations. It recreates debutante portraits from the 1970s to the 2000s. In the process, it captures a side of black life, particularly in the U.S. South, less frequently discussed. As the curator Georgette Norman describes “Portraits” in the 2008 catalog for the show at Rosa Parks Museum, it “draws on aspects of Montgomery and Civil Rights history, but focuses on family showing the dignity and beauty that always existed . . . Portraits
. . . captures in new form family photos and memories, and also treats political and cultural figures from Martin Luther King to Scarlett O’Hara.“

The words “new form” well speak to the approach that I take to quilting, as do my comments at the opening of the film “A Portrait of the Artist,” which mention my goal of “pushing quilting as far as I can, so that even the question, ‘what is a quilt,’ is ultimately raised.” All of my quilts usually include at least one feature that is challenging to pull off; I refer to them as “special effects.” I once made a casual and offhand list of the eclectic features that constitute my mixed-media quilting style above and beyond the foundational fabrics. They include hats, jewelry, shoes, fingernails, ribbons, eyelashes, synthetic hair, orthodontic braces, buttons, safety pins, boas, fruit, beading, flowers, glasses, mirrors, and ties, among others. The quilts for the new show expand the body of special effects that I incorporate and take my architectural “three-dimensional” quilting style and the notion of the “built quilt” in some new and quite exciting directions. I draw all of the images on my quilts by hand and paint them with fabric or acrylic paints; I do all of the quilting by hand.
Many people describe them as “quilts unlike any I have ever seen before.” Below is a comprehensive listing of the works that so far make up my multi-year “Portraits” project in art quilting, which I began in 1999 and by the time that it culminates in 2015, will have been developing for over 15 years.

Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris (2015)

from Family Series #2, Including Baby and Children, Education, Debutante and Self-Portrait Series, and 5 installations (the show features 8 installation-style quilts in all)

1. “Debutante Daddy: Joe Richardson Presenting Daughter Pamela Richardson As a Debutante in National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter Cotillion, Garrett Coliseum, Montgomery Alabama, Spring 1976” (Joe Richardson, b. July 11, 1915 and Commemorating 100 Years in 2015) (Debutante Series). Installation-style panel 1 of 3 (Composition 2011- )

2. “Debutante Pamela Richardson Presented by Father, Joe Richardson, at National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter Cotillion, Garrett Coliseum, Montgomery Alabama, Spring 1976; Escorted by Ricky Ross” (Debutante Series) Installation-style panel 2 of 3 (Composition 2011- )

3. “Debutante Mama: Emma Richardson, Mother of Pamela Richardson in National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa Debutante Cotillion, Garrett Coliseum, Montgomery Alabama, Spring 1976” (Debutante Series). Installation-style panel 3 of 3 (Composition 2011- )

4. “Jo Ann and ‘Junior Man’ II: Cowboys at Christmas.” Installation-style quilt
Special Thanks to T-Shirt Express for Screenprinting Background Photographs (Composition 2009- )

5. “Pam as Booker T Washington May Day Queen” (Composition 2009- )

6. “Joseph and Mary as Booker T Washington May Day King and Queen”(Composition 2009 - )

7. “Riché Deianne Richardson: Easter Sunday at Maggie Street Baptist Church in Junior Vogue Dress #1 of 3 in All” (Composition2011-)

8. “Riché Deianne Richardson as Jr. Gayfer Girl in 1983 at Age 11 and Dressed for the Group Photo, the First Event after Graduation from Poise-Charm Classes at Gayfers Department Store (formerly Montgomery Fair) in Montgomery Mall"(Family Series, Education Series, Self-Portrait Series) (Composition 2012-13) Special Thanks to T-Shirt Express for the T-Shirt Design and Production

9. “’Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes!’: Keri Diamond Smith and Megan Chereé Smith, School Days at St. John-Resurrection"(Family Series, Education Series)
Installation-style quilt (Composition 2005-12)

10. “Keri and Megan: Pink Dresses and Homemade Birthday Cake” (Composition 2011- )
Bea: Remembering 30 Years in Elba, Alabama as a School Teacher (Family Series, Education Series)

11. “Riché Deianne Richardson: On Profile in the State of Alabama” (Self-Portrait) (2011-

Political Series

12. “Obama Time: Always (Congratulations, Mr. President!)” (Composition 2008-09)

13. “The Magnificent Michelle Obama, Our First Lady: ‘Strength and Honor are Her Clothing’(Proverbs 31: 25)”(Political Series) (Composition 2009)

14. “Mary McLeod Bethune: One of America’s Greatest Sweethearts and the World’s Best Leaders”(Composition 2012-)

15 "Clarence Thomas’s High Tech Lynching?: Inferior Court Justice to Be"(Political Series) (Composition 2002-12)

16. "Condoleezza Rice: From Birmingham to the White House" (Alabama Women Series, Political Series) (Composition 2011- 2012)

Civil Rights Movement Series

17. “Rosa Parks, Whose ‘No’ in 1955 Launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Was Heard Around the World”(Commemorating 100 Years, 1913-2013) (Civil Rights Movement Series, Black History Series, Alabama Women Series). Dedicated to Georgette Norman (Composition 2006-12)

18. “Johnnie Rebecca Carr, Leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association” (Also Black History Series and Alabama Women Series). Dedicated to Annie Bell and Benjamin Beasley and Alma Lee Jordan (Composition 2012- )

19. “E.D. Nixon: Father of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Civil Rights Movement” (Black History Series) In Memory of E.D. Nixon, Jr., a.k.a. “Nick LaTour” (Composition 2012- )

20. “Angela Davis Free and Standing Against a New Form of American Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex” (Black History Series and Alabama Women Series) (Composition 2011- )

Paris Series

21. “James Baldwin” (African American Literature Series) (Composition 2012- )

22. “Richard Wright” (African American Literature Series) (Composition 2012- )

23. “Audrey Tautou as Amélie”(Composition 2011)

Hollywood Series

24. “Charleston's Finest: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler" (Composition 2006-12)

25. “’Bope’: Bo and Hope: All Days Always” (Celebrating the History, Beauty and Work of Daytime Television)

26. “Dorothy Dandridge Playing Carmen Jones” Installation-style quilt
(Composition 2012- )

27. "A Defiant One: To Sidney Poitier with Love” (Composition 2012- )

28. “The Marvelous Marilyn Monroe” Installation-style quilt (Composition 2011 - )

Black History Series

29. “Daughter of Africa, Mother of African American Literature, Another American Revolution” (Black History Series, African American Literature Series, & New Daughters of Africa Series). Dedicated to Honorée Jeffers (Composition 2010-12)

30. “The Great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: ‘I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday’; Birthday Unknown but Celebrated February 14” (Black History Series) Dedicated to Class of 2009, Suger High School, Saint-Denis in Paris, France Installation-style quilt (Composition 2010-11)

31. “Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison”(African American Literature Series) (Composition 2010)
“The Vision of W.E.B. Du Bois”(Composition 2012- )

32. “The Talent of Michael Jackson” (Composition 2011- )

Delta Women Series

Delta Family Quilt: Pamela Garrett
Delta Family Quilt: Riché Richardson
Delta Family Quilt: Megan Smith
Delta Family Quilt: Keri Smith
“Adrienne Lance Lucas and Son: Celebrating Delta Leadership, Legacies and Love”

***An art quilt featuring President George W. Bush is also now included in the show. May opt to add additional works or to omit some pieces.

