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Friday, May 18, 2012

Eli Leon: One Champion and Major Promoter of African American Improvisational Quilts as Art.

Eli Leon 
leon image
Eli Leon, the man who helped to bring African American Quilts 
from Freestone County,Texas into the "Limelight" of the Art and
Quilt making worlds.Thus putting them on the map as true art. 

Read more about his work at:

To the Titus family lineage of quilt makers based in Freestone County,Texas, Eli Leon is quite the real life hero in that it was through his undaunting efforts , perservence and detective like research that African American quilts from Freestone County, Texas became known as art.
He championed and promoted African American Improvisational quilts when they were the underdogs in both the Art and Quilt Worlds. Eli traveled to Texas ....met, interviewed, and purchased examples of Laverne Brackens works and creations of her mother,Gladys Henry. He included them in his huge collection of amazing Modern Art like textiles (more than 2,000). He was convinced that they were not the mistakes of un-skilled quilt makers...but true works of art backed with historical significance. Because of him I, (Sherry Byrd) was inspired to pursue and retrieve as much of my family's history as I possibly could. Partly because of him, www.quiltstoriesbysherryann.blogspot.com has come into existence. For this inspiration I applaud him as a true pioneer in this genre of art....African American Improvisational Quilt Making.

This page on our blog is dedicated to Eli Leon and all that he has accomplished.We hope that you enjoy the following chronicles of his amazing detective like research as much as our family has. We applaud his sincere efforts and dedication to the cause of uncovering and bringing to the world's attention the arts and skills that have been passed down to us via six generations of our ancestors...as well as the many generations that have embellished the lineages of other African American families nationwide. We also thank him for nominating....Laverne Brackens, for the 2011 NEA Folk art Fellowship Award....making her the first quilt maker to receive this award in the state of Texas.

We sincerely hope that you will enjoy and get much inspiration from the following chronicles of his efforts to capture the legacies of some of the amazing quilts in his Internationally renowned collection. The quilts are important to this collector...but the legacy behind the art work is even more intriguing to him, and well worth the hunt ,as the following chronicles reveal. ENJOY!!!!

Sherry Ann



.Eli Leon's

Mission Statement:

The knowledge, attitudes and values carried across the Atlantic by enslaved 
Africans appear to have informed a quilt making tradition so powerful that, to this
 day its identity is a special province of African-American quilts. Such "Afro-traditional" quilts are made by people who have no formal art training and who usually do not consider themselves artists; they learned their craft and absorbed its esthetics by watching and helping their mothers, aunts and grandmothers who, in turn, learned from previous generations …a direct line to the patchwork traditions of enslaved African-Americans.

The resulting--often highly idiosyncratic--quilts call out to be seen as the works of art that they are. Not that they cease to be products of custom. The brilliance of this work must also be credited to a tradition which encourages individual expression and provides a context in which the talents of individual artists can flourish.
Improvisation, pervasive in black African art and familiar as a basic element of many African-American musical forms, is a vital force in this tradition. The artisans maintain a generous attitude toward the accidental, embracing innovations that originate beyond the conscious domain. They use approximate measurement, stepping up the order of variability by dealing creatively with the tricky piecing predicaments that ensue. They use "flexible patterning," in which the design, conceived of as an invitation to variation, will not repeat, but will materialize in a sequence of visual elaborations.

Afro-traditional attitudes and methods are antithetical to the standard American quilt making tradition--practiced by both whites and blacks--in which great value is placed on precise measurement and exact pattern replication. They bear keen likeness, however, to the improvisatory practices of the textiles-makers of Kongo and West Africa, regions from which American slaves were taken. These antipathies and affinities suggest an enduring African influence on the Afro-traditional quilt.
My shows and catalogs celebrate the sophistication, vivacity and significance of improvisational African-American quilts, both as artistic achievements and as expressions of African-American traditions.



.Strip Quilt, Mary Lue Brown, 1940s Photo

Reclaiming a Missing Link
by Eli Leon
I first saw Mother Brown's missing-link strip quilt one drizzly Saturday morning at a great distance across the enormous Oakland, California Alameda flea market. It was winter, 1984. The quilt was wrapped around an African-American quilt enthusiast and occasional dealer of my acquaintance named Alberta. As a new scholar of improvisational African-American patchwork and a proponent of the theory of African influence on African-American quilt making, I was very much on the lookout for survivals of African esthetic values in the American work. Spotting Mother Brown's quilt, even from afar, I was pretty sure I'd hit pay dirt.

