Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Paths to Art" [Art Autobiography]

Paths to Art [Art Autobiography], May 25-26, 2007

by Riché Deianne Richardson

I was born May 26, 1971 at St. Margaret's Hospital in Montgomery, Alabama and raised in a family that included my mother, grandparents, and aunt, uncle, and cousins. My mother, Joanne (and I've always called her that), had attended Tuskegee Institute. She worked in Chicago teaching and doing other jobs when I was a small child, and by that time my uncle, Joseph, had married, so I was mainly in the care of my grandparents, Joe and Emma Jenkins Richardson, and my aunt Pamela. I understand that my grandmother's sister, my Aunt Mae, nicknamed me the "Pink Lady" because I was pink from head to toe. One of the nurses pointed out my grandfather, whose complexion was dark, to another, to highlight this irony.

My earliest memory is of myself as a toddler crawling into the dining room at our home, and looking up at my grandfather working what must have been one of his beloved puzzle books when he said "Hey, Mama!" to me, for that was one of his nicknames for me. My mother's nickname for me was ever "Miss Ricca."

I have some other vivid memories of my first childhood years, too. I remember what I now know was the day after the tragic death of Aunt Mae and Uncle Richard's son, when family gathered at their home; he was killed three days before Christmas in 1973. He had given me a bank filled with coins, including JFK half dollars. We still have it.

One Christmas when I was still very small, my grandparents were both in bed sick with the flu, and Aunt Mae and Uncle Richard came over and put up the Christmas tree. They were kind and sweet to do so. I remember well what it felt like standing in a corner of the living room with them and giving them some of the ornaments.

They hosted my third birthday party. When I was three, I was in the wedding of one of my mother's friends as the flower girl. I wore a long yellow dress in a brocade fabric. The little basket that I carried was my grandmother's, and ribbons were tied on each side. At the wedding, I walked down the aisle with the basket, but only dropped the red flower petals when prompted by my grandmother as I walked in the back of the church, and by my mother as I got farther down the aisle. No one had told me that I was supposed to drop them continuously. I certainly would have done so had I known.

I wore an altered and lengthened version of the same dress to see my aunt Pam's debutante ball at Garrett Coliseum a couple of years later in 1976. A woman who lived in Montgomery known as Miss Rosetta had made it, along with Pam's dress. She had a room in her house stacked to the ceiling with fabric, which, to my child's eyes, seemed larger than life. My grandfather enjoyed wearing the tuxedo and tails, and the morning after the ball, dressed up again and had more pictures taken in his outfit, complete with a top hat, white gloves, and a cane, as well as pictures of my aunt.

My grandfather had a stereo that played eight-track tapes, and would tape my voice, along with those of my cousins Lamar and Sharon, on the microphone. He made name labels for all of my things with this little machine he had that typed out letters in white on red tape. I'd run my fingers across the little raised letters. They were on everything I had.

The first play that I attended was "Fiddler on the Roof" with my family at Cloverdale Junior High in the early 70s, a production in which Pam participated. I remember the excitement and preparation leading up to it at home, and being in the audience the night of the play and seeing this man walking on the stage. The first movie that I attended was "Let's Do it Again"; I do remember the feeling of sitting in the dark theater, and the boxing on screen. My grandfather drove my mother and me downtown that night and dropped us off and came back to pick us up when it was over. I think that the first major art that I saw was Ernie Barnes's on the television show "Good Times."

My first schools were Jenkins Private and Seymour Private. The latter had once been Chisholm's Private School, which many blacks attended before integration in Montgomery. I started school at the latter when I was five and remember that the first day I wore a gold shirt and blue pants-blue and gold. Rides to and from school were fun. A cab driver from the New Deal company named Bailey would come to get my cousin Lamar and me every morning at my grandmother's. Bailey would always have his breakfast and coffee (that his mother had fixed) on the front seat of the car. He played blues songs like Fat's Domino's "Blueberry Hill." Every evening, Lamar and I would tear out of the gate to his cab. We would plead with him to take us with him on his evening rounds, shouting "Bailey, take us far a ride!" We were familiar with his passengers and where they lived. There was one that he called "Late Fee"(behind her back), for she always paid him late, and so we thought that was her name and probably slipped up and called her that, too. We didn't warm up to her much. Our favorite passenger by far was a woman named Lois. She worked in a house in another area of Cloverdale, and we'd often pick her up or drop her off there. Seeing her always made our day, and we truly loved her in the best way that children are capable of loving. The last time we saw her was a few years later, when one of our great uncles was at the hospital around 1980. We were excited to see her and went and threw our arms around her. She was happy to see us and couldn't believe that we had grown so and were nine -year-olds.

One of the most inspiring moments for me in early childhood occurred during the holidays when I was four or five and my grandparents took me downtown in Montgomery to Pizitz one night to see the Christmas decorations, and to take a picture with Santa. The little white cottony winter wonderland, with all the lights, was so awe-inspiring for me. It was overwhelming.

In general, in hindsight, I can say that I found much of my early artistic inspiration at home. For instance, there were the many projects of my aunt, who took home economics at school during the 1970s, like students of the era typically did, and so sewed dresses, did macramé, beading, and other crafts. Many times, she'd take over the dining room, where her sewing machine was kept in a corner, and would have dresses pinned together. When I think of the 1970s, one thing that I think of is all the stuff she made, or got made. And Pam's creativity was nurtured and encouraged at every level. Her kitchen experiments were her other major preoccupation. They made evenings at home in the 70s a lot of fun. My grandmother went to bed early, and missed out on a lot of this fun, but my grandfather and Pam would be up late. She would make things light German chocolate cakes or Easy Bake Oven projects, Rice Krispies Treats, Sno cones, popcorn, malts, and candy apples, or my grandfather would roast franks and other foods, for he was a remarkable cook. He was especially appreciated for the hams that he cooked and decorated during the holidays. When Aunt Mae and Uncle Richard redecorated their kitchen, Pam was responsible for making the little curtains for the new French-style cabinets. Everyone "oohed" and "aahed" over what a great job she'd done. (When she started working as a kindergarten teacher a few years later, these energies were directed into making decorations for her classroom. I wondered how many letters a person could cut out, or cute animals and other things. We'd be awash in construction paper and laminated materials destined for classroom bulletin boards). She put a lot of time and effort into all of her projects, and I watched her make many scrapbooks, too, including one for her sorority.

Similarly, when I was a preteen, my mother, who returned home for good by the mid-70s and took a job with the federal government-made sachets scented with potpourri and did cross-stitching. After the "add-a-bead" on gold necklaces fascination faded in the early 1980s, my mother and aunt went through a phase when they regularly visited craft stores to make necklaces with wooden beads and animals such as giraffes and elephants. I enjoyed looking around and made my own necklaces, too. I drew on this background in making the necklace for the Simone de Beauvoir quilt, for which I went to a beading store and learned some beading techniques. I got my ears pierced when I was nine. Instinctively, I declined on the option of a second set of holes, though this was popular at the time. I thought that one set was enough. They also went through phases in the early 80s when they wore hats as key accessories.

Fashions of all kinds from casual to formal have definitely played a role in shaping my artistic sensibility. Around age 10, I got into designer jeans like a lot of girls my age, and wore Calvin Klein, Sassoon, Jordache, and Gloria Vanderbilt. I had a blue Jordache sweater that I liked because the white horse's mane was raised. As a pre-teen in 1983, I had a wardrobe in neon colors.

The more formal dresses, with their beautiful colors and fabrics, have no doubt helped to shape my eye as an artist. The year that I was nine, when we were shopping at the Junior Vogue- a children's boutique in Montgomery-for my Easter Dress, I tried on three dresses and my grandparents could not make up their mind about the one to buy because they liked all of them. They included a yellow dress trimmed with white lace, an orange one trimmed with beige lace, and a purple floral one. Finally, my grandfather resolved the situation by telling my grandmother that they'd just buy all of them. At Easter, I wore the yellow dress with a white spring hat and yellow ribbon band around it to match, and had white gloves and a purse. They styled my hair so that it hung down long. I remember hearing my aunt tell one of friends on the phone how nice I looked and that "the hat just brought it all out." Picking my Easter dress was always a very careful affair, and that wasn't the last year that I got more than one; my family also bought clothes for me from the Name Dropper, another boutique store in Montgomery.

