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Dittmar Quilt Exhibition Pays Homage to African-Americans

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January 22, 2008 | by Judy Moore
EVANSTON, Ill. --- The lush quilts featured in the Dittmar Memorial Gallery's Winter 2008 exhibition represent the resilience and progress of our country's African-Americans, particularly black women. Rather than being pieced together by hand from fragments of rough, leftover fabrics, as was originally the tradition, they are crafted from the finest available cottons, silks, velvets and wools.

The colorful and imaginative quilts were made by Northwestern's Tracy L. Vaughn, members of the Black Threads Collective and Northwestern students in the tradition of African-American women communing and quilting.

They are part of the "Utilitarian Beauty: Reconstructing an African-American Tradition" exhibition, open to the public through Feb. 10, at Northwestern University's Dittmar Memorial Gallery. The gallery is located on the first floor of Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive, on the University's Evanston campus.

Vaughn, who is assistant director of graduate studies and a faculty member of Northwestern's department of African American Studies, said that throughout the history of Africans in America, African-American women have gathered to quilt.

"Born out of necessity, African-American slave women began to quilt in order to supplement the one rough, wool blanket given to them annually by their masters. In this effort, slave women would use whatever textile resources were available to them -- scraps of fabric salvaged from sewing the clothes of their owners, feed and flour sacks, and the lesser worn parts of old clothing -- to piece together quilts that weren't necessarily decorative, but were most certainly functional," she said.

What sets the quilts made by Vaughn and those instructed and influenced by her (including a few men), is the non-traditional materials and improvised methods used. They are "spontaneous compositions" sewn without patterns or sewing machines, whenever possible. Vaughn said that she allows the fabrics to "speak" to her -- relying on color and pattern to determine what goes where until the quilt "feels" complete.

"Quilts are more and more frequently being presented in museums and exhibition spaces as high art," said Vaughn. "In this context, the quilts are no longer useful, intimate bed coverings but are rather transformed into objects that invite one to reflect on their beauty and the ways in which quilts in the African-American tradition are also representative of American cultural expression overall."

The Dittmar Gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Admission is free.
For information, call (847) 491-2348 or Norris University Center at (847) 491-2300, e-mail <dittmargallery@northwestern.edu> or go to the Dittmar Web site at <www.dittmar.northwestern.edu>.