Portraits from Montgomery to Paris(2008)

from Family Series #1, Including Wedding, Graduation/Education, and Debutante Series, Three Installations, and Artist Self Portraits

1. "Sunday Afternoon on Palafox Street in Pensacola, Florida during WWII": Emma Lue
Jenkins Richardson (Composition 1999-00)

2. Sunday Afternoon on Palafox Street in Pensacola, Florida during WWII: Joe Richardson (Composition 2000-01)

3. "JoAnn and 'Junior Man': Easter Sunday, Montgomery, Alabama, 1954"(Installation)(Composition 2001-04)

4. "Pam's Graduation from Kindergarten at Mrs. Drake's"(Installation) (Composition 2005-08)

5. " JoAnn Richardson: Graduation Picture at Booker Washington High School"(Composition 2005-06)

6. "Joseph Richardson: Graduation Picture at Booker Washington High School"(Composition 2006-07)

7. "Pamela Richardson: Graduation Picture at Jefferson Davis High School"(Composition 2005-08)

8. "The Honeymooners: Celebrating 47 Years: Emma Richardson"(Composition 2005-06)

9. "The Honeymooners: Celebrating 47 Years: Joe Richardson" (Composition 2005-08)

10. Riché Deianne Richardson: Graduation Picture at St. Jude Educational Institute of 'The City of St. Jude' (The Last Camping Place for Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers in 1965) Self-Portrait (Composition period. Special Thanks to Dr. Kelly Gianetti for Sterilized Orthodontic Appliances (Composition 2005-06)

11. Riché Deianne Richardson, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 1989" Self-Portrait (Composition 2006-08)

12. "Keri Diamond Smith, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 2004"(Composition 2006-08)

13. "Megan Chereé Smith, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 2006"(Composition 2006-08)

from Paris Series #1

14. "Playing Venus Hot to Trot?: Josephine Baker"(Commemorating 100 years, 1906-2006)(Composition 2001-05)

15. "Remembering a Dutiful Daughter: Simone de Beauvoir" (Commemorating 100 years, 1908-2008)(Composition 2004-07)

from Political Series #1

16. "The Ties that Bind: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy"(Composition 2002-04)

17. "A Tie, Too?": Malcolm X" (Composition 2002-04)

from Hollywood Series # 1

18. "Playing 'Mammy': Not Hattie McDaniel!"(Composition 2006-08)

19. "Sweet Scarlett?: Vivien Leigh Playing Southern Belle"(Composition 2006-08)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Reflections on Roots and the Remake





Roots taught me about the meaning of race in America. I remember watching Roots nightly with my entire family the week that it aired on television in January, 1977 and was five at the time. The plight of Kunta Kinte confused me and made a profound impact on me from the very beginning. I remember asking my mother questions such as, “Why does he look so sad?” and having her explain that he had been kidnapped and taken from his home and family, a horrifying thought to me. When I asked her “Why can’t he go home?” she explained that he couldn’t because his home was across the ocean. Similarly, I remember being so upset and angered by the beating scene in which he refused to accept the name “Toby” that I rolled up a section of a newspaper and used it to “beat” the open door of my grandparent’s bedroom as the family continued to watch. From that point on, I totally got it, didn’t need to ask my mother any more questions, and had instinctively understood what race meant in the U.S., including the devalued status of African Americans. In my childhood, I very much experienced Roots as the primary teaching tool that clarified for me the meaning of race and slavery in this nation’s history.

After reading Roots and Queen, my uncle made detailed family trees for both productions, and also underscored Alex Haley’s family’s linkages to Ithaca and Cornell when I first arrived here. Over the holidays in 2012, the BET Network’s airing of Roots and Queen, which are both based on the family histories of Alex Haley, introduced these works to a new generation and underscored their continuing relevance. I was thankful to witness their powerful impact on two of my cousins, young women who are in their twenties, who were seeing them for the first time. The original Roots is a canonical work in television history and will be tough to follow. Remaking it for more contemporary audiences in a digital age and with newer resources and techniques, including new technologies that are now available for the production process, will be valuable. For example, the makeup techniques for aging characters were definitely passable but were not very advanced in the original television series. I will always cherish the original, but it will be interesting to see the new production and how it measures up.

Roots opened the door to studies of African American genealogy in which many African Americans are now increasingly invested. In recent years, this movement has been spearheaded by the work of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Harvard. Within the first half hour of joining Ancestry.com in 2006, we were able to trace our ancestry back to my great, great, great grandfather born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1795 and discovered the twin dynasty he originated and that had passed down the names “Isic” and “Ben” among the twin boys across several generations. I learned this and exclaimed that “It’s a story as great as Roots!” For the births of these twins were obviously cherished and anticipated from generation to generation. We have now traced our roots as far back as 1758. Some members of my family, like my grandmother, have also taken the 23&Me and Ancestry.com genealogy tests.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Homework of Art



By Riché Richardson

I originally drafted this editorial piece last December on request from a regional business magazine, which focuses on my perspective as an artist from a business standpoint and as a business woman.

I once described myself as a person who mainly works as a university professor and moonlights as an artist. My weekday hours are dedicated to meeting the demands of my work as a professional in academia where the goal is excelling in the primary areas of evaluation and review, which include research, teaching and service. Even during periodic stretches of time on sabbatical leave when teaching and service are not expectations, writing assumes center stage and consumes a lot time. Yet, because having a space to nurture interests unrelated to my academic agenda is crucial, I have had to carve out time to also be productive as an artist. Maintaining a well-equipped home-based art studio and doing my work as an artist effectively from the space of home is a must.

I made my first mixed-media appliqué art quilt as a senior at Spelman College in 1992. I continued to make art quilts as a graduate student in the 1990s at Duke University and when I joined the faculty in the University of California system. In California, my art studio was a corner in my living room. Because of my steady pace and rhythm of art production, by the time that I went up for tenure in 2004, I had also developed a body of art work and was invited by the director Georgette Norman to do my first solo show at Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama in 2008. My quilt portraits project is grounded in family quilts featuring my grandparents, Emma Jenkins Richardson and Joe Richardson, during their years of living in Florida during World War II.

Since 2008, I have been on the faculty at Cornell University where I have continued to excel as a professor. I have also begun to establish a reputation as an art quilter whose work has been documented in books and films. It has appeared in national exhibitions from “Un Patchwork de Cultures” in France to “Quilts for Obama” at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. The former opportunity entailed my being brought to Paris in 2009 under the auspices of a grant from the U.S. Department of State as a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. Embassy in France in its “Speaker Series,” and honored with a talk, exhibition, film screening and reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in tandem with the exhibition’s Paris opening.

I have been able to produce a substantial body of quilts by working steadily for at least two hours primarily on Sundays after church. I first established this pace and rhythm when I spent that window of time reading the Bible in a year as a graduate student. My work sometimes spills over into other periods during the weekend, or inflects some weekdays during my summers off. My art studio makes my art projects accessible and allows me to maximize my work time.

As my art project developed and on the road to my first solo show, I released several complimentary print cards primarily for the purpose educational outreach, which also necessitated collaboration with a photographer. When I lived in California, the photographer for my first show, Keith Stevenson, would periodically visit my high rise condominium apartment in downtown Sacramento and shoot my quilts on the balcony, which was another way in which the work related to my quilts unfolded at home. We scheduled a couple of photo shoots at his apartment in Berkeley facing the Golden Gate Bridge. We even did a public photo shoot on the campus where I worked, UC Davis, during Black Family Weekend and permitted film students to document it. The print cards are fun to produce and have received an enthusiastic response, which makes me optimistic about possibilities for seeking a deal to market, distribute and sell them for profit, along with other merchandise, for my unique quilt portraits. My goal is also to open my own art studio and gallery for purposes of community outreach, and to establish an art production company that tithes 20% of any profits to support community interests. Quilters such as Carolyn Mazloomi and Kyra Hicks are among the people who inspire me in the field. Similarly, I admire Faith Ringgold for her famed quilts and wise business example.

So far, the exposure that I have received as an artist has blessedly come without even working with a publicist. Yet my project could not have ever reached the success that it has reached at this point without the contributions of a committed production network whose work has also overlapped and been highly collaborative. Patricia A. Turner’s regular trips to my apartment in California to document my work as a quilter for her book first introduced me to Keith’s photography and her interviews established the groundwork for my later appearances in documentary films. Filmmakers Anne Crémieux and Géraldine Chouard showcased Keith’s photography in their film about my art. I have learned a lot from witnessing their expertise in film and photography. I have also learned by working with various curators.

