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Writer,Quilt maker,Folkartist, from Freestone County, Tx.


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Monday, December 13, 2010


Laverne Arella Henry-Brackens

Laverne Arella Henry-Brackens is the daughter of W.E. (Willie Elbert) Henry,Sr. and Gladys Celia Durham-Henry. She was born April 13,1927 and was their second child /Oldest daughter. Her siblings were as follows:

Clyde Henry
Laverne Arella Henry
Coleman Henry
Richmond Henry
Aldessa Joyce Henry-Bass
Willie E.(Elbert) Henry, Jr.
Vernetta Lee Henry
Eleanore Henry (died in child birth)
Clifton Artel Henry

Their father W.E. was an only child and their mother, Gladys, was the only Durham daughter who gave birth to children, among the four sisters in her family. Their mother was a homemaker and quilted to keep the large family of children warm in the winter time. Laverne participated in her mother's quilt making activities during her youth.

"Laverne is the middle generation of the quilters still active in her family today. Like her Aunt Katie Mae Tatum and her daughter Sherry Byrd, she learned the basics of quilting at home., observing her mother and grandmother and occasionally trying her hand at stitching and piecing. But as one of the eldest children in her parent's home, she recalls being responsible for many other household tasks. Perhaps for this reason she didn't continue quilting as a young woman.

After marrying Connie Freddie Lee Brackens in the 1940's, Mrs. Brackens worked in a variety of jobs, but most consistently as a cook in private homes and public institutions. After an accident in the early 1980's, she retired from her job and was prevented from further work involving physical strain. As it turned out, quilting provided just the right creative outlet for her boundless energy. Nowadays, she spends all of her free time cutting, piecing and sewing several quilts a month."

Pat Jasper, Director
Texas Folk life Resources Gallery
Austin, Texas 1999

A favorite Laverne Brackens quilt at Quilts of Color Exhibit ,Texas Folklife
Resources Gallery in 1999

Laverne Brackens' Bio,Exhibitions and Publications
Eli Leon

The second of four recent generations of extraordinarily talented quilt makers in a single Texas family, Laverne Brackens (1927-) helped her mother tack quilts when she was a child, but didn't get interested in making them herself until much later. Raising eight children and five grandchildren and working for four decades or so as a cook, she was always on the go and could never sit still long enough to do quilts. But after a l987 accident forced her early retirement, she found in quilt making an occupation that she could still handle.

"The whole time I was on crutches....I was piecing quilts because I could use my left foot [for the sewing machine]. Doctor won't let me do nothing else. Nothing else I can do. So I just set down and quilt."

Once into it, Brackens developed a wholehearted passion for "creating beauty from pieces of colorful material.  A friend supplied her with factory scraps and she got a kick out of seeing what she could do with them. Some ideas came to her in dreams; others she worked out as she went along.

" I don't have no certain pattern in mind. I just start working my material until I get it to look like a quilt".

Outstandingly prolific, she can cut enough pieces for three tops in one day and "go back the next day and maybe do two of them." If she feels like it, she can do all three, but it may take her "till midnight". Indeed, she pieced two hundred and six quilt tops from May 1992, shortly after we first met, to May 1993, when I gave up keeping track. This must have been an especially dynamic period for her, but 15 1/2 years later, she still has not let up.

Example of Laverne Brackens Numbers Quilt Design.
Brackens enjoys placing letters and numbers in her designs. On the occasion of a grand daughter's eighth birthday, for example, she developed a quilt pattern based on the number 8.

" I was just sitting down," she said, "and it come to me." 

Since she "didn't  want the figure 8 all the way around," she worked out a second pattern for alternate blocks and a third for a single border, "making these other patterns with part of the figure 8 in it" so they'd be different but "come into the figure 8 pattern."

An eloquent spokeswoman for her quilt aesthetics, Brackens emphasizes that misalignment leads to variability:

" If you piece them all where they hit right together, every quilt you piece is going look
just alike and if you twist it up a little bit, it'll make the quilt look different. I just like to
take a simple quilt and give it a different look. That's what I be trying to do."

