Ohio quilter Carolyn Mazloomi awarded top honor for folk arts

Carolyn Mazloomi has been honored many times for her work to preserve and advance the African-American tradition in quilting. Photo and image courtesy of Carolyn Mazloomi

If the term “folk art” gives you the wrong idea, let’s take care of that right now. Carolyn Mazloomi is certainly not about freezing the art of quilting as an echo of some old-time memory.

Instead she has spent three decades developing a warm, growing social space for the African-American quilting tradition — and for stitching today’s lives and voices throughout that work.

Her efforts over the years with the Women of Color Quilting Network, as well as her historical research and authorship of several books, have led to her receiving the 2014 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, from the National Endowment for the Arts. She accepted the award in a September ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  

“Quilts are metaphors for love and family, for covering and protecting, for warmth and security,” she says. Her own works, which she says emerge organically as she creates them, “are visual stories which deal with subject matter I find interesting and touch my spirit.”

“I especially want young women to know the powerful position they are in as ‘first teachers’ of their children, and how important education is,” says Mazloomi, a longtime Bahá’í, echoing a fundamental teaching of the Bahá’í Faith.

In fact, the status of women is an aspect of the human condition expressed in many of her quilts. Much of her inspiration comes from the Bahá’í principle emphasizing equal education and opportunity for both sexes.

As expressed in a 1912 talk given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Philadelphia: “The happiness of mankind will be realized when women and men coordinate and advance equally, for each is the complement and helpmeet of the other.

Preserving traditions, pushing boundaries

The NEA created the Bess Lomax Hawes Fellowship to support culture bearers and advocates who have dedicated their lives to their art, mastering the artistic skills needed and preserving the cultural traditions while also using their own creativity to push the boundaries.

Mazloomi’s lifelong body of work shines in this light. Her artworks reside in the permanent collections of many museums and corporations, including the Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum, National Civil Rights Museum, Mint Museum, American Museum of Art and Design, Wadsworth Atheneum and the World Bank. She serves on the board of the Alliance for American Quilts.

It’s not her first recognition. In 2003 she was the first recipient of the Ohio Heritage Fellowship for community leadership, designating her as a living cultural treasure. Also in 2014 she received a lifetime achievement award from the Anyone Can Fly Foundation, which aims to increase recognition of African-Americans within the national artistic community.

The first of her books on textile art and history, Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary African American Quilts, received the Nonfiction Book of the Year Literary Award for 1999 from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. An eighth book, And Still We Rise: Race, Culture and Visual Conversations, is to be released in April 2015.

While she grew up in Louisiana in a family of amateur artists, Mazloomi was educated and worked for many years in aerospace engineering, earning a doctorate at the University of Southern California.

She always enjoyed needlework, and while in Los Angeles she started a quilt guild among African-American women. In 1985 she craved wider connections, and an ad she placed in an enthusiasts’ magazine resulted in formation of the Women of Color Quilting Network.

Educating, researching, exhibiting

Now retired and living in West Chester, Ohio, she coordinates an organization boasting 1,700 members nationwide. Dedicated to researching, documenting and presenting African-American-made quilts, the WCQN sponsors educational workshops as well as after-school art programs for at-risk children in six states.

Exhibits she has curated nationally and internationally highlight the work of WCQN members and cover a wide range of topics such as tolerance, women’s rights, jazz history, African-American women’s history, religion and race relations.

For instance, a current traveling exhibition, And Still We Rise, is soon to open in Orlando, Florida, after months in Cincinnati and with more shows scheduled through 2018 around the country.

It presents a visual timeline of 400 years of African-American history: “a mapping of people, places and events, achievement and contributions that underscore triumph over unbelievable circumstances,” Mazloomi says.

“The exhibition is presented in a non-threatening medium to engage the audience in a much needed and warranted dialogue about issues of racism, gender and social justice, the ‘tough stuff’ of American history.”

Mazloomi’s efforts to encourage such dialogue is, again, inspired by a Bahá’í teaching, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh: “that no one should exalt himself over the other. … it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land. …

Through her work over the years, she says, “quilts have made an exodus off the beds and onto the walls, and are seen as works of art and historic and cultural documents.”

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