Saturday, April 5, 1997
Quilts like open book on life
Exhibit shows black women's art

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Olivia Baker, 80, of Woodlawn, stitched her first quilt at age 16. This month, she will participate in a filmed quilting bee to acoompany a summer exhibit at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |

LINCOLN HEIGHTS - Pieces of dishrags, drapes and clothes leap from the fabric of one of Olivia Baker's cherished quilts.

Patched together, the multicolored square scraps found ''here and there'' tell the story of the 80-year-old woman's life.

''This was a suit,'' Ms. Baker said, her fingers falling on a patch of blue pinstripe. ''This was an old blouse,'' she pointed to a sunny yellow square and laughed at the idea she ever wore a blouse that bright.

Ms. Baker, of Woodlawn, is representative of African-American women who have subtly sewn their life experiences onto cloth and transformed what had been a functional chore into an art form that captures joy and despair.

''We're people with a lot of stories to tell,'' said Forest Park's Carolyn Mazloomi, a renowned quilter. ''Our quilts are narratives, and the stories can be quite powerful.''

If you go

''In the Spirit of the Cloth: African-American Quilts'' will open May 17 at the Cincinnati Art Museum in Eden Park. The exhibit will showcase quilts from across the United States, including one by Forest Park's Carolyn Mazloomi. The show ends July 27.

Ms. Baker stitched her first quilt when she was 16 years old and living with her grandma in Gaffney, S.C. Her grandmother made her finish a quilt before she could get married.

Ms. Baker is among a group of Cincinnati women who will participate this month in a filmed quilting bee to accompany ''In the Spirit of the Cloth: African-American Quilts,'' a traveling national quilt exhibit to be displayed at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Exhibit organizers underestimated the interest of local African-American women.

''It's got everyone talking about the old quilting bees, getting cotton from the mill and stomping on it to beat out the seeds,'' marveled Forest Park's Charlotte Hunter, who is coordinating the video. ''These women don't know the value of their work.''

That's one reason Mrs. Mazloomi formed the Woman of Color Quilters Network in 1986.

''A lot of the quilt folk were getting ripped off,'' Mrs. Mazloomi said. ''They didn't understand the monetary value of what they were doing.''

One of Mrs. Mazloomi's 200 quilts, ''Ode to Kahlil Gibran,'' will be on display at the art museum. Her story quilt is a tribute to Mr. Gibran's book The Broken Wing. ''I read that book and reread it so many times, I just thought it would make a wonderful quilt.''

Although Ms. Baker has completed dozens of glorious quilts, she has never profited from the hobby she credits with taking her troubles away.

Her quilts have names and themes. One is the ''Tree of Life.'' Ms. Baker gave that quilt to a cousin who was dying of cancer. Another quilt she calls ''Tumbling Blocks'' is set aside for a grandchild.

To Mrs. Mazloomi, Ms. Baker's quilts sum up what quilting means to most African-American women: their life experiences. ''That's why the exhibit is called 'In the Spirit of the Cloth,''' she said.