Offsetting, measuring approximately, using scraps as found, breaking rules, and straying from the initial pattern, are, for Brackens, all parts of a larger picture in which incidental contingencies contribute to the beauty and individuality of an artist's creation. Brackens fills out the picture with mentions of off-centering the centerpiece, displaying odd selvages, rotating printed stripes, stripping vertically and horizontally in the same quilt, enlarging undersized blocks with strips of fabric, and working the pattern out as you go along, all to effect a "different look," "change it up," or "give that quilt a offset look":

Off Set Blocks by Laverne Brackens.

" You make one block just a little bit longer than the other one, but you don't do it all the way 
across the quilt. That means it's not going to hit. I wanted it not to hit but I didn't want it to do that 
on every block, so that's why some blocks is a little larger than others."

Ideas may or may not come from the head; "accidentals" are the artists helpmates; open mindedness and maintenance of control are not mutually exclusive:

" You'll start with one idea and that idea's not coming together like you want it to come. 
Then you just say "let's try it this way." It won't  come out in your first idea, but it will come 
out into an idea that you like better than the first one. If it don't do what I want it to do, then
I'm gonna make it do something I like."

Statements like this clued me into the concept of Accidentally on Purpose-the title of my most all-inclusive
cataloged exhibition.

Brackens once pieced a quilt for her father ( Willie Henry), which included the letters W, H and L, for Willie, Henry, and Laverne. Sometime, she puts whole words into quilts--"why", for example. The bottom line, however, is that she "likes letters in there--they're just pretty to me," and doesn't require that they mean anything. The letters J-A-N-T-L at the center of one of her quilts and an F on one side of another, like a lone L in the corner of a third, don't stand for anything. I expected to be informed that the L was a way of signing the quilt, but Brackens insisted that it was "just an L." Similarly, assortments of odd pieced or appliqued shapes, including occasional letters are for Brackens, just designs.

National Heritage Fellow, Arbie Williams, looking at slides of Brackens' work in 1993, was lavish in her approval: "Oh she did go wild on these," Williams exclaimed. "Bless her heart. Now hat's a real heart breaker there. She wants it different from what she's seen it, so that's the reason you see so much of them flashing with different corners. She don't want to do what the next woman is doing. so she doos it of her own. Where's she from, Texas? Oh God. I sure want to go see her when I go there."

In 1996, Brackens' work shared the spotlight with that of her mother (Gladys Henry), one of her daughters (Sherry Byrd), and one of her granddaughters (Bara Byrd) in "Four Generations of African-American Quilt makers," a show I curated at the High Museum in Atlanta. This exhibition later evolved into the 2006 show and catalogue Will the Circle Be Unbroken:Four Generation of African-American Quilt makers at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art (MOCFA) in San Francisco, along with a filmed interview with Brackens by MOCFA exhibition manager Karin Nelson, and the article "One Family's Quilted Legacy" in the October 2006 issue of Quilters Newsletter Magazine.

Other exhibits in which Brackens participated and articles about her and her family include: 

a 1999 exhibition called Quilts of Color: Three Generations of Quilters in an Afro-Texan Family at the Texas Folk life Resources Gallery in Austin, Texas and the Kirkland Center in Clinton, New York;

 and article called "Playing Jazz with a Needle and Thread," by Norma Martin in Life and Arts / Austin American Statesman, August 6, 1999, pp.4,16-18,37;

 "Black Women Fiber Artists," by Toni Wynn in The International Review of African-American Art /Fiber Arts the Stuff of Dreams, 1999, Vol.15,#5,pp.8-9;

 "On the Road for Folk Art,"
by Elaine Robbins, in Texas Living: People and Places/Southern Living Magazine, November 2000,pp.14,16,17;