I zipped across the flea market, my extra-large shopping cart bouncing behind me, and bought the quilt out from around Alberta. I'd arrived in the nick of time. Alberta and her friend Betty, who turned out to be the quilt's owner, were about to get rained out. Thrilled to find what I considered to be a repository of Africanisms so close to what I assumed was the quilt's community of origin, I readied pencil and paper to take notes and started firing questions. Needless to say, I was crestfallen to discover that Alberta and Betty had no information to give me, or so they believed. Betty had bought the quilt at auction and knew nothing whatever about its origins. Short of a miracle, its maker would forever remain anonymous.

Within a decade, this quilt would dazzle the American museum-going public in Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quilt making--my first cataloged exhibition of African-American quilts, whose twenty-some-odd venues would include the Renwick gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago's Field Museum, and the American Craft Museum in New York City. Paired with a strip woven Hausa cloth from West Africa that makes use of a similar randomized checkerboard pattern, it would grace the cover of my second catalog, Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork. And, although I would make repeated research / collecting trips to East Texas, Northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas (the region from which most of my California quilt making contacts had migrated), and see hundreds of improvisational African-American quilts, Mother Brown's would remain my best example of a "two-pair" bordering arrangement, thereby providing critical support for one of my strongest arguments for African antecedents.1 In short, once its origins were established, this quilt would be of particular importance to my work; I couldn't have been more disheartened by the news that Alberta and Betty had no clue as to who made it.

When told of my belief that the quilt was African-American, Alberta assured me that it was. I asked how she knew. She made gestures in its direction ("Look at it!") and explained that you could just tell. Betty could not have agreed more. Well, I was pretty sure it was African-American and they were pretty sure it was African-American, but mere opinions were of limited use for my scholarly purposes.

Although the rain got steadily worse, I was unable to tear myself from the spot. I hung around, sinking onto a folding chair and asking pesky questions while Alberta and Betty packed. Did they get anything else with this quilt? Had it by any chance been in a carton with some kind of label or other stuff written on it? How long ago had this auction taken place? Which auction was it, anyway? Finally, Betty perked up. "Hey," she said, poking around in her glove compartment for a Butterfields catalog, "wait a minute." She still had it, a thirteen page list of several thousand items. She'd circled the items she'd bid on, and there it was: #640; PATCH QUILT. She'd got it for ten bucks, sold it to me for twenty-five.
rHausa ClothNigeria

Many "anonymous" quilts would be reclaimable as the products of black craftspeople if I were able to engage all of the gatekeepers encountered along the way (in this case, as we shall see, I was dependent on the goodwill and cooperation of five separate informants, six if I count Alberta and Betty as two), but most of my collecting stories don't turn out this well. The search ends when I can't overcome suspicion or indifference at one or another critical point.

Betty turned the catalog over to me. Contacting Butterfields, I was soon informed that I was wasting both my time and theirs. The last thing I might expect, I was roundly assured, was for an auction house to be giving out the names of its sellers. I insisted on speaking to someone in authority and, eventually, was put in touch with a woman who gave me the time to explain that I was writing a book about African survivals in African-American quilts, that this particular quilt evidenced several such survivals, and that it would be of little use to me without its history. Sympathetic to my mission, the woman agreed to look the sale up. (A year or two later, in my attempt to reclaim the heritage of another stray quilt, I tried this again, found that my helper at Butterfields had moved on, butted against a wall of impatience and sarcasm, and had no choice but to give up the quest).

The San Francisco estate that this quilt had come out of, it turned out, had been under a conservatorship. My informant was not allowed, by law, to tell me the company name, but was willing to contact them herself and seek permission for me to talk to the party that had handled the transaction. Again I was lucky. Once apprized of the nature of my research, the conservator agreed to talk to me. Black conservatorships were extremely uncommon in her experience but, as she couldn't help blurting out as soon as I got her on the phone, the man to whom this quilt had belonged--now residing in a nursing home--was indeed black. How on earth, she wondered aloud, could I know such a thing?