I first took poise-charm classes at Gayfers Department store when I was 11, and ultimately, participated in the class's fashion show held at Montgomery Mall. Western attire was all the rage in the early 80's. In this fashion show, I wore this elaborate white lace "peasant" blouse with numerous buttons going up the front, and partially up the neck, which gave it a Victorian aura, and a long navy, drop-waist skirt with ruffles toward the bottom, and white lace going around the hem. We bought the blouse, but picked out a pattern and paid a seamstress to make the skirt. This was a common practice when I was growing up. When I was baptized and joined the youth choir at Maggie Street Baptist Church-the Tender Golden Voices-my family had to get a choir uniform made for me, a blue suit, with which I had to wear a baby blue blouse. We would frequently go to the fabric stores, and I'd enjoy looking through the heavy books and turning the big pages as my folks picked this or that pattern. Those experiences growing up are what made the fabric store as a place familiar to me. By high school, I bought ribbon for my hair in my school colors, maroon and white, straight from the fabric store, so that I could have longer ones than the Goody brand offered.

When I was a sophomore and junior debutante in the Phi Delta Kappa debutante cotillion, like the other girls participating, I got a peach and green dress made for the respective balls, and had shoes dyed to match. When I was 17 and finally a debutante and coming out myself, my family shopped for dresses for months to try to find the right one, even going to Atlanta and Birmingham. I tried on forty dresses in all. Ultimately, we found one right in Gayfers, with sheer layers of ruffles going all around it below the waist. My mother trimmed my gloves with a little piece of the ruffles that were left over after the dress's alteration. (A few years earlier, she had made all of the lace, fingerless gloves that the bridesmaids wore in Pam's wedding, a Christmas wedding). People thought that the dress was absolutely beautiful and very unique, and were surprised to find that we found it right at Gayfers. They had said that I could spend up to $1000 on it, and it cost nearly $800.

The homemade touch was so typical. Even though the most recent debutante dresses for girls in my family have been store bought, we still add a homemade touch. For instance, in 2006, I helped my cousin Megan make some mesh straps to add to her dress. I guess it's kind of like the principle followed by the traditional bride, "Something old, something new . . . " I was a member of Federated Clubs and many other organizations, so by the end of high school, I'd had about 15 events in all for which I had to wear formal dresses. For my cousin's wedding in 1996, my grandmother knew my proportions so well that she just bought a very elegant evening dress for me to wear when I was still off in graduate school, with the full lingerie ensemble. When I tried it on, it fit perfectly. She has always bought me beautiful accessories, like ruffled umbrellas, and pins that I'd wear to school on my uniforms sometimes. I had a hand-painted bracelet watch with a covered face that had to be flipped up to see the time, which my classmates quickly began to overwork.

When I was in graduate school, I did a full fashion overhaul, gave away almost every stitch I owned to charity and decided that I wanted to build a "classically elegant" wardrobe. I began building what I called the "breakfast wardrobe," consisting of the colors black coffee, toast, cream, milk, and butter. To add to this, I got the idea of having a wardrobe of interchangeable pieces made in black wool gabardine, and went to a fabric store and picked out a pattern. The same seamstress who altered my debutante dress, and who was based at Gayfers, and who had made a few things for me when I was in college, was paid by my mother and grandmother to make me a suit jacket, pants, vest, and two skirts in this elegant fabric.

My grandfather met the Thames family, one of the well-known families in Montgomery, as a 7 -year-old boy when he was working. The matriarch encouraged him in his education and even wanted to send him to art school because he could write and draw so well. He didn't want to leave his mother and family. He decorated the windows at Booker T. Washington Elementary every year during the holidays, and I understand that even a young man named Duke sought him out for art lessons. My grandfather's father, who was buried the very day that my grandfather was born in 1915, was listed in the census in the late 1880s as a painter, and had even painted his self-portrait, which my grandparents kept over the mantle in their living room when they first married. My grandfather's mother washed it one day in an attempt to clean it.

My grandfather was a lather by trade and worked out of town a lot, especially during the week, when I was a child. He lowered the ceilings in the back rooms of our home in the mid-70s, and it was a collective project that involved the men in my family. I'd break off pieces of the sheet rock and mix it up with water to make fake milk to put in my tea sets. A tree fell on our garage during a storm, and so he built another one. For weeks, I saw this project go up in the back yard. My cousins Lamar, Sharon and I swept it out every day and would play in it once it was all but finished. We were very disappointed when we learned that we would not move out there, for that was what we were anticipating all those weeks. I think that I definitely got some of my eye and perspective as an artist from my grandfather. He had every kind of power tool that construction work calls for. Many Sunday afternoons, he'd take my grandmother and me and ride out to construction sites where he was about to begin work, just to see. When he put the tiles in the bathroom and hallway, and would be on the floor trying to measure with the lever, he'd sometimes be looking at that little juice from one side and would find me bending down looking at it from the other, trying to make out what he was doing. Sometimes I'd be shooed away, but I watched it a lot (and he wouldn't say anything as long as I didn't get in the way or touch anything) and learned its rhythms. I remember what it was like to play with the tape measure, and let it out and retract it and that sort of thing, or to hook it around things and then step back as far as possible, or to bend it. I really have tried on a construction belt, and know how heavy a tool box is from the futility in attempting to lift it when I was little. When I was 12, he painted our house. I was so excited when he let my cousin Lamar and me climb up on the scaffolding that he'd put up in our living room, one of the three remaining rooms in the house with very high ceilings, and help to stuff cracks. He was careful about precision and measurement, and it seemed important to him to get it right. He worked out of town a lot, especially during the week, when I was a child. By the mid- 1970s, he worked mainly at home, and one of his earliest projects was the work at Eastdale Mall, including helping to place the beams over the ice skating rink. The ice skating rink was very unique in the Southeast, and was featured in the film "Sister, Sister" starring Irene Cara and Rosalind Cash. I was incredibly proud. From my standpoint, I felt that he'd basically built the mall, and was genuinely outraged when we went to the opening and learned that they were out of the balloons that were being distributed to children that day. As a six-year-old, I remember being very upset, and told my family that because he had helped to build the mall, I had deserved a balloon. He worked on the bar area in the Montgomery Civic Center. He did good work and took great pride in it.

When I was around 11, my grandmother took an evening ceramics class at Bellingrath school with some of our neighbors, and I remember going to a session with her. But this was just incidental for her. Her real artistic passion tended to play out in her decoration at home. I also got some other important aspects of my artistic eye from her, as well as a love for beautiful antiques. In second grade, she bought me "Peanuts" Easter cards to take to school, but I was too shy to pass them out because no one else at school had Easter cards. In third grade, I had a similar moment when my grandparents insisted that I wear my school uniform for my school's picture day. I felt somewhat awkward all that day as everyone else seemed to be enjoying the day out of uniform. But their view of it was that I attended a Catholic school, and so should have at least one photograph reflecting that experience. In seventh, I wanted to cut my hair so that I could have short hair and get a jerri curl like what seemed to be everybody else, but my grandmother would not allow it. But I learned a lesson from this. I learned to always be myself and not necessarily follow the crowd. Always, my grandmother has encouraged me to dress with style and flair. She and I look somewhat alike, some people say, but we have very different body types. She's around 5'3"-a traditional size that looks just perfect in hats and heels-and I ended up growing to be 6'2" tall, a very different kind of woman. I certainly wondered why even by age 8, I couldn't fit my feet into Pam's heels as I attempted to try them on and play dress-up, and sensed that I was growing into a very different kind of person. I remember that as a preteen, I said over and over to myself that I'd be glad when my body got back to normal and wondered why all of a sudden it was feeling so funny, not realizing that it would never be the same. What I did not understand at the time to be puberty, coupled with being measurably taller than most of the girls around me after the year that I turned 12, was a lot to absorb. But my grandmother has always affirmed and even celebrated my body type. She's always enjoyed looking at beauty pageants, and encouraged me to dress and look my best, or expressed the most frustration when I failed to. She has always told me that I am beautiful and tells me daily as I prepare to go out my door to "Hold up your head and strut."