Over time, as my art career has developed, it has definitely also been necessary to do a lot of homework in building my literacy about business, a must for the wise artist. Since living in California, I have kept a portfolio outlining my business plan in detail, as well as diligent records, so that I will be prepared when the doors open to the right opportunities. In 2007, I had to decline the opportunity to be represented by an art dealer who sells the work of major African American artists, and who wanted me to draw my images on paper instead of fabric, my fundamental and foundational medium. I have faith that I will meet the right one at the right time. In art as in everything, I am confident that walking by faith, keeping my project pure, maintaining its integrity, and making the right choices will guarantee the best and most meaningful kind of success.

Remarks at My Aunt's Retirement from Kindergarten Teaching

Sunday, July 7, 2013

I am Rachel Jeantal: Travyon’s Friend and a Talk on the Way to Heaven

By Riché Richardson

For this third blog post on the Trayvon Martin case, to follow up my two from last spring, I want to focus more on black female subjectivity through his friend Rachel Jeantal, to whom he was speaking on the phone before George Zimmerman took his life. Please be forewarned that this is a longer and more personal post than usual and is really more of an essay. By the end, I think readers will understand why. Like a lot of others, I have been concerned about the propaganda that has unfolded about her since her testimony at the Zimmerman trial, propaganda related to her body, voice, demeanor, language and nationalities. I had no problems at all following her verbal-and non-verbal-communication styles, and grasped her phrases like “coulda hear” that the defense seemed intent on distorting and misreading. I loved her interjections of statements such as “you can go,” and “are you listening,” which made me feel all the more that she is entirely sincere. Moreover, the questions raised related to her literacy obscure the chronic neglect in the educational system for black youth like her. The condescending and dismissive readings of her have been very unfair, especially when I think of how problematic and ridiculous it is to make judgments about whose testimonial voices have validity and who is “fit” to represent blackness. Rachel Jeantal, too, is American.

Why is the tendency to ignore the beauty, dignity and voice that she possesses, and to insistently script her in relation to the grotesque instead? Is making fun and joking the only way that some people can deal with the diverse array of black female bodies that might conceivably become legible in the media and attempt to claim voice? When Lolo Jones made fun of Ms. Jeantal and tried to construe her as a caricature by invoking Medea, the moment seemed to recast the interplay between Toni Morrison's characters Maureen Peal and Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, in which Maureen shouts at Pecola, “I am cute!” Ms. Jones seemed to have totally forgotten that article in the NYT last year where it seemed that her public image was being mocked, devalued and under assault, in a way that I found to be offensive and that was also deeply hurtful to see, especially as another black woman. That is the kind of thing that can happen in our hyper-visible media culture, no matter how one sounds or looks. When analyzing the politics surrounding Ms. Jeantal, a character like Sapphire’s Precious, who has been powerfully rendered on screen by the director Lee Daniels, may come to mind when thinking of the issues of literacy, the scrutiny before state power and certain body politics that have emerged, but even that narrative would fail to account for how utterly captivating, mesmerizing and engaging she was as a platonic friend to Trayvon, to the point that he called her and called her; the siren metaphor, in the sense embodied by Angelina Jolie, can only capture Rachel's beauty, attraction, power and distinctly alpha femininity in that sense. And once she offered her testimony, many people were utterly riveted, glued to their television screens, and as captivated by her as Trayvon was!

I feel that it is crucial not to lose sight of the tragedy that this young female high school student has endured, and the courage that she has shown in the face of it. I have also heard a lot of speculations about “the community” that Ms. Jeantal comes from and queries related to “who she is.” Some people are acting as if she comes from an entirely different species, and as if only the most standard and formal uses of English language are acceptable or admissible in public forums, which is ridiculous in a nation as diverse as the U.S. In the end, none of these factors should impact the public’s ability to relate to her testimony. I am astonished by raced and gendered perceptions suggesting that the jury will not like her and would be incapable of hearing and relating to her testimony. I do understand why an almost all-white and female jury could very well end up feeling that way. I can only speak for myself. As an adult black woman who was educated in private school, who grew up in federated clubs and organizations, who was a student leader, who came out as a debutante, who is a Delta, and who earned a Ph.D, I certainly do not feel that any differences are dramatic in a way that would make her too different and other for me to grapple with or to even talk to and comprehend.

As I continue this dialogue, I want to describe an experience that has helped me to understand and identify some with Rachel’s. I had a call before a friend went to heaven, just as Ms. Jeantal did. So I knew where she was coming from in describing all the complex feelings that she had in the aftermath of losing Trayvon, and recognize the sadness, pain and trauma that linger in her. Rachel Jeantal has been invisible, misunderstood and dismissed by some in the course of her testimony about Trayvon. The pain I was experiencing after losing a friend was entirely invisible, unrecognized, unseen and ignored in the context of the university.

On April 11, 2004, Easter Sunday night, a girl friend I had first seen when we were ten and our respective Girl Scout troops shared Trinity Lutheran School as a meeting place, with whom I ate lunch at the same table among our other girl friends every week day of high school for four years, and who had remained in Sacramento where she had been stationed in the military, called to wish me Happy Easter late that evening, around a quarter to nine. It was like her to reach out on holidays. Weeks earlier, I learned that she had even come downtown to visit me on Valentine’s Day back in February, but I had been away in Mississippi at a conference at the time. So the last time I saw her was one August evening in 2003. It was a Saturday evening on which I needed to stay in to do work when she called me about getting together and going to this new popular restaurant/lounge in the tourist area of Old Sacramento, and so she said she’d just come by to chat for a bit. She brought me a set of scented candles as a gift. I wasn’t dressed that evening to go anywhere, and I wasn’t in a mood to put on anything or even go anywhere, but she looked great all dressed up and had also gotten her hair done earlier that day. At one point during her visit, we caught the fireworks from the Sacramento River standing out on the balcony of my apartment, which was three blocks from the capitol. At one point, she asked me if I had a camera. When I said I did, she asked if I’d take her picture in this amazing animal print outfit she was wearing, so I did. All of the cheerleader in her came out in the dynamic pose she struck, with her arms stretched out as far as possible on either side, and a beautiful smile.

With busy schedules, we didn’t always talk very often, and sometimes weeks or months went by between conversations. I had stopped calling and allowed her to do the calling once she moved in with one of her church members months earlier, because I felt uncomfortable and somewhat awkward calling and asking to speak to her at someone else’s home. She may have also called me that Easter Sunday evening because she had seen (i.e. via caller ID) that I’d tried to get in touch with her that Friday afternoon after attending an exciting Stations of the Cross ceremony at the church at St. Francis Terrace in Sacramento, but hadn’t reached her. When I had called that afternoon, someone at the woman’s home where she was staying hung up in my face, which had seemed peculiar. I thought I had the right number written down, but suspected that it must have been wrong. The first thing I did when she called was to ask her if I indeed had the right number, and to read it to her, and she verified it as correct. Then, I asked her if she was still staying there alone, and she said, “No, the lady of the house is back, and her grandson is here.” She mentioned that they’d come from the East Coast two days earlier. I was actually relieved when she said she was no longer there alone, for she’d “house sat” for months for one of her church members far out in a suburb of Sacramento called Antelope, which I’d never been to. She had once invited me to attend a picnic out there for the Fourth of July, but I told her that it wasn’t right for her to take a friend to someone else’s home, and that I’d be all right spending it alone. I did high rise living downtown in Sacramento, and worked in Davis, so life for me basically revolved around commuting by bus back and forth to my job, and doing things in downtown and midtown, or antiquing and going to the mall and fabric stores now and then in Woodland. I’d seen the place on base she lived in when I moved from Davis to Sacramento and we reconnected in person. I had never met the woman she lived with, in spite of my open invitation to my friend to bring her downtown to my apartment sometime for a visit and for lunch if she liked. I wondered why this woman did not seem to be the least bit interested at all in meeting my friend’s friend, especially one who was a university professor and lived downtown. I was sure that my friend had told her all about me and mentioned my invitation. I even mentioned my puzzlement and disbelief over it to my mother when she visited me in California the week before (“I wonder why the woman she lives with is not interested in meeting me?” "That’s so odd."). The woman had lost a daughter our age, 32, the year before, and it was sad when my friend described what happened. At the same time, I had wondered to myself if she was emotionally ready to have another young woman around and so close to that age like my friend, and had inwardly wished that my friend lived somewhere else.

