Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Short Artist Statement, 2008, Produced in Tandem with Debut Show "Portraits from Montgomery to Paris," Rosa Parks Museum Gallery and Library,July-Sept

Artist Statement

by Riché Deianne Richardson

As a self-taught quilt artist, I focus on making applique art quilt portraits. This is a style that stems from my original interest in creating scenes featuring colorful silhouette collages on fabric. A few years ago, because I longed to capture my subjects in more specificity and detail, I began to draw and paint features on their faces and to give them rooted synthetic hair. I often attach eyelashes. The quilts that highlight more of the body also have fingernails. I even used makeup to highlight features on a couple of them. Sculpting is sometimes evident. This is natural, I suppose, given that some of my earliest art projects in childhood and teen years were dolls. In general, my goal is to create a realist, portrait-like image. My supplies come from a variety of places, depending on what I am trying to do. In the process of making my quilts, I can be a makeup artist, a hairdresser and a manicurist. It just depends on the project. All of these hats are fun to try to wear.

The two quilts featuring my grandparents on Palafax Street during their time living in Pensacola, Florida in the 1940s during World War II ground the family series. The story of this time is tacit in them. My grandfather, like my grandmother's brothers and so many others from Montgomery, made up a Montgomery diaspora there and worked in construction building barracks. The wives tended to go along, and so my grandmother eventually joined him there. This is such an intriguing time, and builds upon her early work experiences as a trainee in the NYA. After that, they moved on to Daytona where the men built beachfront homes, and only resettled in Montgomery in the late 1940s.

The baby quilt entitled "JoAnn and 'Junior Man'” is based on a 1950s photograph of my mother and uncle. It shows my mother and uncle but tells a story about my grandmother, too, in terms of her eye for beauty and adoration of her children. She says that she had just gotten her paycheck, saw that beautiful blue dress, and bought it right off a display in a store window. I try to recreate those outfits in the quilt, down to their colors. The quilt tells an Easter story from around the time of Brown v. Board and the Montgomery Bus Boycott began. At a deeper level, it captures the beauty, harmony and dignity of black family and community rituals that were in place in Montgomery not only in my grandparent’s house on Union Street-which they owned and rented out while they were in Florida-but also in many other homes.

As the family series continued to develop beyond these early works, I also stepped out to capture political and cultural figures, building three other main series with titles such as "Paris," "Political," and "Hollywood." The political series began with a quilt featuring the triumvirate Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and John F Kennedy, and there is a also companion one of Malcolm X. I opt for this juxtaposition and think it is important because his tragic loss in 1965 is often not mentioned in descriptions of the tragic losses of national leaders during the civil rights era. There is a quilt featuring Josephine Baker in the Paris set. It features also Simone de Beauvior.

The quilts that inaugurate the Hollywood series all focus on Gone with the Wind, a production that punctuated the 1930s and the golden era of Hollywood film, and recreates its characters such as Scarlett, Mammy, and Rhett. The quilt featuring Hattie McDaniel repeats an early image from the film. Yet, with its bangs and tendrils, it also attempts to convey the actress's beauty and what we might have seen on screen if there had been even more room for her to express herself and the phenomenal style and glamour that she had as a woman. The background for the appliqué is a dish cloth, her dress is made of pure cotton, the buttons are of whalebone, and because McDaniel's weight was a feature in and of itself, it's also the only quilt across these series that is stuffed.

Each appliqué can take months and months to complete because of the level of detail and intricacy. They have various "special effects" that make them unique and challenging. Among such details are Malcolm X's glasses, Josephine Baker's banana skirt, my grandfather's hat, the knitted sweaters on the quilt featuring my mother, the shoes on the three installations, the braces on the one featuring me in high school, etc. I have to go where every quilt takes me, in a sense, in terms of pulling off these effects.

Overall, my style is minimalist in the sense that I try to use very basic materials, very few instruments, and I do all the work is by hand. Quality matters more to me than quantity. Speed, convenience, and efficiency in the process are never my goals. Indeed, the wagon wheel is the main symbol that comes to mind when I think of the rhythm of what I do. In his On Art and Life: You Must Either Make a Tool of the Creature, or a Man of Him, You Cannot Make Both, John Ruskin remarks that "The needle is the woman's plow." My work as an artist on some levels, is an iteration of the tireless and restless rhythms of women across generations with needles. The quilts in the debutante series are designed to raise basic philosophical questions like, "What is a quilt?" In order to do the work I do, I must address topics that I care about, images that I love and or images that are at least fascinating to me, for I can literally journey with these projects for months on end.

In general, some of the quilts, as they have been conceived, explore or allude to aspects of the past like Easter Parades in the Montgomery community. They take us back to a time in the past when May Day celebrations were a major event for black schools. Another thing that I have discovered is that good and even professional photography has been the inspiration for some of my quilts. Some quilts, such as the ones in the political series, which include images of figures like the John F Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, hearken back to a civility and respect for leadership that have been somewhat eroded by an invasive, corporate media. Civil rights/black liberation history as related to Montgomery and issues concerning the South more generally are dominant themes.

I love this work and am continually inspired by it. My journey as an artist is literally a walk by faith. My Southern folk art collecting also keeps me inspired as I work toward my artistic goals. When I was starting out as an artist, and throughout most of the 1990s, it was inspiring to engage with and draw on the energy of the creative community generated by Georgette Norman. I met her in Montgomery while volunteering at a Girl Scout camp for a week during the summer after college. At that time, she was the director of the Alabama African American Arts Alliance. I was working on a series called "Daughters of Africa" back then. I am so honored that Georgette, who has long encouraged me as an artist, is the curator for my exhibition in Montgomery. Her “salon” has been one of my most valuable sources of inspiration in the arts.

I think that art is useful in that it may give a more divergent range of voices access to the public sphere and conceivably helps to make it more democratic. I hope to use mine to explore initiatives that will serve and inspire communities. For instance, I want to draw on my education series in some outreach to schools. In general, the community work in my family is ongoing, and volunteering has also been a central aspect of my life's mission from high school. Preparing for the show has taught me a lot and exposed me to crafts such as filmmaking and photography while including the work of talented practitioners in these areas.