She has an extensive whatnot collection and her preference is Victorian decor. Large-scale pictures resembling Audubon birds are framed ornately and are the largest scale pieces in the living room that I have always known, which is separated from the dining room by glass French doors. Beautiful chandeliers. Little doilies on the arms and backs of sofas and chairs. She decorated the front rooms and living room and dining room as "parlors" in the very classic sense, all of which have moulding and beamed ceilings. The beams in the dining room are designed in a "tic tac toe" pattern with a chandelier coming down the center. Jobs that I helped out with growing up included polishing silver. I loved and enjoyed our old home and as a child, would get lost in attempting to trace over the intricate patterns in the carved mantles, like a wooden Dutch boy and girl in the living room, an ornate iron scene in the dining room, and mosaic tiles n other places. There is a real wagon wheel at the end of the clothesline in the backyard and so many other features that echo the past. Next door, the wagon wheels spin and there's an iron wash pot in the front yard. There used to be an old barbershop fan with an iron frame on our front porch. All of these things shaped and stimulated my imagination as a child. There is a very old and beautiful carved oak bed, a very tall hat rack with a little "roof" and mirror, and a dresser inherited from my grandfather's side of the family, which all match. I would trace the designs in them as a child, and they were just a part of my everyday life. I like them because they speak to a time when there were one-room houses, when all of those pieces would have been in the same room. The umbrella stand that we use is an authentic butter churn, and we also have an old-style washbowl, wireless irons that would go on the fire, nut crackers, and other items, which in a way pay tribute to the domestic cultures of the past. And beautiful dishes. My grandfather ordered a set of glasses inscribed "Richardson" with a coat of arms back in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, he and my grandmother bought a front porch swing and a carved gold mirror for the front room, but he never got to put up the latter. We've just kept it.

I had a room to sleep in, but never an individual sense of having "my room" in the way that so many youth nowadays take their spaces for granted. There were pictures in antique frames on the wall-so as a teen, but I would never have dared to hang a poster on the wall. Instead, all of my own artistic energy was directed into my Barbie doll house and craft projects. In fact, I think that I have so much artistic energy and am so passionate about those things, artistic things, because that is how my focus was directed as a child.

While a lot of his work was on public facilities, my grandfather used his talents passionately at home, moving from project to project. My Uncle Richard, a bricklayer, also had some of these qualities. He built a barbecue pit in his backyard, and a den with a state of the art fireplace that he designed and eventually painted pink at the behest of Aunt Mae. He built brick curbside mailboxes for himself and surrounding neighbors. When my grandfather did work on our house around 1980, Uncle Richard rebuilt all of the brick pillars on the front porch. I watched him daily as he laid the bricks and mixed the mortar, which he would not allow me to touch, getting a sense of the rhythm and textures of this bricklaying work. In 1980, he got a little dog from a litter of puppies that had been born at a home where he worked in Tallassee, Alabama, which he and my aunt Mae named "Lady." My aunt Pam and I were so excited that he brought us one of our own a few days later, a dog whom we named "Dutchess." Uncle Richard proceeded to make Lady a little pen in the backyard with a blue house with white shutters and a little white picket fence.

For Dutchess, my grandfather also produced a little architectural masterpiece in the backyard. Her house was made of redwood to match ours, with real roofing, and outfitted with screen wire in the windows, and rugs. Her pen, which was fenced in, was in the shape of a long triangle going across the back of the house, and he fixed it so that she had the run of the space under the back porch, which he fenced in. I was so busy playing with Dutchess that summer that I wasn't aware of the work that he was doing out back, and so saw it when it was ready. Everyone was genuinely impressed by this design. I'm still not sure who won this friendly architectural rivalry between my grandfather and my Uncle Richard. So much revolved around Lady and Dutchess that summer. When we first got Dutchess, she stayed in a box on the front porch. I'll never forget the first day that she got out, and the neighborhood kids, including me, were trying to catch her in the front yard. She'd let one of us get very close to her, and then take off again, ears flying and hair blowing and with what I imagined to be sheer laughter. One boy from up the street tumbled over when he bent over forward and tried to catch her, and she ran between his legs. That day was hilarious. But no moment captures the joy and happiness of my childhood better than the day my grandparents took me over to Aunt Mae and Uncle Richard's, along with Dutchess. We were sitting on the front porch and put Dutchess in the backyard with Lady. I went back there after a few minutes and was the first to find that they had both somehow turned on the faucet on the side of the house and were sopping wet and muddy. Of course, when dogs are wet, they tend to wring themselves, and some of the mud and water came flying off on me. I can only imagine what the three of us looked like when my grandparents and Aunt Mae and Uncle Richard came back to the back fence. But for me, as I look back, that was a priceless moment and a very happy day. In general, I always loved going to their house because it had the freezer on the bottom, which I could reach easily, and they'd let me get popsicles myself. Uncle Richard always saw that there were what he called "goodies" for Pam and me. All of their decor was in the French style. Iron porch furniture. A pale wicker dining room. A pink hall phone. The wall behind the Victorian living room sofa was a tile-like mirror with black marks, and the carpet was cream.

My grandparents went to the grocery store every day after they picked me up from school. On Fridays, we went to the fish market. Saturday mornings, they went to the curb market at Crampton Bowl, mainly for vegetables. Summers were my favorite time. I loved going in the kitchen after I finished watching cartoons, which only came on on Saturdays, and finding baskets of plums, peaches, and a fresh chocolate cake and other things. My grandmother purchased one weekly from a woman named Mrs. Johnson at the curb market, who had a reputation for making good cakes. She'd get rolls and pound cake from our cousin who lived on the corner, and so all of that would be part of the spread on the deep freezer as well. Those summer Saturday afternoons, I sometimes sat on the porch and helped shell peas. Uncle Richard also took my grandmother to the store many Saturday mornings, and would then return and watch television with my grandfather. I would often ride with them. My grandmother shopped for us and her sister, who worked at the Knox Manor nursing home. Beyond the errands, Aunt Mae and Uncle Richard made regular trips to visit my grandparents socially, and would be served coffee and other little snacks. On those aforementioned evenings that we visited them, and sometimes sat on the front porch, Aunt Mae never liked for me to fall asleep and would tell me to "Stop laying on Emma," my grandmother. I was always expected to be alert, a little adult in some ways, I guess. Aunt Mae and Uncle Richard were always on the cutting edge in terms of being the first to use Job Squad paper towels, and those little green coils one burns like incense to keep insects away. But they took a long time to get a color TV. When Aunt Mae saw the Wizard of Oz for the first time in color, she was awestruck. They had a giant musical Christmas tree even back in the 1970s, and a Christmas record that was three-dimensional, which Aunt Mae eventually gave me; we'd go over every year to see their Christmas lights. Aunt Mae and Uncle Richard were the first people whose phone number I learned and would call. They, like my grandparents, displayed latch hook project that I had made on the dresser in their bedroom. They were the first audience for my art.

Actually, Dutchess was the recipient of some of my earliest craft work, too. For her first Christmas with us, for instance, I spent weeks crocheting booties, a hat with little pompoms and a coat for her, and wrapped them and put them under the tree. Christmas morning, I dressed her up. Within twenty minutes, they were strewn all around.

Another central childhood memory is that of a family friend named Bea, a school teacher in Elba from Mobile, who would come to stay with us on weekends at least once a month. She'd bring me books and other little gifts and toys. She could cook, and would often make gumbo on her visits. We'd take her shopping. She'd like to buy those wedge shoes in different colors with a mesh heel. We'd go to Avery's in Eastbrook and Loveman's in Normandale and the mall on weekends. It was fun.