After my friend left the military, I saw the second of her two apartments, which she decorated with a beautiful pink satin bedding ensemble and a leopard sofa cover. Her large CD collection was also nice. She decided to leave the first one because of noisy neighbors who lived above her. It did not help that she was in the parking lot walking toward her car one day and a white woman at her complex just mumbled something and walked up to it and spat on it, which is infuriating whenever I think of it even now. She had left California for a while, but loved living there, and when she returned a few months later, she decided to live at the home of one of her church members and to take her time in settling down again. In that sense, she seemed to be doing everything right.

I was playing my Blind Boys of Alabama CD that Easter Sunday night when she called. We talked about a lot of things. I told her about the mass at St. Francis and the giant wooden cross passed throughout the audience. We talked a while about the recent film The Passion of the Christ, which both of us had seen. I told her that I was going on a trip to Philadelphia soon. “Oh, Philadelphia,” she said. I mentioned that I was preparing for a lecture on Frederick Douglass in my African American literature graduate seminar that Tuesday. She wanted to revisit a point that she said had come up in one of our prior conversations and overviewed aspects of the history of the Roman Empire and Constantine, which reflected her very profound knowledge about church history. She mentioned that one of her dreams was to go on a cruise, and that she’d treat me if I came as well, but I insisted on paying my own way if we went. At one point, I heard something in the background, like a voice, that got her attention; she asked me to hold on and stepped away to check on it, and then returned, but said nothing about what it was. Something stopped me from mentioning anything about the guy I was dating at the time, because for some reason, chatty “girl talk” just seemed out of place that evening, though I’d told her about him several months earlier, including that I was “falling in love,” which she enjoyed hearing after many failures to ever get me to talk about subjects like the kind of wedding I’d like someday. In a phone conversation one Friday evening a few years earlier, when we were in our late twenties, she had once described her fantasy to me of a wedding ceremony with the NBA player Chris Webber, which in retrospect, I am deeply thankful that she shared. She had so many dreams, including marriage and children, and wanted those things like a lot of young women. I had had my crush on him in the early 1990s, but she is, I’m sure, one of the sincerest and most devoted fans that he has ever had. Indeed, she once sent me a beautiful photo of herself posing with Chris Webber at the annual Dinner with the Kings, which she tried to talk me into attending, because she felt strongly that with my tall height, “You could really attract a player!” It was flattering and amusing to have a friend who believed in me that much, and who was always so supportive of all that I was doing in general. For example, when our spiritual mentor (to whom she first introduced me in 1993) asked me where I’d pledged Delta, she proudly recited all the information before I could even say anything. She is one of the best friends that I have ever had, and I cherish that she had even come to regard me as her “best friend.”

Once when we talked in the fall of 2003, she was also reading different books and excitedly told me about various titles she’d been reading, such as Michael Eric Dyson’s most recent book. My dream for her was to see her attend divinity school. She was one of my favorite people with whom to dialogue about spiritual matters. The most serious debate we ever had was one about whether a person could lose their salvation. As one of the best Christians I have ever known in my life, she was adamant that it was possible to be blotted out of the Lamb’s Book of Life. I argued that if that was the case, then Jesus died in vain. That outlook didn’t make sense to me. A few days later, I was surprised to get a letter in the mail from her outlining her perspective, a letter indicating that while she had taken mine into consideration, she could not agree with my argument. I mailed her a copy of Rev. Charles Stanley’s book Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure? When she finished it, she called me to tell me that she understood how sure and secure her Christian salvation is. She had first talked to me about her faith in tenth grade, a time when I had flipped over her belief that women could go to hell for even wearing pants. This moment in her walk, in her acceptance that there is absolutely no way that one can lose the gift of eternal life once one’s faith is professed, was also powerful to witness. And she had professed her faith and become a committed evangelist of it and was witnessing to her peers before most people in our generation were thinking seriously about those matters. She is one of the best and most devoted Christians I have ever met in my life.

I am not sure how long we talked that Easter night, but the Blind Boys CD played twice before we hung up. The next morning, I thought about what she’d said about the cruise, and all the work I needed to do, but decided that I’d make time anyway and go along with her since that was her dream and she seemed to be so excited about it. That Monday evening, I went see my tax preparer. I gave my lecture on Douglass that Tuesday as planned. I remember crossing Capitol Avenue that evening and thinking of things that I still needed to tell my friend, and things I’d forgotten to mention that Sunday. I felt comfortable with my work, and with my life, even happy and thankful for everything, including good friends.

When I got to my apartment, I had a message from our mutual spiritual mentor, who told me to call her. She asked me if I was sitting down, and then told me that my friend had been murdered. I was in disbelief, and told her that was not possible, that I’d talked to her two days ago, at Easter. She described what happened. I looked for any information I could find in the news and saw the brief story about a young woman being stabbed multiple times while taking a bath, and that a suspect was in custody. It was unthinkable and unbelievable.

There didn’t even seem to be a way to classify accurately what had happened. Domestic violence was not an adequate descriptor, in the sense that her life was taken by someone who was mentally ill, whom she did not know and had met just two days earlier. This man in his early twenties was a stranger to her. She'd had no idea that she was in the midst of a person who was unsafe to be around.

I attended her service and spoke during the reflections. The service was beautiful. She would have been deeply touched by how powerfully her home church community celebrated her life, and by the sermon. My remarks described her as a “Saint.” Just as girl friends seemed to, our spiritual mentor’s son and I seemed to have recognized the trace of what she must have experienced in her final moments, and standing there after the service, where we waited as the processional drove off to her burial, he said he wished he could “beat him up.” It struck me as a distinct and specific coping strategy for a guy, for it hit me that doing so had never once occurred to me as a woman over those days. That's not to say I didn't imagine it; I wished I'd been there instead. People tend to perceive me as a nice and sweet person, but she was definitely far sweeter, and didn’t seem to ever get angry at all, so I just wished it had been me instead of her he had come up on like that in that bathroom, like I wished I’d been the one in that parking lot that day. She just quietly wiped it off, but I might not have been able to turn the other cheek as quickly as she did in this situation, and may have even threatened to call the police on the woman, pointed out to her that she’d just left her DNA on my car and said that it could be used as evidence against her if I decided to press charges. When I heard about it, I definitely wished that woman had come up on the type who would have dealt with what she did in that “I KNOW you did NOT just SPIT on MY car!” way.

It was unbelievable that by the time I gave that Douglass lecture, my friend was gone. I was utterly traumatized. It hurt to pass the bench I’d been sitting on after I’d gotten my taxes prepared. To have the conversations play back in my mind, like my Monday morning thoughts about that cruise, or my thoughts as I crossed Capitol Avenue that Tuesday evening without a clue in the world about what had gone on. It pained me to pass the St. Francis apartment building I’d told her about and urged her to consider moving into, because it always made me wonder what could have been. The pain was there whenever I passed by any of the restaurants we’d ever gone to. A tub of water I once dreamed of also registered the trauma. It hurt to even hear Antelope mentioned on the news in traffic reports. The trauma was just that deep. I had no sense of where the area was, and how truly far out it was, until two years later, on a trip to a retreat with the university, when we passed through that area on the way out of the city. He had never been anything but kind to me, in spaces like the lobby and elevator, but I must admit that I felt relieved when I spotted some golf clubs over on the balcony of the African American guy in the apartment next door to me, in the weeks after I’d overheard him and his wife arguing one night. I was left almost shell-shocked, and there were certain words I could not stand to hear, as well as subjects I could not bear talking and hearing about. All I could say to myself was “I don’t know, I just don’t know.” I wondered for a whole summer “how could this have happened?”