This was a peak experience for me. My audience couldn't have been readier for the theory of African influence. Quite aside from which, even if I were to get no further, I now had some measure of authentication.

But I was on a roll. My latest helper called the daughter-in-law of the old man who had once owned the quilt and got permission for me to talk to her myself. Lodesta, as it turned out, was delighted to hear from me. She'd worried about the family's quilts and was relieved to learn that this one had found a good home. We arranged for me to bring it across the Bay that next day for a hands-on identification. She was amused when she saw it. Turned out, it was the quilt they used the most. Kept it on the sofa to wrap up in while watching T.V. Called it "the loud quilt."

There had been several other, "better," quilts that had been sold as higher class merchandise in another section of the auction. I tried to track them down but in each case the buyer refused to talk to me. Mine, according to Lodesta, was made by Mother Brown, a woman who'd had a special relationship with the quilt's owner, Lodesta's now-deceased mother-in-law, Helen.

Here's the story. In the 1930's, Helen had gone to Houston-Tillotson College with Mother Brown's daughter, Elfreda. A year after graduation, when Helen, an orphan, had married and was about to have her first child, the aunt who raised her died. Helen had no one to assist her. Elfreda informed her mother of Helen's plight, and Mother Brown (born Mary Lue Humphrey, GiddingsTexas, 1891) went to Louisiana to help, staying with Helen until she was able to handle the situation herself. The two formed an attachment that was to last until Mother Brown's death in 1979.

Lodesta put me in touch with Elfreda, Mother Brown's now elderly daughter, living in Southern California. Elfreda speculated that the quilt (of whose existence she'd until then been unaware) had been made in Dallas in the 1940s and sent to her former classmate as a present. Elfreda's hearing was spotty, so we corresponded. She agreed to send a photo of her mother from the forties, but several years passed before she was actually willing to risk it. "This is the only photo I have of my mother," she wrote in her accompanying note, "You promised to return it. I hope that you will be true to your word. I do not have a negative so you see how dear to my heart this picture is." The photo has since accompanied the quilt in my exhibitions and catalogs. In a later note Elfreda wrote, "I look forward to receiving a copy of the book you may publish. My children will be happy to see something their grandmother did."


1. For a comprehensive discussion of the borders of improvisational African-American quilts and their African counterparts, see LeonSomething Else to See: Improvisational Bordering Styles in African-American quiltspassimSurprise!A


Meeting Mrs. Murphy
By Eli Leon

Early in 1986, quilt maker Bettie Phillips (1916--2005) http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=3339 told me about her ninety-two year old friend ,Mrs. Mable Murphy (1894--1996), who lived in the little town of Dos Palos, California and had a house full of quilts, many of which were for sale. Bettie estimated there to be at least fifty and raved about their great beauty. I wanted to meet Mrs. Murphy (as she preferred to be called) right away, of course, but there turned out to be obstacles. Mrs. Murphy was hard-of-hearing, for one. Unable to understand me when I telephoned, she had her son, a smoker, handle the call. When I mentioned that I had a cigarette-smoke allergy, he got enraged and hung up. On top of that, my car became mysteriously unreliable. The meeting with Mrs. Murphy, it seemed, would have to wait for more favorable conditions.

Then Bettie informed me that Mrs. Murphy was giving up her house for smaller quarters. In all probability some of her quilts would be inaccessible after the move. For them, it was now or never. I had, meanwhile, learned that Mrs. Murphy's son didn't actually live with her, although he was often around. I'd also changed cars. So I tried to get Bettie to make the trip with me, imagining that having her along would smooth the way, but she showed no interest in the project. Resolving to take my chances and just go didn't work either; it only led to my feeling guilty whenever Mrs. Murphy came to mind, which was often, since my strategically placed to-do list was headlined "INTERVIEW MRS MURPHY."

When I asked quilt maker Willia Ette Graham (1903-1997) http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=4171, however, if she'd like to visit an elderly quilter in the San Joaquin valley, she jumped at the chance. Suddenly everything was looking up. Graham was warm, friendly and generally relaxed. The thought of her supportive presence was all I needed to lend courage to my convictions. I called Bettie to tell her that Willia Ette and I were hoping to give it a go that Monday, which happened to be a holiday, and Bettie did an abrupt turnabout; she would accompany me after all. Springing into action, she straightaway called Mrs. Murphy, ascertained that the son wouldn't be around that day, and made all the arrangements--even deciding to fix a bring-along lunch featuring fried chicken and homemade cake.

