What does the University of Michigan and quilting have in common? Thanks to former graduate student Kyra Hicks, quite a bit. The student happened into an exhibit of African American quilts on display in Cincinnati, Ohio when the quilting bug caught her. At the time, she was taking a course in black women’s feminist thought and her class was delving into the world of African American quilts. Her grad course coupled with what she calls a stunning display instantly made her want to quilt for herself. |
“This is how I want to tell stories,” she says. Since then, Hicks has created 20 quilts, but she doesn’t call them that—to her, they’re stories. “How many stories have I told?” she asks herself, and the answer is tangible, easily countable. “Think of it as a single panel comic strip and you know what the illustrator was trying to convey—that is my quilt. One of my signatures is that I use words in my quilts so you can read the quilt.”
Now 48 years old, the Arlington, Virginia resident has just given the Michigan State University (MSU) Museum the research connected to her publications which include “Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook” and “Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria,” a children’s book. According to Hicks, “Giving MSU the research papers and things was not a tough decision…as a researcher, I want to be where other researchers are going to go to get the information and that is MSU.”
Hicks was also inspired by the fact that one of her key mentors, the late Cuesta Benberry, was also connected to MSU. As a pioneer in African American quiltmaking in the 20th century, Benberry is an inspiration for quilters of all backgrounds. Prior to Benberry’s death in 2007, her son gave her collection of 50 quilts to the MSU Museum.
A Sight to Behold
Today, there are around 800 quilts featuring unique patterns and stories at the Cultural Collections Resource Center, dubbed the “epicenter of quilts in Michigan.” They’re kept in cabinets on cotton fiber roll tubes, then protected with Dartek nylon foam. According to Collections Manager Lynne Swanson, “When they (visitors) open a cabinet, users can see the fabrics rather than having them in boxes. They are pretty easy to see quickly—you have a sense of the kind of fabrics, quilts and designs.”
Currently there are 64 African American quilts housed there, with an extra 30 coming directly from Africa. The oldest quilt on display was made in 1780, and the oldest African American quilt is from 1850. It’s a must-see for any quilter and/or appreciator of the arts or African American culture and history.
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