Early in the new year, a male friend called me and I seemed so giddy that he asked, “What’s happened to you? Why are you so happy? Did you get a call from Harvard or something? I told him “No, it’s better than that.” I had been so lighthearted that spring and imagined that I had finally met “my Destiny.” The experience of losing my friend was as jarring and as shocking as standing at the end of the wedding aisle and having a shot fired right down the middle. To receive yet another sweet note, but to say that the plans are off for now, and to put life on hold. To not even be sure I wanted to live any more, to wish I, too, could die, and to at the same time feel absolutely terrified because of what had happened to my friend. A new novel by Thulani Davis describing a similar experience of losing a friend was a great comfort to me, as was the minister’s sermon “Watchman, What of the Night?” at church that summer.

Life for me was never the same again, and never will be again. That experience made it utterly impossible for me to ever trust life again. I totally lost my ability to trust most people, especially older black women I didn't know like the woman she had trusted and lived with, who was said to have run next door to call a relative (not even the police!) and left my friend in the house at the mercy of her mentally ill grandson. Every conference that I attended and every talk that I gave was a miracle during that time. Being alone in strange cities and even something as simple as stepping out into the hallway at a hotel alone made me uncomfortable. I never had to. My mother and college roommate from freshman year met me at conferences in Mississippi and Atlanta, respectively, and slept in the bed with me. The guy I was seeing took off his job to meet me in several cities for others that year. When I went down, stood and spoke with charisma, and in my typical style without notes and introduced a panel on civil rights photography at a major conference in 2004, only my mom and a top scholar/ mentor in the audience I’d told about what happened to my friend truly knew and understood what it took to do that in front of a huge audience and the intense pain I was still feeling as I spoke. Another close girl friend also told me about the loss of one of her former professors at the hands of a student she had mentored, who was infatuated with her, became enraged when he saw her at a Valentine’s party on campus with another man, stalked her home and decapitated her. Then had gone out and killed himself. That tragic story was also sobering and terrifying and underscored the lack of safety, even in university settings. My friend said that one does not know who students are all the time either, or what some could be capable of, and made me promise her that I would not ever have them over again to parties at my home, which she knew I sometimes hosted at the end of my graduate seminar. And I didn’t, not for another five years.

I have kept my filters tight and my circles very small since then, and am okay with that. Even now, I tend not to have social interactions with people I don’t know. It has been an uphill struggle to feel safe with black women who were not already friends, or who are not family, and for months, it took a long time for me to get beyond the image of a woman running out to save herself as my friend was brutally murdered by a grandson she brought there, and who had not even called the police, but called a relative. The police drove up, and the paper said that he was just standing out in the front yard holding a bloody knife. From the day I learned that, I have kept my distance, been entirely my own woman, and accepted that not every woman in this world can be my sister or my friend. I have definitely come a long way over these years, in terms of the healing process, in the sense of being able to be at least a bit more open now in ways that the thirty-three-year-old me was absolutely incapable of being after this tragedy happened, and that would have been absolutely out of the question for me. I insisted on having Thanksgiving dinner alone in 2004.

Only faith and prayers helped me through this very difficult period. God got me through it and also broke my bonds with certain people. You really learn who your friends are. I mean, if a person can hear that someone suffered a tragedy like this, and then not give them as much as a phone call to see how they are doing, then they are not much of a friend; there’s really not much to say for them anyway. “Great Is They Faithfulness” was the song He wrote on my heart. Indeed. “All I have needed thy hand hath provided.”

For several months, I got a few cards in the mail from people I didn’t know, and I appreciated how they reached out. I presumed they came from some of the members of my friend's church. One day when I went to my office, I found a message on the answering machine from one of our mutual old friends, and we talked. I paid no bills between April and June, but finally, realized that I’d have to pull it together or end up with my utilities turned off. It helped, too, and I was pulled back to reality, when a friend and reporter had left a message on my phone one day I got back from campus telling me that “It is time for us to talk about this.” She wanted to do a news feature story on my friend, and so I put her in touch with a member of my friend’s family and our spiritual mentor. (I shared some of my reflections on her in the foreword to the remarkable book by our mutual spiritual mentor entitled Come Inside: Discovering Your Purpose, which is available on Amazon.com). In general, her story needs to be told and celebrated by the people who knew her and have a sense of what a special and remarkable person she was. Cheerleader. Class valedictorian. College graduate. Military career. Her beautiful laugh. Her laughter. Her beauty. Her profound and devoted Christian faith. She wrote a wonderful essay for an anthology that a friend and I were co-editing in the early 1990s. I still have a copy of it, and will be sure to post it at some point, which will be especially inspiring, I think, to all the people who knew her. I also posted that great picture on Facebook one day, because I know she would have wanted her old friends to see it.

It hurt so deeply that the wonderful and well-meaning news story about my friend by this outstanding reporter, that included interviews with some of her family and her mentor, which sounded lovely and thorough, and like a wonderful and appropriate tribute to a remarkable young black woman, was not picked up and included in the paper. It hurt that no follow-up to the brief article that didn't mention her name ever appeared in the paper acknowledging who she was and the loss of a truly beautiful person. I am not sure that I was the very last person she talked to as she made her Easter calls, though I have always imagined I was. It seems like whoever investigated what happened to her was unconcerned. There was very little information about what happened to her, and I knew very little myself. And to this day, I have also never heard what happened to the person who did it, or if he even ever went to trial and jail or was institutionalized. The media has never mentioned anything about it, and after they first reported the incident, again, never followed up with a mention of who she was or where she came from. That the fine article written about her was not published felt like a slap in the face, and reminded me, yet again, how devalued black women’s lives and experiences can be by the media. This phenomenon accords with what Rebecca Wanzo describes in her book entitled The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling. I heard of a similar failure in Northern California to report on a crime against a young black woman in the media in more recent years, and it took me right back to the case with my friend. It may be that because they felt they had their man, nothing else needed to be said about it, or my friend.

I can’t even describe the numbing feeling of standing in front of a classroom for the first time in the aftermath and looking out at a lecture hall of students, hoping and praying words and reality would find me again; my graduate TA let the video we were playing run for longer than planned, sensing the difficulty of the moment for me. Otherwise, on campus, I was on my own in all of it. A friend in Southern studies and his wife met me in Montgomery to attend my cousin’s debutante's cotillion that next Saturday, I flew cross-country back to California that Monday just to teach my Tuesday graduate class, and cross-country back to Montgomery that Wednesday to attend my friend’s service that Thursday. I didn’t ask my department for any special favors and teaching days away, and no one can ever say that it did anything to make things easier or better for me during that time, because that just didn’t happen. The bureaucracy on my job went on. I was very prepared for tenure review by then, and everything was on track, but even so, no one seemed to think or care whether I was in any shape and frame of mind to go up for tenure or to submit my dossier on time after experiencing this horrible tragedy. If a woman is having a baby, it’s one thing, but if she’s suffered through the murder of a friend, then there’s no university policy as obvious or accessible that accounts for such personal issues. As a young and single woman, I felt entirely illegible within the campus policies, definitions, procedures and benefits related to family and work/life issues.

All of this, I think, was also just a byproduct of the kind of alienation that can happen in a state bureaucracy. And I feel that it is, too, because I experienced a version of this again in the fall of 2005 when one of my students, a graduate student enrolled in my undergraduate African American literature lecture, was reported in the news as missing and then discovered to have died tragically a few days later. My TA and I were on our own in dealing with the shock and pain of our class of 60 students and our own hurt and as we ordered flowers and circulated cards signed by the students to send to the young woman's family. The only institutional acknowledgement I got of it was an email from the registrar that dropped the student from the roll. I broke down in my office and cried when I received it. I couldn’t believe that a beautiful young black woman was gone, and that the only engagement with her teachers about it was to drop her from my class roll, as if there needed to be any more concrete reminders that she was gone. I knew she wasn't there anymore and didn’t need that revised roster. Receiving that email was utterly devastating to me. In that moment, there seemed to be no support available. What happened in that situation is also one of the reasons that I vowed not to ever work on a campus again that has no chapel present, for when matters of faith are relevant, secular institutional approaches can be insufficient to address such issues and are not always adequate to provide the layers of support necessary to help people through difficult moments. No teaching resources center even seemed prepared to deal with the kinds of tough pedagogical issues that came with that tragic situation, or the kinds of issues it brought up for me that had nothing to do with teaching in the typical sense.