Why the sudden change? It baffled me for a moment, then I got it. Bettie was as eager to meet Willia Ette as Willia Ette was to meet Mrs Murphy! This expedition was taking on a new character. For some years I'd been listening to my informants' lamentations on the scarcity of quilt makers in the California cities they'd found themselves in after their westward migrations. They were longing to meet one another! And witnessing these meetings might very well be as informative for me as interviewing Mrs. Murphy.

I now wanted to include Gussie Wells http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=3345 and Arbie Williams http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=2169, two of my closest quilt maker contacts, in what was promising to be a memorable get-together, but there wasn't room for five in my car. When I floated the idea past Bettie, though, she immediately latched on to it. Again, I was taken by surprise. Why the rush of enthusiasm? But we needed a few more participants, I finally realized, for a critical mass. Wells and Williams were best buddies, however; we couldn't invite one without the other. After mulling the thing over, Bettie and I decided to go ahead with the invitations. If both of them accepted, we'd devise a new plan.Quilts, Eli Leon, Improvisational, Afro-American, Quilts, Rosie L American, Eli y (continued)
Bettie volunteered to drive, but her car was no bigger than mine. The obvious solution would be to go in two cars but, not wanting to miss any of the fireworks I was anticipating, I was intent on all of us riding together. As it turned out, Gussie (1901-1994)  could not make it. Arbie (1916--2003), however, was raring to go. Right off the bat, she notified me that she would be wearing pants. I dutifully passed this information on to Bettie and Willia Ette.

So, on Jan 19th, 1987, Martin Luther King Jr's fifty-eighth birthday, the bunch of us assembled on the sidewalk in front of Phillips' house. At the last minute, Bettie announced that she was taking her car after all. She never went anywhere, she informed us, without her deaf-mute sister, quilt maker Missie Freeman (1914--2005). I had no choice but to take the two-car solution in stride.  Meanwhile, the women were bustling with excitement and getting acquainted before leaving. An aroma of fried chicken filled the air. Everyone but Missie was wearing pants.

With wistful goodbyes and much slamming of car doors, we finally set off. Arbie, Willia Ette and I followed Bettie and Missie in the slow lane of the freeway at such a crawl that I ,(then a mere fifty-one years old and feeling like an eager teenager) expected any minute to be pulled over by the highway patrol. The time, however, passed quickly. Williams was a scintillating talker, Graham was an enthusiastic listener, and I got to be a fly on the wall. I was not surprised to discover an aspect of Williams’Quilt making history that I hadn't accessed in our prior conversations. Turned out, as a young woman living in a railroad worker's community in BecksvilleTexas in 1943, Arbie had organized a quilting group.

Well our idea was we’d [piece] all the quilts we could in the winter and wouldn' let either one know what we were buildin' on. If one come to the house and you was piecin' quilts, you'd roll it up and put it in a bag and shove it up under the bed right quick 'fore you let 'em come in. They didn' get to see what you were piecin.'” Arbie explained .

In the spring and summer, the eight women would assemble at one of their houses and quilt all day, easily completing two quilts a session. By 1945, when Arbie and her husband moved west to take advantage of the high-paying war-industry jobs that were springing up in California, Williams had amassed seventeen quilt tops and can't-remember-how-many quilts. She left them behind, though, never to be seen by her again. Nor would she again achieve the level of quilt making camaraderie that she'd almost effortlessly brought about in Beckville. In Oakland, as we all knew, the quilters were few and far between.

When we arrived at Mrs. Murphy's, we found a spry, high-spirited lady, who seemed much younger than her ninety-three years, waiting to greet us at the front door. She steered a little clear of me at first, but, taking her cues from the other women, soon accepted me as part of the crowd. I wondered how long she'd been standing watch. She must have been as deprived of quilt maker companionship as the rest of the company.