 "Artsy Crafty," by Carl Hoover, in the Waco Tribune-Herald / Brazos Living, Nov.19,2000,p.1,Section E;

 an exhibition called "Storytelling: One Stitch at a Time" at the Texas Memorial Museum of Science and History in Austin in 2001-2002;

 Stitches in Time, by Amanda Rogers in The star-Telegram, Ft. Worth, April 13,2002;

 Aloha!, the Autumn 2005 Catalog by Dosa Inc., Los Angeles, pp. 16-17,49,91,113:

 "Quilt Legacy in Fairfield: Quilt making is in Laverne Brackens' Bones," Texas Co-op Power, June 2006,p38; 

and Family Quilts, a television documentary by the Texas Country Reporter (show #1000) on October 28th, 2006. 

The Texas Memorial Museum owns two of Laverne's quilts;

 Chicago's Bessie Coleman Library's five featured artworks include quilts by Laverne Brackens and Arbie Williams.

Additional cataloged exhibitions of mine that included works by Brackens are 

"Showing Up": Maximum-Contrast African-American Quilts at the Richmond Art center in Richmond,CA,1996;

Something Else to See: Improvisational bordering Styles in African-American at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, 1997;

 No Two Alike:African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern, at the South Carolina state Museum in Columbia, 1998;

 Let It Shine: Improvisation in African-American Star Quilts at the William D. Cannon Art Gallery in San Diego, 2001;

 Improving the Bow tie: African-American Improvisational Quilts at the Mills college Art Museum in Oakland, California, 2005; 

and Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts at the Figge Museum in Davenport Iowa, 2006.

 Good Books also published one of her quilts in their 2002 African American Quilts wall calendar.

Typically, Brackens' works outnumber those of most of the other quilters in her group exhibitions. Over 70 outstanding quilt makers, for example, were responsible for the more than 100 illustrations that were selected from a pool of thousands of improvisational African-American quilts for my Accidentally on Purpose catalogue. They would, therefore, average little more than one work per artist. Indeed, only four of the 70 had more than three of their works in the show. Brackens, however, had five. Those besides Brackens with more than three were National Heritage Fellow Arbie Williams, virtuoso Rosie Lee Tompkins, and Brackens' mother, Gladys Henry. And quilts, furthermore, are not Brackens' only exceptional contributions to the world of African-American improvisation. In addition to her works of art, my writings draw heavily on her arrestingly expressive verbalizaions, some of which I've quoted in this bio and can be found in Eli Leon Interviews with African-American Quilt makers archived by the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska.

These quotations by Brackens are all over the Internet. (To locate the web sites referred to below, google "Laverne Brackens") The Alliance for California Traditional Arts Calendar,The Tribe, and the Oakland tribune, for example, all repeat the quote: " I don't go by patterns. I make it up out of my head. When you pick up the material and start working with it, that's when you know what [the quilt] will be." Kate Brown in WordPress.com's Thoughts Not Mine: The Monkey wrench Emporium, quotes: "If you piece them all where they hit right together, every quilt you piece is going to look just alike, and if you twist  it up a little bit you will make the quilt look different. I just like to take a simple quilt and give it a different look." 

Caireen Todd, in The Patchwork Dress: Unbroken Circle, reports: "[Brackens] can cut out the pieces for three quilt tops in a day and 'go back the next day and maybe do two of them'." 

Most of these quotes come from show catalogs that include passages from many other quilt makers, but Brackens' are frequently among the ones chosen. In this domain, she can be equaled by none other than Arbie Williams. 

Bara Byrd, Laverne's quilt making grand daughter, pieced seven tops at the age of twelve,sold six of them, and sent the seventh to her grandmother. brackens was "tickled to death". " I  sleep under that quilt," she reported. "Only time that quilt's off of my bed is when I wash it and put it up in the Spring. I just love it." She got teary-eyed talking about it: "Cause it's my granddaughter that made it. Usually, the rest of them is always saying, 'Granny, can I have a quilt?"

Some of Laverne Brackens wonderful creations:


BRITCHES QUILTS: Customer Favorites...Especially the men.

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