When I was tenured unanimously at Associate Professor, Step II in my department in October of 2004 and also voted and proposed as a candidate for an additional accelerated promotion, it felt great. But by then, a part of me definitely wanted to leave California. I was truly ready to leave for that and a range of other reasons. My constant prayer was to move on. Yet, life doesn’t work like that. One day at a time, one step at a time, God brought me through it, helped me to find ways to push through it, and made me stronger. When I finally did leave, I felt sad to leave my place, which I loved, and that was where my friend remembered me living. She’d come in, and play this game of picking out any new painting, and I knew what all of her favorite things there were.

I’ve shared all of this to say that when I heard Rachel Jeantal’s testimony, I so identified with her. I was able to understand at least to some extent what she experienced with Trayvon from the trauma I also experienced when losing my friend, and from our telephone exchange. Every day that Rachel has ever been able to smile again and face the world is a miracle. I remember my friend’s story and how her loss devastated so many people, and feel for Rachel and Trayvon. I will never forget that final call. Until a person has walked a mile in another person’s shoes or been where they have been, it is impossible to know them, or to even judge them, and judging Rachel or anybody is never right anyway. Tupac had it so right. “Only God can judge me.” And only God truly knows the depth of the pain this young woman has been through. Only God.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The "Portraits" Project




Emma Jenkins Richardson, My Grandmother, while living in Pensacola, Florida during WW II
Joe Richardson, My Grandfather, while living in Pensacola, FL, During WW II

My grandmother, Emma Jenkins Richardson

JoAnn/Joanne Richardson, My Mother at uncle and aunt's house in Montgomery, Alabama

My Mother as a baby with my grandmother at uncle and aunt's house.
My mother as a baby with my grandfather at uncle and aunt's house.

My mother as a baby

My mother

My mother

My mother JoAnn/Joanne and uncle, Joseph Richardson, as children in 1955

My mother dressed for a program and parade in Montgomery in the 1950s
My mother and uncle at Christmas in Montgomery in the 1950s
My mother and uncle at Christmas in the 1950s

My mother at age 10
My uncle, Joseph Richardson, as May Day King at Booker T. Washington Elementary in Montgomery, with the Queen, a girl named Mary, and baby sister Pam

My mother as First Attendant to May Day Queen at her school

My aunt, Pamela Richardson, as a toddler with her doll and stuffed animal at Christmas

My aunt Pam with her doll at Christmas
My grandmother, Emma Jenkins Richardson, with my mother and aunt Pam
My aunt Pam's graduation from kindergarten

My aunt, Pamela Richardson, as May Day Queen at Booker T. Washington Elementary

Clipping from the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper featuring my aunt as May Day Queen at BTW

My Mother's high school graduation picture (BTW)
My uncle's high school graduation picture (BTW)

My aunt's high school graduation picture (Jeff Davis)

My high school graduation picture (St. Jude Educational Institute)

Images of my grandparents in Pensacola, Florida during WWII in the 1940s, as well as various vintage family photos taken in Montgomery, Alabama beginning in the 1950s that inspired my Portraits Project in Art quilting. The images of my mother and aunt from the 1950s and 1960s with the black dolls that my grandmother would buy them growing up also stand out to me in our family photo collection; also see the post on this blog on "Black Debutantes" for more family photos that have helped to inspire this exhibition.

The Portraits Project

My second solo art quilt exhibition entitled “Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris” has been very exciting to develop as a follow-up to my first, “Portraits from Montgomery to Paris,” which debuted at Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama July-September 2008 and was also featured at the Carol Tatkon Center Art Gallery at Cornell University in 2011. Four pieces from this show were also featured at the Mairie du 5e in Paris, and two at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in the city when I was invited to the city as a “Cultural Envoy” by the U.S. Embassy in France for the Paris opening of its national quilt exhibition, “Un Patchwork de Cultures,” under the sponsorship of a grant from the U.S. Department of State in its Speaker Series. Selected works from this show have also been featured in several other places, including a 2009 exhibition on “Black Debutantes” at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

The body of quilts from “Portraits” is the subject of the short film by Anne Crémieux and Géraldine Chouard entitled “A Portrait of the Artist”(2008), which was shot on location in Paris, France and highlighted an interview with the scholar Patricia A. Turner. Pat Turner also discusses the “Portraits” project in her book Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters. Quilts from “Portrait II” are also featured in Lauren Cross’s film The Skin Quilt Project (2010).

Already, works from “Portraits II” have been in circulation. In January 2009, the very first quilt produced on the road to this new show, which features President Obama, was first presented in Paris, France prior to the inauguration in the U.S. and went on to appear in Roland Freeman’s “Quilts for Obama” at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. for most of that year. It is also featured on the commemorative poster for this monumental quilt exhibition, which went into two encores, including a final encore on request of the Congressional Black Caucus and the mayor of Washington, D.C. My quilt featuring Michelle Obama was added to the final encore of “Quilts for Obama that began in September 2009. The Obama quilts that led off “Portraits II,” as well as those featuring Frederick Douglass and Toni Morrison, were also featured in the exhibition at Cornell University at the Carol Tatkon Center Art Gallery. The production team for “Portraits II” is hard at work and very excited about the new show opening in January, 2015 and aims for it to be featured in several venues.

“Portraits” included four series in all, including “Family,” “Paris,” “Political” and “Hollywood.” Smaller series within the “Family Series” include series entitled
“Wedding,” “Baby,” “Self-Portrait,” “Education,” and “Debutante.” Portraits II continues to develop all of the foundational series and incorporates several more, including “Black History,” “African American Literature,” “Alabama Women,” and new versions of “Daughters of Africa” and “Delta,” which I began in the early 1990s. The “Portraits” project recalls May Day celebrations in Montgomery, Alabama dating back to the 1950s, as well as Easter parades, school programs, and birthday celebrations. In the process, it captures a side of black life, particularly in the U.S. South, less frequently discussed. As the curator Georgette Norman describes “Portraits” in the 2008 catalog for the show at Rosa Parks Museum, it “draws on aspects of Montgomery and Civil Rights history, but focuses on family showing the dignity and beauty that always existed . . . Portraits . . . captures in new form family photos and memories, and also treats political and cultural figures from Martin Luther King to Scarlett O’Hara.“

The words “new form” well speak to the approach that I take to quilting, as do my comments at the opening of the film “A Portrait of the Artist,” which mention my goal of “pushing quilting as far as I can, so that even the question, ‘what is a quilt,’ is ultimately raised.” All of my quilts usually include at least one feature that is challenging to pull off; I refer to them as “special effects.” I once made a casual and offhand list of the eclectic features that constitute my mixed-media quilting style above and beyond the foundational fabrics. They include hats, jewelry, shoes, fingernails, ribbons, eyelashes, synthetic hair, orthodontic braces, buttons, safety pins, boas, fruit, beading, flowers, glasses, mirrors, and ties, among others. The quilts for the new show expand the body of special effects that I incorporate and take my architectural “three-dimensional” quilting style and the notion of the “built quilt” in some new and quite exciting directions. I draw all of the images on my quilts by hand and paint them with fabric or acrylic paints; I do all of the quilting by hand.

Many people describe them as “quilts unlike any I have ever seen before.” Below is a comprehensive listing of the works that so far make up my multi-year “Portraits” project in art quilting, which I began in 1999 and by the time that it culminates in 2015, will have been developing for 15 years.

Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris (2015)

from Family Series #2, Including Baby and Children, Education, Debutante and Self-Portrait Series, and 5 installations (the show features 8 installation-style quilts in all)

1. “Debutante Daddy: Joe Richardson Presenting Daughter Pamela Richardson As a Debutante in National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter Cotillion, Garrett Coliseum, Montgomery Alabama, Spring 1976” (Joe Richardson, b. July 11, 1915 and Commemorating 100 Years in 2015) (Debutante Series).
Installation-style panel 1 of 3 (Composition 2011- )

2. “Debutante Pamela Richardson Presented by Father, Joe Richardson, at National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter Cotillion, Garrett Coliseum, Montgomery Alabama, Spring 1976; Escorted by Ricky Ross” (Debutante Series) Installation-style panel 2 of 3 (Composition 2011- )

3. “Debutante Mama: Emma Richardson, Mother of Pamela Richardson in National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc. Beta Beta Chapter Cotillion, Garret Coliseum, Montgomery Alabama, Spring 1976” (Debutante Series). Installation-style panel 3 of 3 (Composition 2011- )

4. “JoAnn and ‘Junior Man’ II: Cowboys at Christmas.” Installation-style quilt
Special Thanks to T-Shirt Express for Screenprinting Background Photographs (Composition 2009- )

5. “Pam as Booker T Washington May Day Queen” (Composition 2009- )

6. “Joseph and Mary as Booker T Washington May Day King and Queen”(Composition 2009 - )

7. “Riché Deianne Richardson: Easter Sunday at Maggie Street Baptist Church in Junior Vogue Dress #1 of 3 in All” (Composition2011-)

8. “Riché Deianne Richardson as Jr. Gayfer Girl in 1983 at Age 11 and Dressed for the Group Photo, the First Event after Graduation from Poise-Charm Classes at Gayfers Department Store (formerly Montgomery Fair) in Montgomery Mall"(Family Series, Education Series, Self-Portrait Series) (Composition 2012-13) Special Thanks to T-Shirt Express for the T-Shirt Design and Production

9. “’Head and Shoulders Knees and Toes!’: Keri Diamond Smith and Megan Chereé Smith, School Days at St. John-Resurrection"(Family Series, Education Series) Installation-style quilt (Composition 2005-12)

10. “Keri and Megan: Pink Dresses and Homemade Birthday Cake” (Composition 2011- )
Bea: Remembering 30 Years in Elba, Alabama as a School Teacher (Family Series, Education Series)

11. “Riché Deianne Richardson: On Profile in the State of Alabama” (Self-Portrait) (2011- )

Political Series

12. “Obama Time: Always (Congratulations, Mr. President!)” (Composition 2008-09)

13. “The Magnificent Michelle Obama, Our First Lady: ‘Strength and Honor are Her Clothing’(Proverbs 31: 25)”(Political Series) (Composition 2009)

14. “Mary McLeod Bethune: One of America’s Greatest Sweethearts and the World’s Best Leaders”(Composition 2012-)

15 "Clarence Thomas’s High Tech Lynching?: Inferior Court Justice to Be"(Political Series) (Composition 2002-12)

16. "Condoleezza Rice: From Birmingham to the White House" (Alabama Women Series, Political Series) (Composition 2011- 2012)

Civil Rights Movement Series

17. “Rosa Parks, Whose ‘No’ in 1955 Launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Was Heard Around the World”(Commemorating 100 Years, 1913-2013) (Civil Rights Movement Series, Black History Series, Alabama Women Series). Dedicated to Georgette Norman (Composition 2006-12)

18. “Johnnie Rebecca Carr, Leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association” (Also Black History Series and Alabama Women Series). Dedicated to Annie Bell and Benjamin Beasley and Alma Lee Jordan (Composition 2012- )

19. “E.D. Nixon: Father of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Civil Rights Movement” (Black History Series) In Memory of E.D. Nixon, Jr., a.k.a. “Nick LaTour” (Composition 2012- )

20. “Angela Davis Free and Standing Against a New Form of American Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex” (Black History Series and Alabama Women Series) (Composition 2011- )

Paris Series

21. “James Baldwin” (African American Literature Series) (Composition 2012- )

22. “Richard Wright” (African American Literature Series) (Composition 2012- )

23. “Audrey Tautou as Amélie”(Composition 2011)

Hollywood Series

24. “Charleston's Finest: Clark Gable as Rhett Butler" (Composition 2006-12)

25. “’Bope’: Bo and Hope: All Days Always” (Celebrating the History, Beauty and Work of Daytime Television)

26. “Dorothy Dandridge Playing Carmen Jones” Installation-style quilt
(Composition 2012- )

27. “To Sidney Poitier with Love” (Composition 2012-)

28. “The Marvelous Marilyn Monroe” Installation-style quilt (Composition 2011 - )

Black History Series

29. “Daughter of Africa, Mother of African American Literature, Another American Revolution” (Black History Series, African American Literature Series, & New Daughters of Africa Series). Dedicated to Honorée Jeffers (Composition 2010-12)

30. “The Great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass: ‘I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday’; Birthday Unknown but Celebrated February 14” (Black History Series) Dedicated to Class of 2009, Suger High School, Saint-Denis in Paris, France Installation-style quilt (Composition 2010-11)

31. “Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison”(African American Literature Series) (Composition 2010)
“The Vision of W.E.B. Du Bois”(Composition 2012- )

32. “The Talent of Michael Jackson”(Composition 2011-)

Delta Women Series

Delta Family Quilt: Pamela Garrett
Delta Family Quilt: Riché Richardson
Delta Family Quilt: Megan Smith
Delta Family Quilt: Keri Smith
“Adrienne Lance Lucas and Son: Celebrating Delta Leadership, Legacies and Love”

May opt to add three additional works to the show

Portraits from Montgomery to Paris(2008)

from Family Series #1, Including Wedding, Graduation/Education, and Debutante Series, Three Installations, and Artist Self Portraits

1. "Sunday Afternoon on Palafox Street in Pensacola, Florida during WWII": Emma Lue
Jenkins Richardson (Composition 1999-00)

2. Sunday Afternoon on Palafox Street in Pensacola, Florida during WWII: Joe Richardson (Composition 2000-01)

3. "JoAnn and 'Junior Man': Easter Sunday, Montgomery, Alabama, 1954"(Installation)(Composition 2001-04)

4. "Pam's Graduation from Kindergarten at Mrs. Drake's"(Installation) (Composition 2005-08)

5. " JoAnn Richardson: Graduation Picture at Booker Washington High School"(Composition 2005-06)

6. "Joseph Richardson: Graduation Picture at Booker Washington High School"(Composition 2006-07)

7. "Pamela Richardson: Graduation Picture at Jefferson Davis High School"(Composition 2005-08)

8. "The Honeymooners: Celebrating 47 Years: Emma Richardson"(Composition 2005-06)

9. "The Honeymooners: Celebrating 47 Years: Joe Richardson" (Composition 2005-08)

10. Riché Deianne Richardson: Graduation Picture at St. Jude Educational Institute of 'The City of St. Jude' (The Last Camping Place for Selma-to-Montgomery Marchers in 1965) Self-Portrait (Composition period. Special Thanks to Dr. Kelly Gianetti for Sterilized Orthodontic Appliances (Composition 2005-06)

11. Riché Deianne Richardson, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 1989" Self-Portrait (Composition 2006-08)

12. "Keri Diamond Smith, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 2004"(Composition 2006-08)

13. "Megan Chereé Smith, Age 17: Debutante Cotillion Program Portrait, 2006"(Composition 2006-08)

from Paris Series #1

14. "Playing Venus Hot to Trot?: Josephine Baker"(Commemorating 100 years, 1906-2006)(Composition 2001-05)

15. "Remembering a Dutiful Daughter: Simone de Beauvoir" (Commemorating 100 years, 1908-2008)(Composition 2004-07)

from Political Series #1

16. "The Ties that Bind: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy"(Composition 2002-04)

17. "A Tie, Too?": Malcolm X" (Composition 2002-04)

from Hollywood Series # 1

18. "Playing 'Mammy': Not Hattie McDaniel!"(Composition 2006-08)

19. "Sweet Scarlett?: Vivien Leigh Playing Southern Belle"(Composition 2006-08)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Jr. Gayfer Girl Quilt









"Riché Deianne Richardson as Jr. Gayfer Girl in 1983 at Age 11 and Dressed for the Group Photo, the First Event after Graduation from Poise-Charm Classes at Gayfers Department Store (formerly Montgomery Fair) in Montgomery Mall"(Family Series, Education Series, Self-Portrait Series)

Mixed-media, including paint, jewelry, fabric, synthetic hair, and denim border and backing


Age 11. Posing for photo after graduation fashion show in spring of 1983 from six-week Poise-Charm Course at Montgomery, Mall; am wearing my favorite piece of clothing at the time (other than my Calvins), my white lace ruffled prairie blouse. We had the matching prairie skirt made by a wonderful seamstress named Edwina who had made a few things for me around that time, like my choir uniform for the Tender Golden Voices at Maggie Street Baptist Church. In the poise-charm course, we learned skills such as runway modeling, introductions, poise-pivot turns, how to sit properly, mannequin modeling, and dealing with different accessories on the runway.