My mother and her boyfriend Bernard took his niece and nephew and me to Six Flags after my second grade year.
I relished everything about the trip. The Denny's where we ate along the way. Eating sausages rolled up in pancakes. Seeing the sign crossing over into the state of Georgia. Souvenirs that said "Six Flags over Georgia." Riding the "Scream Machine" and other rides. The view down on Atlanta from a ride in the sky buckets, a ride that I'd never have the courage to go on now. When I returned home, I had a thousand stories for my grandparents about every little thing I saw, and told them for days and days. A trip to Six Flags with a neighbor and her mother, to visit some other neighbors, as well as my mother, was just as exciting a few years later, when I was twelve. Six Flags was the highlight, but it was fun to see Atlanta again. The highways were being widened and construction seemed to be going on everywhere; it was clear that changes were in the making. Little excursions we took, like going up in the elevator at the Hyatt Regency Hotel where one could see the view out, or going up and down the long elevator at Peachtree Plaza, were things I savored and that truly impressed me on that trip. I went on in-state trips with my family to Tuskegee, Fort Deposit, Selma, Mobile, Birmingham. I had fun on school trips as well, to places like New Orleans, Atlanta, and camping at Mt. Cheha. When I was in high school, and by the time that my aunt was married and had her first child, Keri, she, my mother, grandmother, and I would often go with the baby to shop and look around for a day at the huge new Galleria mall in Hoover, Alabama. The highlight was eating out at restaurants like Ruby Tuesday.

From my toddler to my early childhood years, my grandfather especially encouraged me to work puzzles, and took pride in how quick I was at working them. During that time, I had the usual Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and even an erector set, but would always get upset when I couldn't make the pieces fit as well or do the kinds of things that were featured on the box, or when it leaned. I'd tear anything down in frustration, and even anger, that would not function properly or that did not look right-as perfect as it looked on the box.

When I was around 10 and 11, my grandfather, Uncle Richard and I worked with the Rubik's Cube for months, then switched to Hi-Q, a peg-jumping game in which I eventually got the elusive one in the center, to their surprise. At first, my grandfather didn't believe that I'd solved it. Finally, I showed him and he was amazed. In turn, he showed Uncle Richard.

I grew up as an only child, and so spent a lot of time alone. I had a lot of toys as a child, including the familiar creative ones such as Spirograph, Etch-a-Sketch, Play Dough, and finger paints. Little drawing desks. And paper dolls and Fashion Plates. But I tended to play with very few things. In fact, my mother once told me that "I buy you so many toys, and you'd rather play with junk." From ages five to nine or so, my favorite thing to play with was my miniature McDonald's, which included cars and little people. I added my Puzzle Town characters to this collection. I could get lost in this contraption for hours on end playing out dramas with Roger and Danita, and the rest of the characters that I created. Every coke bottle top to me was a potential pot or pan for their kitchen. I used game pegs for their children. From age 10 on, I had a similar relationship to my Barbie doll paradise. I'd spend most of my play time playing out dramas in the soap opera-like world I created for them, sometimes along with my friends Liletta and Caprice whenever either one visited me or I them. Otherwise, I focused on decorating my doll paradise. Hours on end went into making bedding ensembles for the dolls like the ones I saw in catalogs and dreamed of having someday, clothes, and other accessories. Little green strawberry baskets made the perfect baby playpens. Plates were game chips. I'd take match boxes and other small ones, and wrap miniature gift boxes under the Christmas tree in my doll house). Even now, sometimes I will see certain little miniature items, and think about how much I would have valued having them as a child for my doll world back then. When I watched the cartoon "The Littles," I could totally relate to the miniature world that they created, with spools serving as chairs and that sort of thing. One day when I was playing in a junkyard with my cousins and some of their cousins, I saw an egg carton and came up with the idea of pretending that it was an ice tray, and put it in an old refrigerator, an idea that everyone agreed was smart. I loved making those kinds of imaginative "translations," and find that very similar ones are necessary in the art that I make. I had an operating restaurant for my Barbie dolls with a menu, and made miniature versions of all of the food items. Everything revolved around the "Gold" family, which had made their fortune in factories in Florida (they had to be from Orlando, Florida because that's where Disney World was located). Their first home was "the Caribbean," then a "Penthouse on Park Avenue" in New York, then Beverly Hills, then Minneapolis, Minnesota (Liletta was a Prince fan and so I was pulled in as well, and Michael Jackson and Prince were both characters in our world). I was always very imaginative. When I was not reading, or writing poetry, I was playing in this little paradise. For hours without a word, I'd play. I set up my two Barbie dollhouses and cars, mixed in with other little cardboard contraptions, in a corner in at least three different rooms in the house over the years. I think that I had the relationship to it as a child that I have to my art making and art studio now. Indeed, my earliest step in the direction of quilting was a miniature quilt that I pieced in the mid-1980s out of a sampler of fabrics for my Barbie doll house, which I never finished.

Outside, with some other children in the neighborhood, I played games such as dodge ball, Road Runner-Beep Beep, Simon Says, Red Light-Green Light, badminton, "house," "restaurant," "school," and Hot Mama. I enjoyed riding my bicycle and playing with friends, but I also spent many hours alone. It was in these moments alone that my creativity thrived. Making things was one way that I entertained myself. I enjoyed working on crafts such as crocheting, latch-hooking, and doing needlepoint and would spend many hours, sometimes weeks, working on various projects.

In the summer of 1983, my grandmother bought me a basket full of crocheting and knitting tools, and various yarns, at a yard sale, which fueled my creativity in this area. Around that time, I developed an interest in "adoption dolls," which inspired the Cabbage Patch Doll craze. My grandparents bought me a pattern book by Xavier Roberts, which I read repeatedly and studied for hours on end. From it, I eventually learned a few techniques for making soft-sculpture dolls. This was significant, for some of my art quilts tend to draw on soft sculpture elements. My grandparents bought yarn and fabric with the intention of having adoption dolls made for me. I kept it for months, and would take it out from time to time and look at it, the brown fabric, the black yarn, imagining the dolls, and return the materials to the bag. A couple of times, I thought of trying to make them myself, but dared not to cut the beautiful fabric up not fully knowing what I was doing. Finally, a family member volunteered to make them and took the fabric with her to Mobile, as well as copies of the patterns from the Roberts book. But she never made them, and I never saw the fabric again, which was very disappointing. In high school, when I was in ninth grade, a neighbor down the street, Mrs. Thomas, began to make these dolls and to sell them. My grandmother had two made for me. She took me down there to pick the style that I wanted, and the whole process was fun. As a youth federated club member, I made a soft-sculpture doll for the art exhibit at our state convention, and dressed her in our organization's uniform colors, purple and white. When I finished the doll, I took it down to Mrs. Thomas's house, and she painted on the eyes for me using her supplies, and drew the little mouth. I was thrilled and honored. The doll won an honorable mention prize. Before I went off to college, I spent several weeks designing and making a soft-sculpture doll to go on the bed in my new room.

When Aunt Mae gave me her Christmas album, I transcribed all of the songs and wrote them down in a booklet, which I decorated. I pretended to be the editor of a magazine entitled the "Starlight Tribute" and would pose questions as an interviewer, and answer each one from different age and gender perspectives, and with different voices, in great detail. For someone who had been a teen in the 60s, I had him use the slang word "Far out." in his response. I sewed and embroidered a special cover for it.

I won a short story contest at age 12, and decided that I would publish a book by the time that I was 15. I worked with a classmate, Courtney, in an effort to fulfill this dream. We planned a range of connected stories spinning out from the one that I'd originally written, divided up the writing, and literally collaborated for months, passing drafts of our work back and forth and planning the book in conversations on the phone. I also wrote poetry and enjoyed reading. I loved memorizing poems and speaking, and won several essay and poetry contests.

When I went to poise-charm classes again at Gayfers at age 14, we were instructed to make a "beauty box" as an assignment one week. I took the assignment literally and made the box as directed, decorating a clear plastic box that I'd found in my mother's room. When I got to class the next week, the girls, all white with the exception of one other one and me, had lined baskets that they had decorated with ribbons tied around the handles. We were instructed to vote on the best one. I said nothing but found the whole evening somewhat unsettling. I couldn't wait until it was over. I felt that with my talents I could have made a basket that ran circles around all of the ones in the room had the assignment been clarified for me. The teacher had said "box," so that's what I made. I felt that also being at a different school from a lot of the other girls, I had no sense of how they were interpreting and enacting the assignment. I wondered how and why everyone could have understood the assignment so differently. Was there some kind of "pow wow" in the interim between weekly class meetings to which I had not been privy? To my understanding, a "box" and a "basket" were very different things. This taught me an important lesson. It's not how well some minority students can conceivably perform. The playing field is shaped by how they understand and interpret some idioms that are used. Being careful in using idioms can play a key role in leveling the playing field. Now, the only thing that I ever ask in life is to be told whether I'm required to make a box or basket. I can take care of the rest. I had a very similar experience in college as a junior when a teacher asked students to find an article and summarize it. I had no familiarity with the meaning of the word as a synonym for "essay" as it is understood in academia. I understood the word "article" in the sense of journalism, and so summarized a review of an academic book. The professor gave me comments back expressing disappointment on my lack of effort on the assignment. I'd prepared for that seminar all summer by reading literary theory and in this area was in some respects ahead of my class. But I think that this assignment shaped her decision to give me a "B" as a final grade in the course. The truth is that if she had said summarize an "essay," I would have known what to do the first time around. Semantics can make a crucial difference in these matters.

