Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I’m conducting a Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories interview with Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook. Marlene is in Charleston, South Carolina and I’m in Naperville, Illinois, so, we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today’s date is March 6, 2009. It is now 9:05 in the morning. Marlene, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt “They Paved the Way.”
Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook (MOS): “They Paved the Way” has really been a wonderful experience for me. Like others all over America I would image, and I know those abroad, I was just glued to my television set on the evening of November 4 [2008.] and because of previous experiences, I was prepared to watch the reruns until the wee hours of the morning and all of a sudden about midnight it was announced that Barack Obama had been declared the winner with well over the 270 votes that he needed. It was just stunning to me that this young African American man had just become the 44th President of the United States. I can’t really fully describe my emotions at the time. I was elated, I was overwhelmed, I was speechless but I didn’t cry, I just became what I would describe as rather somber because I was born in the thirties and so I remember very vividly the indignities of Jim Crow and the sacrifices that were made during the Civil Rights Movement and before that. The first thing that came to my mind was that he had not done this on his own, that he was standing firmly on the shoulders of many who have paved the way for him. I went to sleep knowing that there was a quilt in there somewhere but it was further off than it ended up being, at least in my mind. I know that is what led me to the title. The next day really, I started just jotting down names, I brainstormed incidents that I had remembered and just started them on a sheet of paper which I planned to add to in increments, but still that quilt was further away. Then, it was on the 15th of November that I received a call from Roland Freeman and I had been in other exhibitions with Roland, including his groundbreaking “Communion of the Spirits,” and so he told me what his plan was. That he wanted to have 44 quilts created for an exhibition [“Quilts for Obama: An Exhibit Celebration of our 44th President” at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. from January 11 to July 26, 2009.] that would be in place during the inauguration. Then he said what I just considered to be impossible, he said that the quilts were due in Washington [D.C.] by December 15. I immediately answered, ‘I’m leaving town next week to spend Thanksgiving with my children and their families. I’m going to leave there on Saturday for a week in Myrtle Beach. I get back home on Friday afternoon and leave Saturday morning to attend a SACS, ,which is the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools conference, in San Antonio and I will not get back home until December 11 so I can not do that.’ Without taking any break in the conversation, Roland told me, ‘Well that is not what Obama’s slogan says,’ and so I replied, ‘Well let’s hang up so I can get started.’ That is how this journey for “They Paved the Way” took place. I then started thinking about it, in fact by that time I had accumulated a list of about 67, 68 names and I knew that because he said that he wanted 44 quilts, I thought that I would focus on just 44 names. I started to delete some of the names and I found that it was easiest to do if I concentrated on just the Civil Rights Era because some of the names were persons who had been earlier than that like the Pullman car porters and etc. I decided to concentrate on the Civil Rights Era and then this would limit my names to just 44. As I was doing that, I realized that if I included some of the major organizations they would cover some of the people on my list, so that is when I included the NAACP and SCLC, which is Southern Christian Leadership Conference and SNCC, which was the student non-violence organization, and CORE which was the Congress of Racial Equality and a lot of the persons on the list fell into those organizations. I was finally able to pare it down to just 44 names. Then I selected a black and gold African print that I had in my stash that has cowrie shells all over it and the reason for my wanting to use the fabric with the cowrie shells is because of its rich history.
I became fascinated with cowrie shells in the early 1990’s when I learned their history. The cowrie has been used as primitive money as far back as BC as evidenced by things that they have found in caves and etc. It was at one time the most popular currency used in Africa. In fact, the Europeans were astonished when they discovered that the Africans preferred the cowrie shells to gold coins. Through the years, different countries stopped using them. What I found that was very interesting is the fact that the British did not stop using the cowrie as currency with their trades in West Africa until 1807, which was when they stopped the slave trade and then their need for cowries. I felt that the cowrie on this particular quilt would be rather powerful.