Age 14. Photo shoot at Gayfers Department Store for graduates after completing second poise-charm course, "Seventeen's Beautyworks."

Autobiographical reflections

●All New Junior Gayfer Girl Club members, about 25, wore a red lettered T-Shirt with jeans for the 'Class Photo' Taken in Front of Gayfers at Eastdale Mall; the T-Shirt used on this quilt is a replica and recreation made by T-Shirt Express in Ithaca, NY

●In an era when it seemed that if you didn’t have your Calvins, then you weren’t cool, I was wearing Jordache deans with a gold Jordache belt because of accidentally burning the label off my Calvins when ironing jeans before class one evening in the spring. Was also wearing a pair of white and blue Jordache canvas tennis shoes whose little yarn horse mane I loved.

●Rhea Alfreds was our instructor, and the overall course program, which included "White Gloves and Party Manners" for small girls and "Seventeen's Beautyworks" (influenced by Seventeen Magazine) for older girls, was coordinated by Wanda Marshall.

●I returned to poise-charm classes at Gayfers for the Seventeen's Beautyworks course at age 14.

●Being a Junior Gayfer Girl for two years (from ages 11-13) came with seasonal 10% store discounts (which were nice to get though I actually used the discount just once). Junior Gayfer Girls also had the opportunity to attend the final rehearsal of the annual "Back to School Fashion Show" of the Gayfer Girls downtown at the Davis Theater. The highlight was being asked to stand up together as a club for recognition briefly as the spotlight panned the audience on the actual night of the show.

● I best remember the show where the theme was "Borrowed from the Boys." Fall fashion items such as ties and tams were modeled to the tune of songs such as "I Wear My Sunglasses at Night" and the theme of Pink Panther films. Attending the show was the highlight of my summer other than attending the University for Youth at Alabama State University, where my family enrolled me four straight summers between ages 12 and 15 for courses taught by university professors.

●This poise-charm class at Montgomery Mall was my only education in a racially integrated educational setting before I was 22 and started my work on a Ph.D. at Duke.

●The other African American girls in this course were my friend LaShaun Hooks who had told me about it in the first place and urged me to take the course with her; her sister Alicia (who I like her called "Lisa"); Candi Turner; Peaches Oldes; and LeCheryl Lesueur.

●The group photo featuring our burst of color with LaShaun, Alicia and me positioned at the center and standing on the back row, in front of the fountain at Eastdale Mall, was powerful and beautiful.

●I once saw one of our white classmates in a clothing store at the newly remodeled Montgomery Mall in high school, who had by then grown tall like I had, and still had the most amazing long, honey-blond curly locks of hair. When recognized by name, she said hello, smiled warmly and said, "We must have met at Cynthia's," a modeling school. She seemed so sure of it that I didn't have the heart to correct her and mention that we were actually in the class together at Gayfers years earlier and that I'd never attended Cynthia's.

●My grandfather, who took me to my classes which met weekly on Thursday evenings for an hour, was okay with me taking the course mainly because it stressed etiquette and cultivated social graces.

●Gayfers purchased Montgomery Fair in Montgomery in 1970, which is where Rosa Parks was working at the time of her arrest in 1955.

●A few years later when I was 17, my family bought my debutante dress at Gayfers and had it altered by the store's seamstress, an African American woman named Hannah (who had the job Rosa Parks once had when Gayfers was Montgomery Fair). She also tailored a beautiful wardrobe for me in wool gabardine when I was 25 and in graduate school, and made several lovely matching dresses for my cousins Keri and Megan when they were little girls.

●My Grandmother kept her old Montgomery Fair hat box and also used her and my grandfather's credit card that still said "Montgomery Fair" until Dillard's replaced Gayfers in the late 1990s.

Link below to the review I wrote at Amazon.com of Marjabelle Young Stewart and Ann Buchwald’s book What to Do When and Why: At School, At Home, at Parties, in Your Growing World, which I posted on May 25, 2002. Also see Stewart’s White Gloves and Party Manners, the book that inspired the beginning poise-charm course at Gayfers for little girls.

http://www.amazon.com/What-Do-When-Why-Parties/dp/0883311054/ref=sr_1_10?ie=UTF8&qid=1357628136&sr=8-10&keywords=marjabelle+young+stewart

For Savoir-Faire Everywhere

This book was distributed in the first set of poise-charm classes that I took at Gayfers department store in Montgomery, Alabama at age 11. Through weekly drills, we covered topics such as walking on a runway, making regular poise-pivot turns and Dutch boys, climbing stairs, doing introductions, maintaining good posture, and sitting properly, among others. In the end, we had a fashion show at the mall, and membership in the Jr. Gayfer Girl Club was extended to us, along with seasonal store discounts at 10%. This was the spring of 1983 when "Calvins" still meant almost everything and many girls in my class said that Tom Selleck was their favorite actor[I said mine was Billy Dee Williams, LaShaun said Gary Coleman, and Alicia said Nell Carter]; it was before anyone had ever heard of a concept such as the "supermodel." By this I mean that few if any of us in the class had an idea of who Gia Carangi was or what she represented at the time. As I recall, Stewart's book covers numerous questions: How to set a table? How to make introductions? What to do when you lose your best friend or boyfriend- the kinds of relationships that are at best "iffy" from the start? (And this is where I first learned that word, along with a few others, for overall, Stewart addresses her young audience with the grace of Miss Manners and does not condescend to it by watering down her language). How to handle it when you are the target of gossip? She offers a party lexicon, consisting of varieties such as the "come as you are party." She addresses the importance of sending a "bread and butter" note after visiting someone. There are even, I think, a few recipes. And there's a section for filling in your family tree inside the front cover. We never engaged this book directly in our course, but this was reading that I complemented by poring over illustrated sections on "social graces" in one of the old and very thick dictionaries in our house, which seemed to cover just about everything. I was disappointed that in a later charm course I took at age 14, the official book was one from Seventeen magazine and more focused on makeup instead of the development of social skills along the lines of Stewart's book. I even read and referred to her book many times throughout my early teen years. I finally passed my much-loved copy on to the preteen little sister of my boyfriend when I was 17, for I was tutoring her in math at the time. In retrospect, this is a book that part of me wishes I'd held on to as a keepsake, for only hindsight has allowed me to understand fully the difference that it helped to make in my social, emotional and personal development and maturation. In general, exposure to a text with that kind of orientation at an early age also introduced me to and gave me a deep love and appreciation for the "how to" genre, and to this day, as an adult working as a university professor and moonlighting as an artist, I regularly mix "how to" books into the range of selections that I read. This book may have also put me on the road to cultivating a love for books in the self-help genre, though I don't always have a lot of time to read these kinds of selections. The world has changed a lot since this book's first publication date, and with all the complex issues youth often face in and beyond school settings these days, it may well come across to some as dated and old-fashioned. But I think that there is a timeless quality about it that would make it work for any time.