I was saddened in the early 80s' by the loss of Bea, then my grandmother's brothers, Uncle Frank and Uncle Jack, and by the loss of Aunt Mae. Then, when I was in eighth grade, my grandfather became ill, and was hospitalized three times from November 1984 to May 1985. Eighth grade had started off merrily, with him taking the little boy who lived across the street and me to school every day and picking us up in the evenings. Our little neighbor kept the both of us laughing with the imaginative stories he told every morning, like claiming that he and his grandfather "Big George" "drove to Texas last night." When my grandfather got sick, I worried about him a lot the whole while. Every day at school, I'd hope all day that things would be okay when I got home. Rev. Alford, his minister at Beulah Baptist Church, which I had joined by then, visited regularly. It was exciting to hear the stories about his trip to Africa. Christmas 1984, though shadowed by the reality of his illness, was one of the biggest and best ever. We took so many pictures that day. Seeing him dressed up in his leather coat, and walk around to see my aunt and her husband's place, was very soothing. The times that he was in the hospital, my mother, aunt and I would go to be with him and my grandmother-who stayed with him day and night-every evening. They'd pick me up from the neighbor's house up the street. We'd stop by and pick up food on the way there, and I'd do my homework in the waiting room. My uncle and his family would be there many days, too.

I attended St. John the Baptist Catholic School (1977-85) and St. Jude Educational Institute (1985-89). The latter is best historically known as the final camping ground for Selma to Montgomery Marchers in 1965. For college, I went to Spelman, and completed my graduate work at Duke University, earning a Ph.D. in 1998 in American Literature. I have also had some interesting art experiences in school over the years. Like typical children, I liked to color. When I was in first grade at St. John, for weeks, I wanted a box of 64 Crayola crayons, with which I was surprised one day after school. We had music on Friday afternoons. This was also the time designated for art. This gave us freedom to color and draw. There were also some larger projects. In second grade, we made "mosaics," we had a smorgasbord of little pieces of construction paper to choose from to fill and glue onto individual designs on paper that our teacher drew for us. We made sand drawings with the colored chalk in fifth grade. Over the years, we made all of the typical classroom art projects commemorating holidays. By seventh grade, I was one of the students helping to design the classroom bulletin boards. I had a few classmates whose drawing abilities I admired; one was charged with doing some of the larger bulletin boards at school and a special mural for the eighth grade graduation at the church. My creativity flourished in seventh grade especially, where we were given so much freedom by our teacher, Catherine Harris, to express our talents. I got a calligraphy set for Christmas, and spent a couple of months writing in calligraphy that year, until I decided to forego it.

When she got her job, Pam bought me nice gifts for my birthday, like a Polaroid instant camera for my tenth birthday. I took it to school and took pictures of my classmates. Generally, though, I was not allowed to take my toys and things to school at all. Never a single Barbie doll. My grandmother's feeling was that "you go to school to learn, not to play."

From the time that I was twelve, I attended the University for Youth at Alabama State University for math in the summer, and after my seventh grade year, a course that I took entitled "Creative Experiences in Oral and Written Communication" enriched me greatly. These courses were always taught by professors. I went for two more years after that. In fourth grade, I went to Vacation Bible School at Hutchinson Street Baptist Church with our next door neighbor, and there, we had art class daily. We made jewelry boxes by gluing macaroni shapes onto a cigar box, and then spray painting the boxes in bright metallic gold. We made miniature rocking chairs out of clothespins. These activities were really fun. Our art teacher there also taught us music daily. This was a great experience.

I ran for president of the United States in a mock election in the seventh grade class, an election that drew the attention of the whole school and that I won in the end. I'd enjoyed campaigning and making the paraphernalia. So in high school, I decided to run for SGA vice-president at the end of tenth grade; I wanted to be in SGA, but I also just wanted to have the fun of a campaign again. I made signature campaign posters featuring celebrities such as Janet Jackson with catchy slogans, and using construction paper and posters, incorporating collage elements and applique techniques. I won the election. My posters in the campaign for SGA president, which featured Oprah Winfrey, Donahue, Ann Landers and some other figures, were similar. In retrospect, I've realized that I now use very similar techniques in my art quilt-making. I have concluded that my style, as it has developed, is a very natural one for my artistic expression. Both years, even all of my campaign buttons incorporated appliqué techniques. Other school projects incorporated these techniques as well. For instance, when I was SGA vice-president, we came up with this "Initiate Your Favorite Teacher Grinch" project as a fundraiser. I volunteered to make the art to promote the project. Through drawings and using appliqué techniques, I created a scene with the notorious Grinch of Dr. Seuss decorating a Christmas tree, with broken bulbs, and holding his little dog by a string. With the bulbs, and the cotton on the Santa suit that the Grinch wore, the whole thing had a coming off the page effect. This display was featured in the front lobby of the school for a couple of weeks. For my science fair project on radon as a high school junior, I made a miniature house out of cardboard, complete with miniature furnishings that I made for every room, and highlighted all of the places in the house that should be monitored carefully for radon. I'd made a similar display in eighth grade, a three-dimensional office for Malcolm X during Black History Month to complement my research paper on him. I think that this background shaped how and why I came to devote myself exclusively to appliqué quilt making. I have just always had a love for appliqué. I find that some of its uses inspire me even in certain forms of fashion and in architecture in such elements as classical baroque designs. And again, it was just the main thing that stoked my imagination in the material world at home (i.e. the oak bed, the designs on the fireplaces like the little Dutch girl and the little Dutch boy, the designs on the fan on the front porch).

Growing up, I attended the Ebony Fashion Fair at least three times, and was truly inspired by the show, as well as the charisma of Shayla Simpson as the commentator. I was sitting in close view of her one of those times and noted that she didn't use a single note, and rhymed the show perfectly from beginning to end. Her approach inspired mine when I was invited to be the commentator in the Senior Fashion Show as a junior at St. Jude, for I rhymed all the segments. For instance, I ended my introduction to the segment on marriage with the lines “It’s locked in our memories, and sealed with a kiss, and it goes something just like this.” I participated in some other productions that also shaped my artistic sensibility, including one entitled "The Black Religious Experience" when I was in tenth grade. It was put together by my ninth grade English teacher, who was from New Orleans and seemed to love her home so much. I was one of the few students who memorized the Gettysburg Address as a sixth grader, participated in programs at our cousin Eddie Mae's church in Pike County, Alabama, and by high school, was participating in oratorical contests in the federated clubs.

Attending Catholic school also honed my relationship to fabric, along with my creativity. I wore uniforms, which were somewhat homogenizing, and so it was important to find small and individual spaces of self-expression. School supplies and accessories like purses mattered hugely for claiming individuality. I went on special trips with my family to Atlanta to buy purses from African vendors, who seemed to sell the most interesting and unique ones around. My mother used a lot of interesting supplies for work, and I'd get fancy erasers that had to be sharpened like pencils and other unique supplies that many of my classmates envied from her. She worked in close proximity to the Forest Service, and so I became an environmentalist at a very early age, and shared my many bookmarks and buttons featuring Woodsy Owl and the slogan "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute," and Smokey Bear's warning to avoid forest fires, with classmates. Next to Christmas, I looked forward to picking school supplies annually and was always extremely selective about mine. Today, I can't believe that at age ten, a fad for some of my classmates and me became carrying leather briefcases and attaches and using Cross pens! I learned the importance of picking sweaters in quality cottons and wool and avoiding acrylic; I didn't like how they lost their shape once the sweater sleeves were pushed up even once, and swam widely around one's wrist. By high school, Oxford shirts and Aigner penny loafers were my mainstay. My mother was a shoe fanatic when I was a child and also encouraged me to buy nice shoes and to stick to natural "fabrics that breathe," silks, linens, cottons, wools, and to avoid synthetics. She bought me my first pair of Ferragamo's, loafers, from Two Sisters boutique when I was a high school junior.