Plus, this was to be her red-letter day. This bevy of quilt aficionados were keyed to sustain an undying interest in her handwork as we emptied closets, drawers and trunks, bringing out dolls, beadwork, endless crocheted objects (my favorite was a miniature soup bowl and spoon in red thread), and quilts, quilts, quilts. 
Williams, African American, Eli Leon.
All of these women were so passionate about their craft that it had taken over the better part of their living quarters; they must have felt right at home. No matter how often I encountered a house full of quilts, however, this guided tour of an artist's life work would remain a special treat. And this time it would be in the most distinguished of companies.

As for my nostalgic companions, this get-together was providing a direct line to their roots. In their formative years in rural Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma, quilt making had largely been a communal activity; six participants would comprise only a modest bee. Now light years from the rural 1940s South, where virtually all of the neighbor women could be expected to quilt, these women were compelled to work singly or, at best, in pairs.

So they lived it up as I, with Willia Ette's unsparing help and frequent visits from the rest of the company, went to town. We were extremely thorough, emptying each storage space entirely before refilling it with carefully examined goods. In a few hours we'd, in all probability, seen everything. Mrs. Murphy's recent works were splendid examples of highly complex published patterns expertly repeated over king-sized surfaces in consistent color schemes requiring great quantities of store-bought fabric. She sold these professional-level wares through a connection in Los Angeles. I regretfully refrained, however, from collecting any of them. Precisely executed quilts from printed patterns are not what my research is about and my resources were limited.
Willia Ette was the only one who was as intent as I on not missing a trick. Or maybe it was this shyness that had come over her today--which I'd never seen when the two of us were alone. She painstakingly undid the ties of a mountain of plastic bags of cloth scraps and went through each one to find an occasional pieced section of quilt top. I found a completed older top that very much interested me, and which was for sale, among the unfinished pieces, a Lone Star with Maple Leaf Corners later quilted by Irene Bankhead http://aavad.com/artistbibliog.cfm?id=3347 and pictured in Let It Shine  (exhibit catalog) Fig. 13.

Lone Star with Maple Leaf Corners
created by Mable Murphy
Owner Eli Leon
Afterwards we ate our chicken and cake and took pictures of each other with Mrs Murphy's polaroid camera. Mrs Murphy gave each of us a photo as a souvenir. In response to my questions, she got to talking about her parents, who had been born in slavery. I was impressed by the extent of her knowledge of those times; her descriptions of the whippings, forced matings and so on, none of which seemed to be news to my companions, were consistent with hundreds of accounts by former slaves that I'd read in the WPA narratives of the 1930s.

Mrs Murphy's grandmother lived to be emancipated, but was not able to find a single one of the thirteen (of her sixteen) children who'd been sold away from her, their names changed as they passed from owner to owner. It is this background of dehumanization, I imagine, that makes a respectful form of address so essential to her granddaughter.

After lunch we moved on to other things. Arbie copied one of Mrs Murphy's crochet patterns, under Missie's vigilant supervision. Missie, who'd been profoundly deaf since birth and communicated with nods, gestures and grunts, would issue a volley of wordless admonitions each time Arbie slipped up, then smile when she finally got it right. Willia Ette wanted to buy a pair of Mrs Murphy's crocheted shoes, but Mrs Murphy didn't have them in her size. Bettie borrowed a Maple Leaf from Mrs Murphy's collection of sample blocks; I noted that it was pieced of fabric that was at least seventy years old. At all times there was too much going on for one person to keep track of, but it was an ongoing joy to watch these elderly, uprooted women connect through their shared interests and an affinity for an art form that I suspected had origins in their ancestral homelands.

Eventually it was time to go. Bettie and Missie went on to see other friends in Dos Palos, and Arbie, Willia Ette and I scooted off and into the fast lane of the freeway with Mrs Murphy's invitations to return ringing in our ears. For most of the trip home we were silent. We had finally run down.

Then too, we had a lot to think about. I don't know about Arbie and Willia Ette, but I couldn't get the thirteen missing children out of my mind.


NEA 2011 National Heritage Fellowship Award photo 
Tom Pich


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 FellowArbie 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 that'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 Quiltwall 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 Titus Family Quilt makers featured in Eli Leon's 
Internationally renowned collection of African American Quilts.

