TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Faith Ringgold: Stories and Struggle Through Art Quilts

A Family Portrait, 1997
Acrylic on canvas; painted and pieced border 79.5 x 80"
From the Series: The American Collection; #2 Private Collection

Faith Ringgold has been around for a long time now. Born in Harlem in 1930 makes her 79 years old this year. I remember when I first saw her work in a book about 20 years ago. Assuming that she was a Grandma Moses type of icon, I thought she was old back then. But, new work and children's books kept showing up on the scene. Finally, a couple of years ago, I decided to check out her website and was amazed at her body of work! She has made over 200 story quilts and has an enormous list of credits that include her children's books and other work. A friend once said that women artists only become famous when they are dead or over 70, even harder for minorities. Not true for Faith Ringgold. She has been at the forefront of many art movements in the United States for a long time. Her pioneer efforts address race issues head on, but transcend them as she also experimented with the medium itself and with how she presented her work.

Faith Ringgold identifies the 1960's as the critical time which informed her work. But, she found that although the Civil Right's movement was on everybody's mind in her circle, the art world did not reflect the changes that were taking place, the questions that were being asked. She documented the time through her paintings and then evolved into her story quilts which continued to explore issues of race, identity and gender.

We Came to America, 1997
Acrylic on canvas; painted and pieced border
74.5 x 79.5"
From the Series: The American Collection; #1
Private Collection

If one does not know her story, her work looks like it would fit in with Howard Finster and other outsider artists, folks who have the calling but no formal training. Yet, Ringgold was trained as a classical painter with an MFA and has a long list of academic and work credits. Her choice of using stories as both a quilt and as an art form helped re-define quilting in the United States, pushing forward the growth of art quilts. The IRS (the tax guys here) recognize an individual's profession by the income they make. So, a painter who doesn't sell her work but makes a living as a waitress is in fact, a waitress, according to the IRS. Faith Ringgold's example is one of long years of sweat and vision that produced a cohesive, recongnizable, individual body of work.

Church Picnic, 1988
Acrylic on canvas, fabric border
74 x 69"
The High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Le Cafe des Artistes, 1994
Acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border
79.5 x 90"
From the Series: The French Collection Part II; #11
Private Collection

Here are a couple of short clips that give a brief glimpse into the power of this woman's presence: This next clip is long, one hour and 45 minutes, showing Ringgold at a lecture where she talks about her work through a slide presentation. I almost missed it because her name was misspelled. At the end, there is an excellent question and answer period: I learned several things in this video that you might also find interesting:
  • Faith Ringgold paints her story quilts with very thin layers of acrylic paints and uses a black Sharpie for lettering.
  • She collaborates with other quilters for the sewing parts of the quilts. For about 10 years this was done with her mother who was a fashion designer.
  • Her Great-Great-Grandmother was a quilter, her taught her daughter, who taught her daughter, who taught her daughter. Faith's mother had not made a quilt since she was a child until she collaborated with Faith.
  • The quilts are often huge. One of her first was about 6 feet high by 12 feet wide. I always assumed that they were small.
  • She uses very thin batting and all of the quilts can be rolled up.
The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles, 1991
Acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border
74 x 80"
From the Series: The French Collection Part I; #4
Private Collection

Faith talks about the struggle of finding her voice as an artist, a Black woman in America and warns that the path is not an easy one. She said something that I would like to remember for the future, "You must know the world to understand your place in it. If you close yourself into a box you will never know who you really are." I have always felt that this is one of the keys toward living an interesting and full life- focus on the other. It is also one of the basic principles in most World religions. Empty yourself so that you might become full. At least, that is how I read this insight.

The Moroccan Holiday, 1997
Acrylic on canvas with pieced fabric border
73.75 x 92"
From the Series: The French Collection Part II; #12
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida

Faith also does emphasize the need for self love and acceptance and how important it was for Black artists to finally use dark colors to reflect the color of their skin. We take so much for granted now that it is always a bit shocking to listen to the limitations artists and others had even twenty or thirty years ago. I was a bit bothered that her website did not have much recent information since 2000. It made me wonder if she is well. But, the long video above was done in the last couple of years and she looks healthy and full of vitality there. My friend may have been right about most of us not achieving fame, even after we are over 70 or dead, but my hope is that Faith Ringgold will continue to mentor us on for many more years. She pushed that door wide open so that we could walk in with confidence and tell our stories.

Note: All of the quilt images are from Faith Ringgold's website. Visit it for a full list of her work. Also visit her exercise on Racial Questions.

Click on the link under the book, not on the image:



  1. Oi Raquel,

    Muito interessante a sua história!
    Você deve ter boas memórias do Brasil... Que bom que você gosta do blog, venha sempre!

    Um beijo


  2. wow rayela,

    awesome blog! this lady is super inspiring and her quilts are gorgeous. thanks for turning me on to her work. i'm adding you to my rss feeder so i can check back and follow more of your adventures!



“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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