Being at Spelman also helped to shape me as an artist. Spelman was a very energetic and lively artistic community on many levels. For instance, student organizations, including the sororities, would do these larger than life bulletin boards featuring figures in color silhouette form in the student center. So much work went into each one, and they changed on a weekly basis. Varnette Honeywood, the official campus artist, whose work was featured on "The Cosby Show" deployed similar silhouette techniques in her work. Quilts were discussed a lot in contexts such as women's studies. I wanted one, and so made one. This first quilt that I made, beginning over the holidays Christmas 1992, was a sorority quilt, for I'd become a Delta at the end of my junior year in the spring. I made miniature quilts and gave them as gifts to the members of my "family tree" in our chapter, Eta Kappa. The next spring, they had an art exhibition in the student center on campus and my quilt was one of the works shown. By senior year, I was inspired to begin to experiment with silhouettes on fabric, and this is how I have gradually evolved the style in which I work now. After the Delta quilt series, I worked on a series that I called "Daughters of Africa," which featured portraits of different women.

The other strand in this story relates to how my family series of art quilts began. I made my first family quilt the summer after I graduated from college in 1993. I was in a summer program in Massachusetts, working as a teaching intern in a program for gifted and talented high school students, and would spend time here and there in my room working on the appliques that summer, a project that helped me to remain grounded in this very different environment. But the origins of the family series also go back to a class I took senior year of college with Gloria Wade-Gayles on black women's autobiography. We read and researched autobiographies by black women and were also responsible for writing our own autobiographies in weekly installments. I produced 10-pages per week, well over 100 pages by the end of the semester, which we also had to revise and edit throughout. Another aspect of the work required was recording the autobiography of a senior citizen. I chose my grandmother. I began my work with her over spring break. Once I'd gone on to graduate school at Duke, I continued my fascination with her story. I decided to transcribe the tape and made what I called an amateur book-binding project. The result was her autobiography-Going Places: The Autobiography of Emma Jenkins Richardson, which includes 28 chapters.

One thing that amazed me was that many of the energies are concentrated in the period of the 1940s during WWII, when many Montgomerians migrated to Florida to work in the industries. She and my grandfather, along with many other family members, were among those who went, making up a veritable Montgomery diaspora in Florida. My grandfather was a contractor and worked on building the barracks; my grandmother worked ship service in the navy yard passing out uniforms and recording data in ledgers about the soldiers after trying a couple of other jobs. The story of their experiences in rooming houses and of having white neighbors for the first time, who were quite congenial, struck me. My grandmother talks about how different Florida was, how beautiful it was, with its brightly colored houses. They took pictures one Sunday on Palafax St. in Pensacola, Florida around 1943, and so some of the earlier quilts in the family series were inspired by those pictures and tell the Florida story. I enjoy her stories about the time in Florida, and they animate these quilts, which are based on photographs. They went on to Daytona where my grandfather was helping to build beachfront homes. Usually, the wives went along. In Daytona, my grandmother didn't work but describes many adventures such as going to Bethune-Cookman beach and trying to find the Fountain of Youth; she was usually with siblings and it was clear that they were having a great time. Once my grandparents returned to Montgomery, they had children; this was the early 1950s. Even her stories about her work in Montgomery before she married, at places like Arlene's Hat Shop where she took such pleasure in helping to create the window displays, at a bank, in a dentist's office, and on the NYA, are all very exciting and for me, or riding over to Atlanta to buy records and to see Peachtree Street and that sort of thing, clarify how young black people of in Montgomery, in their jobs, shaped a collective modernism during the era of the late 1930s. I have interviews that I have recorded from her or written down about all of these different experiences, as well as boxes of sayings. This background is part of what put me on the track to the family quilt series.

As a sophomore at Spelman, I took an art class with Arturo Lindsay; it was there that the foundations of my knowledge of art history expanded exponentially, including the ability to recognize the work of many major artists on sight. I did special projects for his class at Atlanta museums such as Hammonds House and the High Museum; it was there that I saw one of Faith Ringgold's famous quilts. I was an English major, and as an undergraduate, tended to perceive art as a major for the wealthy. Though I savored it, art as a career option, or even a career in art history, honestly never occurred to me; at the time, those options would have struck me as unrealistic. I had a couple of sorors who were art majors, and admired them. They took me upstairs to see the art studio and their projects one day, in the attic on the fourth floor of the main academic building on campus. It seemed like an interesting but definitely different world on campus, and I was very impressed.

At Duke, I continued to work on my quilts and used them to decorate my very first apartment. I wanted to have some art, and so making it myself seemed to be the easiest and cheapest way to do that on my small budget as a graduate student. The experience was also alienating, and so it definitely helped me to pour what time I could spare when not reading or writing, in an effort to excel in my coursework, into making art. I remember that after my first year, I began a summer job working as a temp for the Operating Room Administration at Duke University Medical Center. I spent my second day at work without anyone on my new job knowing that it was my birthday. I went to get some ice cream over on Ninth Street, then went home and worked on my autobiography quilt. I was truly gratified and liberated. I felt that I could make it in North Carolina, work and live there, and have a good life,
even if for some reason things didn't work out for me in graduate school. I had an apartment that I'd spent the first year of graduate school furnishing. I had the feeling, for the first time in my life, that I could survive on my own and take care of myself. It was a very good feeling. My first year at Duke, I read from a piece I'd written for publication in an anthology, and also displayed my art quilt work at the Women's Studies conference in the spring of 1994, along with my amateur book-binding project. I was also invited to exhibit it at the Duke Memorial Church in Durham. One man who saw the exhibition, a white man, was so moved by it that he cried. It was very touching, and uplifting, to perceive that art could have such a strong impact. After the autobiography quilt, I began a quilt featuring Africa, which was even more experimental, and incorporated wood. I found a lot of artistic support from Georgette Norman, the director of the Alabama African American Arts Alliance, and her companion Nomad. I enjoyed going to the parties at their house, which had the aura of a true artistic salon, and they affirmed my work as an artist and encouraged me to exhibit it someday. I ended up slowing down some in making art mid-way through graduate school because of the need to focus on prelims, and for the final two years in North Carolina, didn't work on art at all.

When I moved to California, I regretted that I had lost two whole years in my active artistic practice, leaving what I called "a gap in my artistic discourse," and vowed that I would never make that mistake again. I vowed that no matter how busy I got, I would continue to make art. My first year on the faculty at UC Davis was a busy and demanding one, but I'd look forward to Fridays when I'd go to the bookstore and buy art books, or visit Hastings Back Porch and talk to the owner. She'd teach me things about Haviland china and other things and we enjoyed discussing the Antiques Road Show. The first year in California, I had an apartment in Davis whose only furnishings were a $10 folding chair that I bought at Target and a futon borrowed from a cousin in Sacramento. My main mission was to work. In that apartment, I wasn't concerned about decor and focused on my recycling project, recycling everything. I perfected my rhythms in that area that year. My plan was to move to Sacramento, and so I waited a year to have the antiques that my grandmother had bought for me shipped out. I collected art books and other small things. Once I moved to a high rise apartment in downtown Sacramento, I spent many weekends shopping for antiques in Woodland and Sacramento. This was also when I began to build my collection of southern folk art. It was in the summer of 1999 that I began to make the larger images on my quilts and to incorporate painting. I wanted to be really careful in capturing the images of my mother and grandmother. "JoAnn: School Days" is the earliest one of these. So the technique were just beginning to emerge with that quilt. I had no idea that I could paint until I tried this. And then, I just kept at it because I enjoyed the work. I worked on my grandparents for the next two years and things just continued to develop from there. The second year in California, I was invited to participate in the exhibition of the arts club Les Belles Artes at FLorin Mall in Sacramento. They reported that my quilts drew a lot of attention. When I moved to Baltimore for a few months, when I had a year's leave, in my time alone, I mainly worked on articles, but also spent time on art. I continued my work on the appliques for the quilts that became "JoAnn and 'Junior Man,'" and also started the work on Josephine Baker. In Baltimore, I continued my rhythm of going to fabric stores, art stores and other places for supplies. On returning to California, I continued this work and began the political series. By the time that I went up for tenure in the UC system in 2004, I had a body of writing as an academic, as well as a growing body of art. By then, I began to see that I was an artist and to work more formally toward the art exhibition that I'd always been encouraged to do by Georgette Norman. My department published an image of one of my quilts on its annual newsletter in spring 2004, an image of the quilt "The Ties that Bind: JFK, MLK, RFK." But I declined the opportunity to exhibit my work there. In a sense, this reflected my wish to keep my art and academic work somewhat separate. I saw my art as a very private thing, and didn't want to make it "work" too soon. I wanted to just savor and enjoy it, for in a way, it has always been a refuge for me. I also declined some other exhibition invitations, including a second invitation from Les Belles Artes. The goal over the past few years has been to focus on the techniques. I haven't been in too much of a hurry to show my work publicly at all.