Gladys Cellia Durham-Henry
(Born 1906-Died 1996)
"Big Mama"

Gladys was a self taught crafts person at heart. She created many 
and varied items, on a continual basis, through out her entire life span.
Side I of "Jazz With A Needle and Thread" reversible
story quilt composed by Sherry A. Byrd features items created by
her grandmother Gladys C. Durham-Henry (Born 1906-Died 1996).
Side II_"Jazz With A Needle And Thread".
This reversible story quilt commemorates the history
of six generations of quilt makers in the Edward "Ned"
Titus family of Freestone County, Texas. Patchwork created
by four generations are featured on it along with several
blocks which chronicle the history of all six generations.

This quilt and the one above it were created from 
NewspaperCrossword Puzzles as their patterns.

Broken Dishes Pattern

Laverne Brackens

Most Prolific Titus Family Quilt Maker
Born 1927


Sherry A. Byrd
Born 1951
Storyteller/Writer/Quilt maker/Folk artist


Sherry the Researcher
Sherry the Storyteller/Folk artist and Chronicler of
Family History
Abstract M-provisational Quilts by Sherry Ann

Bara Byrd-Steward
Born 1975
Oldest daughter of Sherry A. Byrd
 Eli Leon (elileon1@yahoo.com)
Awards: John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, 1989.
Surface Design Association Critical Writing Award for the development and application of critical vocabulary in the field of surface design, 1990.
Selected Publications:
Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins. Shelburne Museum., Shelburne, Vermont, May-Oct, 2007.
Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts, Figge Art MuseumDavenportIowa, Nov 2006-Feb, 2007.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Four Generations of African-American Quilt- makers. Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco, 2006; Brattleboro Museum, Brattleboro, VT, Aug-Nov 2007.
Improving the Bow TieMills College Art MuseumOaklandCA, June-Aug 2005.
"Too Short to Save: African-American Improvisational String Quilts," in A Report from the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2002
Let It Shine: Improvisation in African-American Star Quilts (exhibition catalog), William D. Cannon Art GallerySan Diego, CA. 2001.
Review of My Quilts and Me: The Diary of an American Quilter by Nora McKeown Ezell, in Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association, Issue No. 3, 2000, pp. 75-79.
No Two Alike: African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern (exhibition catalog), South Carolina State Museum, 1998.
"African Influence on the American Block-style Quilt," in Sally Gant, ed.,African Impact on the Material Culture of the Americas (collected symposium papers), Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Old Salem Inc., Winston-Salem, NC, 1998.
Something Else to See: Improvisational Bordering Styles in African-American Quilts (exhibition catalog), University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 1997.
"Shadows of the Divine Perfection," in Lawrence Rinder, ed., Rosie Lee Tompkins(exhibition catalog), Berkeley Art MuseumUniversity of California, 1997.
"Showing Up": African-American Maximum-contrast Quilts (exhibition catalog), Richmond Art Center, 1996.
Arbie Williams Transforms the Britches Quilt (exhibition catalog), University of CaliforniaSanta Cruz, 1993.
Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American Patchwork (exhibition catalog), Winston-Salem State University, 1992.
"Cross-strip Patterning in African Textiles and African-American Quilts," Surface Design Journal, Vol.15, #1, Fall, 1990, pp.6-8,38.
Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking (exhibition catalog), Introduction by Robert Farris Thompson, San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum, 1988.
"Wrapping Home Around Me: How the Patchwork Quilt became a Medium for the Expression of African Values," in Rambling On My Mind (exhibition catalog), Museum of African-American Life and Culture, Dallas, 1987, pp.18-33.
Selected Exhibitions:
Sunshine and Surprises: African American Quilts from the Eli Leon and Robert Cargo Collections. Festival of Quilts, Birmingham, UK. Aug 16-19, 2007.
Something Pertaining to God: The Patchwork Art of Rosie Lee Tompkins .Shelburne Museum., ShelburneVermont, May-Oct, 2007.
Approximate Measure: Improvisational African-American Quilts. Shirley/Jones Gallery, 235 Corry StreetYellow SpringsOhio, Jan-March 2007.
Accidentally on Purpose: The Aesthetic Management of Irregularities in African Textiles and African-American Quilts, Figge Art MuseumDavenportIowa, Nov 2006-Feb, 2007.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Four Generations of African-American Quiltmakers.Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco, 2006; Brattleboro MuseumBrattleboroVT, Aug-Nov 2007.
Let It Shine: Improvisation in African-American Star Quilts, William D. Cannon Art Gallery, Carlsbad, CA, Sept-Nov 2001; Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum, June-Sept 2002; Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum, Feb-March 2003; New England Quilt Museum, Sept-Nov 2003; New York State Museum, Jan-March 2004
No Two Alike: African-American Improvisations on a Traditional Patchwork Pattern, South Carolina State Museum, Oct 1998-March 1999; Vermont Folklife Center, Sept-Nov 1999; Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum, Jan-March 2000; National Afro-American Museum, April-June 2001; Santa Rosa Junior College, Feb-March 2003.

