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Remembering Gwendolyn A. Magee: An Extraordinary Artist, Quilter

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Gwendolyn Magee Photo from her website

Before the late Gwendolyn A. Magee of Jackson, Mississippi unveiled her first Katrina Floodwaters quilt, she engaged sixth graders to test the work’s credibility.

“They recognized it from the architecture, the street, colors…they absolutely got that it was about Katrina,” said Magee (1943-2011) in a never before published interview with this writer in 2007. “I was amazed and touched that they got it,” she shared enthusiastically. Magee went on to explain that “you never know until those not connected with you see your work and react to it whether you have succeeded in what you were trying to do.” The outcome of the “sixth grade test” was exciting.
Magee’s award-winning quilts have been displayed nationally, and some of her work is housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Additionally, collections are located at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History, and at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, MS.

Before Magee started making textile creations (quilts, in her case), she basically considered quilting to be one of those boring “country” practices that had no intrinsic artistic value. “Growing up in Highpoint, NC, I never even saw a quilt,” she admitted laughingly. Her mom was “into arts and crafts,” but she personally “hated sewing.” Fortunately for the world, Magee stepped into the world of quilting by deciding to make a quilt for each of her two daughters and one for her husband, Ophthalmologist D. E. Magee, Jr. So, she “looked up a shop that offered a six-week course on quilting,” took the course, and the impact of her work is still unfolding.

By the time Magee finished the quilts for her daughters Aliya and Kamili, she became “dissatisfied” with the “traditional” quilting approach. She decided to take her work to another level creatively. “I wanted it to have the feeling of universal space,” she explained. When she presented the finished non-traditional quilt to her husband, “he said it was art and could not go on our bed.”

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Photo courtesy Gwendolyn’s website

That was in 1995. From there, Magee’s quilting became an obsession that would take her from doing abstracts to settling comfortably into creating quilts depicting issues about which she was passionately concerned. She had found her calling. The quilts with an abstract focus were “pretty but not very meaningful.” Her attempts to do quilts with a “back to Africa” theme were successful in that people really liked them, but “simply did not feel authentic to me because I hadn’t been to Africa, and all I knew about Africa” came from sources like magazines and books.

“I decided that if I wanted to do work that was authentic, I was going to have to do something that was in my experience,” she recalled. As she sorted out the areas in her experience, Magee discovered that music influenced her considerably, as did poetry. Her self-discovery also revealed that she should use her quilts to address “injustices” about which she related strongly. At the time of my interview with her, Gwendolyn Magee had done 12 quilts in the “Lift Every Voice & Sing” series. The series began as a six-quilt project. “There are so many other possible interpretations (of the stanzas) that I could create work for the series from now on out,” the artist said exuberantly.

She was already working to complete “Requiem,” with about two self-appointed weeks left to finish the project addressing the impact of Hurricane Katrina. This project had multiple implications, including a fleshing out of Magee’s own emotions about the storm. The sixth graders’ input was a very necessary part of testing how well her work communicated the vision she had in mind. Daughter Kamili and husband Richeleu lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina disrupted their lives, destroying the couple’s home and uprooting them in the process. Kimili was expecting Magee’s grandson Matisse at the time.

But the Katrina project was not the only one on the artist’s radar. She also envisioned doing “pieces running around in my head,” including a “cotton field with a family picking cotton, with a schoolhouse where a little black girl stood on a box peering into the big window; Jim Crow laws depicting separate waiting rooms, water fountains, etc., and a narrative piece about ‘thoughts’.”

The award-winning artist was especially thankful for her husband, who did not complain about the long hours she spent working on her projects or the money she paid for materials.

“He is my biggest supporter,” she said in 2007. “I bounce ideas off on him sometimes,” she said pensively. “He loves to watch the process of the work being created. He always has given me as much time and space as I needed to create,” even when she was working full-time and came home and went right into creating her quilts.

Questioned about whether the creative quilting resounded with the couple’s grown daughters. Aliya and Kamili “love the work, but are not interested in doing the work,” she told this writer. “I can see one of them 15 or 20 years from now deciding to do it.”

Her favorite quilt so far? “Whichever one I’m currently working on,” she replied those years ago. “I get totally focused on whatever I’m working on at the moment.”

As she contemplated her work further, she talked about the legacy she was leaving to “my children, grandchildren, and for anyone who views the work.”

“I see art as a form of communication, a conversation between me, the artist, and the viewer. Each viewer brings different experiences, interacts with the work differently, even if it is two friends standing side by side.”

The failure of Mississippians several years ago to approve a memorandum to remove the confederate symbol from the Mississippi flag was one of the instances where the artist’s passion about the issue ignited a nonstop work frenzy, and the quilt, “Southern Heritage, Southern Shame” was birthed. “I was so angry,” she admitted, that “I just woke up one morning and started on it, and worked until it was finished.” Those who saw the textile had different feelings about it, and Magee recalled the reaction of “a well dressed, older white woman” in particular. This was a woman who saw the piece, and “abruptly left” the exhibit hall where it was displayed. Magee speculated that the abrupt departure was perhaps because the woman was “offended by it.”

“I’m sure she continued to think about it one way or another, and it impacted her life in some way or the other,” the quilting artist said emphatically. “But it moved her — negatively perhaps — but she saw something in it.”

Sometimes her work “takes on a life of its own,” Magee noted. “The piece takes over, and sometimes I no longer have control over” the outcome. She pointed out that it was “rarely the case” that her vision at the start of her work exactly matches the finished product. For instance, the artist’s “Bitter the Chastening Rod” series affected some viewers to the point of believing that it portrayed “slavery as literally ripping out the souls of slaves.”

“That was much deeper than I intended,” Magee mused. She learned of these reactions from museum educators, who often surveyed exhibit goers about their experiences. But that’s okay, said Magee, pointing out that to stir a reaction at all is gratifying.

“It’s amazing to me how often viewers see things in the work that I did not know were there, things that were not in my head.”

“For me, the worst thing that could have happened would be for there to be no reaction at all.”

Magee felt that way about all of her quilts. “My hope is that anyone, no matter what their race or culture, will relate to the work, find something that speaks directly to them. Hopefully, it will continue to speak to people years after I am gone.”

Her work still speaks.


Story  courtesy Hush Magazine

Photos courtesy gwenmagee.com

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