One reason that I have increasingly valued working on art is that it's work that draws in a very different audience from academic ones, but can be used to engage very similar questions to the ones that can be engaged in books or articles. I like being a southern intellectual, and someone who works academically in fields such as southern studies, but I also very much like to be able to make a contribution as a southern artist. The reaction to art can be very immediate, even for my family, in ways that just aren't as possible in terms of my academic work. Sometimes, I talk to my grandmother and she will ask me "Who are you working on today?" My family-and a few friends-have been the main audience for my work thus far. It pulls them in and they enjoy this work a lot.

Sharing my art work more publicly is exciting, but the truth is that I'd continue to do it for the rest of my life even just for the people around me now, or even for myself, because it's work that I truly enjoy and savor. It's the work that helps me to be who I have always been as a person. It is the work that most intimately reflects the contours of my journey as a girl and woman. In high school and college, poetry was my main medium of artistic expression, and I saw myself as a poet. The highest honor that I could pay to someone was honor in a poem. Not a single month went by-from the time I was 14 until I was about 22-without my writing a poem. In college, I was mainly known as a poet. Even in Delta, they named me "Roget" as a line name, because they felt that I used words so well. These days, I regard my quilts as my poetry. Making my art quilts is a grown-up way of playing with dolls. My art studio is my adult version of that cardboard "contraption" in a corner at home that I've always claimed a space for and focused on for hours on end. It may be that people at a fundamental level, never really change all that much. The little girl that I was in the 1970s, and all the people in my life, very much established the foundations for my emergence as an artist.

May 25-26, 2007

Riché Richardson, Associate Professor, Cornell University, Africana Studies and Research Center
Bio information and Profile as Academic and Artist
Riché Richardson was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama and attended St. John the Baptist Catholic School and St. Jude Educational Institute. After graduating from Spelman College in 1993 with a major in English and minors in philosophy and women’s studies, she attended Duke University, where she was trained in its famous English department and earned a PhD in American literature in 1998. She is primarily a scholar of African American literature and Southern studies and also works on gender studies, cultural studies, and critical theory. She spent the first 10 years of her academic career on the faculty at the University of California, Davis, where she was tenured in 2005 –at age 33, and where she received a Special Citation from the university for Diversity and the Principles of Community in 2008. For two years, she was the UC Davis campus representative to the President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program Advisory Committee in the University of California system. Her first book, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South: From Uncle Tom to Gangsta, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2007. It was named among Choice Books’ “Outstanding Titles of 2008,” Eastern Book Company’s “Outstanding Titles, Humanities, 2008” and Book of the Month by the Georgia Informer in 2007 Her essays have appeared in academic journals such as American Literature, the Mississippi Quarterly, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, the Forum for Modern Language Studies, TransAtlantica and NKA. Among her publications is the groundbreaking research on Alabama writer and civil rights activist William Bradford Huie, which has been applauded by his widow, Martha Huie. She is the co-editor (with Jon Smith) of a book series at the University of Georgia Press entitled “The New Southern Studies,” whose advisory board includes distinguished scholars such as Houston A. Baker, Jr., Trudier Harris and Tara McPherson; so far, the book series that she co-edits has published four titles in Southern studies. She has won several fellowships, including a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, which allowed her to spend 2001-02 in residence at the Johns Hopkins University in the Program for Comparative American Cultures. Twice, she has been elected to the Executive Council of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature, and now serves on the Executive Committee for the Southern Literature Discussion Group in the Modern Language Association. In 2006, she served as the program coordinator for the SSSL’s conference entitled “Labor, Literature and the U.S. South,” which was held in Birmingham, and drew on aspects of labor and civil rights history in Alabama. The event included keynotes by scholars such as the distinguished historian Michael Honey, drew a host of scholars from around the nation and even some other countries, and also included panels featuring representatives from Alabama’s institutions such as Sloss Furnaces and Alabama Public Television, and a special session that allowed scholars who had been impacted by Hurricane Katrina to share their stories. The event also featured Celia Carey, who presented her film on the quilts of Gee’s Bend.

In 2008, Riché Richardson joined the faculty at Cornell University and is now an associate professor with tenure in the Africana Studies and Research Center. In addition to being an academic, she is also an artist who makes mixed-media appliqué quilts. She had her debut show in Montgomery, Alabama in summer 2008 at the Rosa Parks Museum and Library, which was curated by Georgette Norman. Twenty-one of Riché’s works were displayed in a show entitled “Portraits: From Montgomery to Paris.” A short film about her art, “A Portrait of the Artist,” was made in Paris by two French scholars, Anne Cremieux and Geraldine Chouard, to accompany the show (which can be seen in three parts on YouTube). Her art work is the subject of a museum catalog, and is also the subject of a biographical chapter in Patricia A. Turner’s book entitled Crafted Lives: Stories and Studies of African American Quilters, which examines Riche’s work in relation to her background in Montgomery, experiences at St. Jude Educational Institute and Spelman, and larger themes related to civil rights history as they are treated in her art. It discusses her family background, including her mother and grandparents, Joanne Richardson and Emma and Joe Richardson, and also mentions that she is the grand niece of Johnny Rebecca Carr while highlighting her art quilt featuring Martin Luther King.

In January, 2009, she was hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France for a week as a “Cultural Envoy.” This trip was enabled through a grant from the U.S. Department of State. She was honored with a talk, reception and film screening at the Ambassador’s Residence in the city, facilitated a workshop on diversity at the U.S. Embassy, and had five of her quilts featured in a show at the Mairie du 5e (City Hall, 5th district) in Paris as part of a national quilt show now touring France entitled “Un Patchwork de Cultures,“ which celebrates the shared history of the United States and France, particularly in relation to Louisiana, and in light of recent issues such as Hurricane Katrina. On this trip, which lasted a week, she spoke to three groups of high school students, three groups of college students, including students in the suburbs (in the banlieue where the rioting occurred in 2005), was interviewed by the Bondy Blog, attended five film screenings, and gave several gallery talks which addressed various topics, including Montgomery history and civil rights, all of which reflected her own continuing commitment to making a difference. For her, this mission began in high school with a program for children and teens that she inaugurated as a volunteer at the Cleveland Avenue Branch YMCA during her junior and senior years at the historic St. Jude, the final camping ground of Selma-to-Montgomery marchers in 1965, where she was also a leader as student council vice-president and president and also served as newspaper editor. She is continuing this work and it reflects her vision of her purpose and mission as a citizen and artist. Last summer, working with Alabama State Representative Thad McClammy and the E.D. Nixon Foundation, she was able to offer a dialogue on her art quilts and a tour of the exhibition at the Rosa Parks Museum to four and fifth graders at E.D. Nixon Elementary School. In general, she is committed to helping expand the role of art in education and to promoting an understanding of the importance of art in sustaining democracy. The quilt that she made in honor of Barack Obama Presidential Inauguration entitled “Obama Time: Always (Congratulations, Mr. President!)” was featured in Paris at various events related to the inauguration, it is now on display as part of the historic exhibition at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. curated by Roland Freeman, which is entitled “Quilts for Obama.” It is among the works featured on its lovely commemorative poster and has also been discussed in several news articles. She is now working on a second book, a manuscript on black southern femininity, various articles, and another art quilt exhibition, which will draw highlight civil rights themes and highlight places such as Montgomery, Alabama, Paris and Charleston, South Carolina.

