Quilts are often taken for granted. They’re stuffed in couch cushions, scattered on floors and confused with blankets and Snuggies. But quilts have their own rich history dating back to the 12th Century. They were tools of economic empowerment and activism and of course, kept millions warm at night. Quilter Kyra E. Hicks is a part of this rich history and she is coming to Vassar to give a lecture and hold a quilting workshop as part of the Claflin Lecture Series. The event is sponsored by the Art Department and will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 5:30 pm in Taylor Hall, room 203.
Kyra Hicks is a renowned quilter and quilt historian. As art pieces, her quilts are unique in that they tell stories and explore what it means to be an African American in the United States. As a person, Kyra Hicks is not just an expert on quilts and their history in the United States, but she is a passionate activist.
Hicks was born in Los Angeles, California. Her mother taught her at an early age to crochet shawls, afghans and bed jackets, but Hicks’ real passion was in creating quilts. Eva Unga Grudin’s 1990 traveling exhibition “Stitching Memories: African-American Story Quilts” solidified Hicks’ interest in quilting. “I found myself that afternoon in the museum,” wrote Hicks on her personal website. Grudin’s exhibit traveled the country between 1989 and 1991, exposing audiences to African-American story quilts. In an interview with AuthorsDen, Hicks said, “I was so excited to see these quilts. I knew in my heart that I also wanted to tell stories in fabric one day.”
Hicks would go on to create many quilts similar to those in Grudin’s famous exhibition. In a later interview on the DuEwa Frazier internet radio show, Hicks explained how after seeing the exhibit, she taught herself the craft. She explained, “[I] went to the library and got books on quilting and started teaching myself about the craft.”
Now, Hicks has been quilting for over half of her life. Some of her quilts have even gone on display in museums across the country. In an interview with AuthorsDen, Hicks said, “[I] quilt for personal expression and joy.” Her quilts are not like normal quilts used for warmth however; they are narrative quilts.
In these stories that Kyra Hicks tells through her quilts, she explores a plethora of themes. These themes cover a wide array of topics like being a single black woman, politics, family and religion. They intertwine greatly with Hick’s personal life and the history of quilting.
Hicks is also an accomplished author. Her most famous book, “Black Threads: An African American Quilting Sourcebook,” serves as an in-depth and comprehensive guide to African American quilt history, and its contemporary practices. It serves as one of the first books to trace quiltmaking among African Americans in the United States from 200 years ago up to contemporary quiltmaking in the U.S. Her other book, “This I Accomplish” takes a more narrowed approach, tracing the history of two infamous quilts made by Harriet Powers.
Hicks’ books have illuminated qualities similar to those of quilts. “Martha Ann’s Quilt for Queen Victoria” is a children’s book that explores serious themes like slavery and education. According to Hicks, “In this book Martha Ann is prohibited from attending school while she is a slave. She does not have access to educational resources today’s children may take for granted. I have heard from a couple parents who have read Martha Ann’s story with their children that the story provides a way for the family to talk about slavery.”
If there were a list of under-appreciated art forms, quilting would have to be at or near the top; Hicks wants that to change. Quilting and quilts in general have been ubiquitous throughout the United States’ history, and yet there seems to be little mainstream acknowledgment of quilts as a bona fide art form. Hicks works to understand the history of quilting and also explore the contemporary practice.
Quilting really only requires cloth, needles, threads, some skill and an artistic vision. Thus, it has been somewhat popular for its ease of creation. While the upper classes paid huge sums for elaborate designs and fine fabrics, many humble Americans clung to simple quilts as relics of their families and homes. They took on a significance far greater than their practical value.
Hicks’ use of quilts as her medium of choice to tell a narrative is no coincidence. Using quilts to tell stories is unique in that it tells the stories in a completely unique way. Unlike traditional media like books and television, handmade quilts tell an exceptionally personal story.
The term narrative might seem slightly deceiving upon seeing one of Hick’ quilts. The quilts’ stories are not like comic books as one might imagine, but are instead quilts with only a single image on them. In regards to the way the quilts tell a story, Hicks said in an interview with AuthorsDen, “A story quilt illustrates a point visually. Think about a one-panel comic strip or the cover of a greeting card created in fabric and you have a story quilt.” Of course, not all of her quilts consist only of a single image; some of her quilts use many panels to tell a story.
Hicks has multiple quilts in permanent collections in New York City art museums. Her original story quilts are in permanent collections of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. She also has other quilts in permanent collections in the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Art professor Lisa Collins is responsible for bringing Kyra Hicks to campus. Hicks’ lecture works in conjunction with a new hands-on seminar taught by Collins this semester. The seminar is called Exquisite Intimacy: Quilts, Quilters and Quiltmaking in the U.S. The class focuses on the practice of quiltmaking as well as its significance in American history. Hicks’ work seemed like a natural addition to the course.