Quilts from the 'Hood: East Bay African American Improvisational Quilts, The African American Museum and Library at Oakland, Feb-June 1997.
Something Else to See: Improvisational Bordering Styles in African-American QuiltsUniversity of Massachusetts at Amherst, Feb 1997; Marin Community Foundation, Jan-April 2001.
No Two Alike: Improvisational African-American QuiltsHigh MuseumAtlanta, Sept 1996-Feb 1997.
"Showing Up": African-American Maximum-contrast QuiltsRichmond ArtCenter, January-March, 1996.
Arbie Williams Transforms the Britches Quilt, University of California, Santa Cruz, Nov-Dec 1993; Berkeley Art Center, April-June, 1994.
Putting the Pieces Together: Patchwork Quilts by Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Migrants to CaliforniaFalkirk Cultural Center, San Rafael, CA, Sept-Nov, 1993.
Models in the Mind: African Prototypes in American PatchworkWinston-Salem State University, Jan-March, 1992; Center for the Arts, San Francisco, Jan-March, 1994.
Who'd a Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking.
Venues for Who'd a Thought It:
San Francisco Craft and Folk Art Museum, January-February, 1988.
San Jose Museum of Art, March-April, 1988.
Meadows MuseumShreveportLA, January-March 1989.
The Old State House, Little RockAK, March-May, 1989.
Louisiana Arts and Science Center, Baton Rouge, July-Sept, 1989.
New England Quilt Museum, Lowell, MA, Sept-Nov, 1989.
American Craft Museum, NYC, November-January, 1989-90.
Morris Museum, Morristown, NJ, February-April, 1990.
California Council for the Humanities, Oakland City Center, "A Sense of Belonging/A Sense of Place," May-June, 1990.
Old Pueblo Museum, Tuscon, AZ, July-September, 1990.
Field MuseumChicagoIL, October-January, 1990-91.
Indianapolis Museum of Art, February-March, 1991.
Discovery MuseumBridgeportCT, April-May, 1991.
Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA, June-August, 1991.
Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Wash., D.C., Sept-Jan, 91-2.
Ackland Art Museum, Univ. of N.C., Chapel Hill, Feb-March, 1992.
Honolulu Academy of Arts, April-May, 1992
Wichita Falls Museum and Art Center, W.F., TX, June-Aug, 1992.
Kirkpatrick Arts Center, Oklahoma City, Jan-Feb, 1993.
Grant House Folk Art Center, Vancouver, WA, May-Aug, 1993.
Center for the Visual Arts, Metro State College of Denver, Nov-Dec, 1993.
Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, Urbana, Jan-Mar, 1994.
Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Santa Ana, CA, Feb-May, 1996.
Goldstein Gallery, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Feb-April, 1997.
Thomasville Art Center, Thomasville, GA, Jan-Feb, 1998.

This show was acclaimed by San Francisco's leading art critic, Kenneth Baker, and awarded "Critics Choice" by the San Francisco Chronicle. ABC did a network program (The Home Show, Feb.29, 1988) about quilt maker Willia Ette Graham, including the entire installation. The mayor of Oakland proclaimed Feb.29th "Willia Ette Graham Day."

All chronicles in the previous article was reproduced with the permission of Eli Leon, Scholar/Researcher/Writer/Collector of African American Improvisational Quilts.
February 2012.

Photos provided by Eli Leon, Tom Pich and Sherry A. Byrd

Other good reading on Eli Leon Quilt Collection.


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