Background Profile (to age 17):

From Profile Published in Program of National Sorority of Phi Delta Kappa, Inc., Beta Beta Chapter Debutante Cotillion, Saturday Evening, April 1, 1989, Held at Montgomery Civic Center

Debutante Riché Deianne Richardson [age 17]
Daughter of Ms. Joanne Richardson
St. Jude Catholic High School

HOBBIES: Writing essays, poems and stories, collecting dolls, stuffed animals and old coins, reading, and volunteering

AMBITION: To become a lawyer

MOTTO: “Concrete objectives, high standards, genuine integrity, invincibility, and determination are attributes that foster a fulfilling life”


Beulah Missionary Baptist Church, Student Council President, 1988-89; Student Council Vice-President, 1987-88; School Newspaper Editor, 1988-89; National Honor Society; Math Club, Treasurer, 1987-89; Spanish Club; Nature Club; Liturgy Club, Vice President, 1986-87; Journalism Club; Library Assistant; Math Competition Club[including serving on team that won third-place statewide competition in geometry in Alabama]; Drama Club; Dora Beverly Junior Federated Club, First Vice President; Medical Explorers; Zeta Phi Beta Archonette Club, Historian Reporter; Phi Delta Kappa Xinos Club, Treasurer; Sigma Phi Omega Tri-Hi-Y, Recording Secretary; Montgomery One Youth Committee; Top Teens of America, Inc.; Montgomery City Federation of Youth Clubs, Historian-Reporter; Volunteer Tutor of Elementary School Students; Volunteer at Cleveland Avenue Branch YMCA(Sponsor of the Junior Tri-Hi-Y Leaders’ Club, an organization to promote academic excellence, cultural pride, and social graces); Nursing Home Volunteer; President of Graduating Class at St. John the Baptist Catholic School; Girl Scouts; Junior Gayfers Girl Club [ages 11 -13].


Most Outstanding Geometry Student, 1986-87; Listed in Who’s Who Among American High School Students; The Society of Distinguished American High School Students; National Science Merit Awards (Recognition for achievements in Physics and Chemistry); First Place School Science Fair Winner; Recognized as the Most Outstanding High School Academic Achiever by the Archonette Club of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, 1987-88; Awarded for Scholastic Excellence by the Montgomery County Chapter-University of Alabama Alumnae Association; Awarded for Accomplishments in Statewide Algebra II and Geometry Contests; First Place Winner of an Essay Contest sponsored by the National Honor Society (1987); Selected as a National Finalist to compete in McDonald’s Talented Teens Essay Contest (sponsored by McDonald’s Corporation and a Better Chance, Inc.); Second Place Winner of an Essay Contest sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc; Second Place Winner of Alabama Association of Youth Clubs’ Oratorical Contest (1987); Coronation Ball Participant in 1987; Presented as a Contestant at the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Finer Womanhood Observance, 1988; Senior Who’s Who, "Most Outgoing" and "Most Organized"; Delivered Welcoming Address at the Farewell Program for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; Received a Presidential Award for a Short Story sponsored by St. Jude’s P.T.A; First Place Award for an original poem Honoring Rosa Parks.


Mrs. Gloria Lawrence, Mrs. Odell Graham, and Mrs. Mattie S. Gary


Keyshia Jesses, Ursula Thomas, Caprice Chattom, Tiffany Kennedy, Quanza Wadsworth, Celeste Reese, LaQuita Elam, Shalisa Gooden, Sandiskie Gamble, Demita Williams, and Kimberly Moore


Christopher Thomas

*Placed in top 12 in competition, made debutante court, and as a result, received scholarship money from Phi Delta Kappa, Beta Beta Chapter; also received gifts literally up to my chin that night from my “Little Sisters,” including from those who were not officially named

*At 12, had also won first place prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Montgomery County Democratic Council, for an essay on W.E.B. DuBois

*Had delivered welcoming address at farewell program at St. John the Baptist School for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, as well as an address at eighth grade graduation

*Won prize in craft competition sponsored by the Alabama Association of Federated Youth Clubs

*Post-cotillion, selected to work at Alabama State University in MSSRA Program as a Biomedical Research Intern; received scholarship award from Zeta Phi Beta Archonettes

*1989 winner of college scholarship competition sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Beta Nu Omega Chapter, and received college scholarship funding dispersed over four years.

*Named among top high school students in the nation by President George Bush and received certificate

*Senior Who's Who Most Outgoing and Most Organized [was also voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by senior class but declined b/c MLTS is such a cliché, was most intrigued and genuinely amused by other categories in which I had been voted and could only select two, and deferred to another outstanding classmate]

*Won scholarships from Spelman, Hampton and Talladega

Link to Debutante Program Profile and Selected Debutante Photos

Link to Art Prints

Link to Photo at "Quilts for Obama" Exhibition in Washington, DC

Link to Art Quilts in "Portraits: From Montgomery to Paris"

Link to Reception and Film Screening at Ambassador's Residence in
Paris as Cultural Envoy

Link to Dialogue with Vocational Students and US Embassy Reception
in Paris at Mairie du 5e/City Hall, 5th District

Debutante Art Quilt Series and Photo Album

Riche Richardson Art Quilt Blog Scrapbook/Blog Post Drafts

(coming post): Riche Richardson's Bridal Trousseau

This formal and frequently forgotten tradition is still de riguer for many Southern women, including former debutantes like me, a person who keeps the traditional Monday wash day, washes all of my fine designer lace French lingerie (Chantelle) by hand, has a library of cookbooks, a collection of Haviland china, loves interior design, keeps a formal pantry and linen closet, and is committed to homemaking as an art. I've developed a list of indispensable items that I am acquiring for my own marriage, a union in true and divine Holy Matrimony anointed under God and by the Holy Spirit to live out the true meaning of this special Sacrament and ministry on earth on the path to heaven's blessings. Just as a woman and for myself, I have savored the process of renewing myself from the inside out and giving 100% to becoming my best woman in a physical and spiritual sense and to preparing my body to yield its fruits, putting the work, sacrifices and action behind my faith. As part of my routine self-care, I get European facials, which take two hours. I am also into organic body waxing, which takes almost just as long and has tremendous health benefits. I love pedicures. I've grown out all hair chemicals. I use only natural products from head to toe, including coconut oil for lotion, shea butter, and natural soaps. I also value good nutrition (i.e. no animal fats, eggs, etc.) and ab crunches for staying in shape. I am sharing some, though by no means all, of the trousseau items below.

Family Bible (white, illustrated and leather-bound- a gift from my aunt)
Cream handmade double wedding ring quilt (queen)
Four handmade quilts from Charleston and Provence, France, for "everyday use" in the sense described by Alice Walker in her famous short story
A set of All Clad cookware.
Four linen table cloths (for daily use)
White table napkins (a large new supply for daily use)
White restaurant-style dishes (for daily use)
White bathtowels and washcloths (a large new supply for daily use)
Several designer sheet sets special-ordered, including two initialed and embroidered w/ lace (to honor these historic traditions and the days when women made their own sheets)
Organic sheet sets
The Grand Baroque silverware
Antique set of Haviland china (to add to sets already in possesion)
Organic white "his and hers" terry robe set
Set of white Dior lingerie (for honeymoon)
Multiple fine lingerie ensembles
Dresses, shoes, purses, etc.
Pre-wedding parental retreat (in Charleston) to honor my own origins in a twin dynasty in Charleston, South Carolina, the birthplace of my great, great, great grandfather in 1795, who had sets of twins over three generations in which the names named "Isic and Ben" were passed down, and set a foundation for a phenomenon that continues to this day.
My roots in the U.S./Western Hemisphere on my mother's side go back to Charleston and Savannah and to the Bahamas and New York on the other.
Pre-wedding spa trip (to Atlanta) for bridesmaids (three, including my cousin LaTongia as Maid-of-Honor, who is a year older than I am, lives in New York, attended St. John the Baptist Catholic School with me, and has walked with me and supported me through every stage of life, and in my dreams and visions of love (and in its finest past realities). Her witness of this special and sacred union will mean so much as I continue to embrace my future and celebrate it, with my face ever forward, the past irrelevant and forgotten, and never a look back.