I had done a sketch because I was going to use bricks, bricks came to mind immediately when I thought about paving the way, but when I started working I realized that the bricks presented a problem because bricks have to be uniform in size and so that made it difficult to stick to the 44 because as I came down, and I was trying to do it in perspective, and so as I came down each row got wider and that meant that I would have to add additional bricks if I had to keep them uniform in size. I decided that I would use the concept of stepping stones which could be random in size. I could make them whatever length or width I needed to fill up the space and so that is how the stepping stones came into place. I then looked at the gold on the fabric and it was just such a vibrant gold and I remembered immediately that a few years ago I had purchased an interesting fabric that is called Etal, it is spelled E-t-a-l like metal without the m and what it is is an actual metal that has been applied to a substrate that allows it to be cut with scissors and sewn. I used it for my stones because I felt that gold was a precious metal and it represented the precious lives and the blood, sweat and tears that had been a part of the whole journey. Then I worked on that quilt diligently for several days before I started on this series of trips that I had to take. I think one of the only reasons I was able to complete it is the fact that about two years ago I purchased a small sewing machine that permanently resides in the trunk of my auto. I knew that I was gone a lot, which means I did not have a lot of time that I could really devote hour upon hour when I’m working at home, but I found it worked perfectly in a hotel room or when I’m on other trips where I have all I need, access to a table, a small table, the nightstand in the hotel and an outlet, electrical outlet. I had that with me and so I did the top of the quilt, the top of the part that had the stones on it and just lightly glued them to the background and then covered that with a piece of tulle that I pinned onto the top and took it with me. It kept everything intact during my trips, to Columbia and Myrtle Beach and by the time I got back from there, I had it pretty much in focus so that I would have time to complete it after I returned from Texas. The one thing that I have made perfectly clear with people when they have been ‘wowing’ about the fact that it was done in just less than 30 days is that it took just as many hours to make this quilt as it would have taken if I had worked on it for three or four months, because I literally worked on it some 18 hour days. I would remember sometimes at two in the afternoon that I had not eaten breakfast. At that point when I realized what I was doing and becoming concerned, I placed the ironing board in another room so that periodically I would have to get up and go to it, because otherwise I would just sit there for hours. I’ve spoken with other artists who were in the exhibition and I discovered there is not that much difference in our stories. The names and geographic locations change but many of them said that they did the same thing, they even took time off from work or as one said that she missed church and asked God to forgive her for it because this quilt had to get done. When I attended the opening at the Historical Society of Washington on the 11th of January [2009.], and spoke to other quilters who were in the show, we just decided that our mantra had become “Yes, We Did,” because the quilts, even in that brief time, were awesome.
KM: What are your plans for this quilt?
MOS: That is interesting. It will become a part of my collection. I am thinking about reassessing my, what has been to this day, my lack of interest in selling my quilts. Even though I have sold one or two, I just have wanted them to be a part of my legacy to my children and my grandchildren and I have held on to them. What I have found happening is that I’ve become very, very attached to them while I’m making them and they become almost like my children and then I find it difficult to part with them. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m reassessing that. I know that I can only hold on to so many of them. I would like to mention something that I just thought of in reference to the quilt and the cowrie shells. At the bottom of the quilt, if you are looking at a photo of it, you will see that there are shells attached and I just, as I said I just am fascinated with the cowries and there was a cowrie print and I wanted real cowries at the bottom, so I got them out and I painted them gold and I selected thirteen that were just about the same size and sewed them at the bottom and those thirteen cowry shells represent the thirteen original colonies, which I know had a lot to do with them having been built with free African labor and so I felt that also tied into the sacrifices made for the Obama presidency.
KM: Is this quilt typical of your style?
MOS: Yes it is, except that I would not say that anybody would walk into, as I can with the work of a lot of other artists, I can’t say that someone would walk into a room, see a quilt and immediately identify it as having been made by Marlene O’Bryant-Seabrook. Anyone who has seen my work and anyone who sees my work, after they have reflected for a while, will realize that there is a commonality and that commonality is that there is a lesson in that quilt. All of my quilts have lessons tucked in. Sometimes they are subtle and sometimes they are very overt because I think we bring to quilting what we have and what I have is that I am a third generation educator and so from the beginning I wanted my quilts to do more than just attract people because of their colors and etc., but they would walk away from my work having taken away some lesson.
KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.
MOS: That’s interesting in and of itself because with all of the quilters that I have met, I’ve learned that I’m one of the few who did not have any previous quilting experience. Most of the quilters I’ve met told me about generations of quilters in their families and I lack that. My grandmother never made a quilt, my mother never made a quilt. I learned after I became a quilter that my great-grandmother who died when I was about three years old and who had been a former slave quilted, but of course none of those were around. I’ve searched through the family for the last 20 years and no one has any one of those. I grew up not even knowing about quilts. I can’t actually recall, I have tried, and I can’t actually recall having seen a quilt in my home during the time that I grew up and so quilting was totally off of my radar. I did all kinds of other things. I learned to crochet when I was eight years old. I’ve knitted. I’ve tatted, smocked, done ceramics, done macramé, all of these kinds of art forms. I was in a school at one point that I was doing some observations and the health [home] arts teacher I think they called her was teaching a group of young ladies who were in a class for the mentally challenged how to cross stitch and I had never seen cross stitching. I had embroidered as a child where you had the little X’s marked on the cloth and you just followed the lines, but I had never seen someone sitting there with a blank piece of fabric, which I later learned was the aida cloth, but looking over in a book at a graph and then creating something on this blank cloth. I became fascinated and there was one little girl in the class who seemed to be having a difficult time and I asked the teacher if she would show me and I would go and help this child and I did. When I left that evening, the teacher gave me a little graph of an apple and a blank piece and my red and green and brown floss and I went home just like a child and I got home and did not stop until I had cross stitched this apple. Then I started going to craft shops and looking at the graphs and picking out some of the things that I wanted to cross stitch and I had done maybe two pieces and on another journey through the breezeway of a high school, I saw a quilt that was being raffled by the mothers of the football players and each mother had done one square that was cross stitched and the other mothers had pooled their money and paid for someone to use these squares to create a quilt. There was this gorgeous cross stitch quilt that was called a “Charleston Quilt” and it had all these different scenes of persons and places, but not really so many person as there were places like the Citadel and the College of Charleston, the churches, for which Charleston is famous, about the only persons were maybe someone sitting in a carriage being drawn around the Battery. It was called a “Charleston Quilt “and so I decided that, wow, this is what I want to do. I want to make all these cross stitch squares and then I was going to call the school and find out who had done that quilt for them and contact that person to do one for me. Then I started noticing that so many of the graphs were of African American people and so I changed my focus from doing a “Charleston Quilt” to doing a quilt that was named “A Record of a Rich Heritage”, but as fate would have it, shortly after I came up with this concept, there was an article in our local paper and I looked and there behind this woman were three or four different cross stitch quilts on the wall. When I read the article, I learned that this wife of a naval officer who had just been transferred to the Charleston Naval Base was an avid master quilter and that she had just opened a shop in the back of an antique shop that is west of Charleston in an area called West Ashley. She not only made quilts herself, but that she would put these cross stitch squares etc. together and make quilts for people. The next day when I left work I went directly to her shop and told her what I wanted and was so excited when she told me that she also taught quilting and a class was starting that evening at 6:00. I rushed home, made provisions for my children and was in that class. That’s how I started quilting. My intention was to take that eight week class and make this cross stitch quilt. When I got to class, I discovered that was not her plan. Her plan was first to teach us how to quilt and that was going to be done through creating a sampler on which there were some squares that were appliquéd, some that were pieced, some that were quilted, quilting on a solid white background, just the varied kinds of experiences so that you would learn all these different techniques. I put my cross stitch quilt on the back burner and took that eight week course. Of course after I finished it, the cross stitch was the very, very first quilt that I made on my own and I was just thrilled with it to the point that I really intended that would be the only quilt that I ever made in my life, and it was maybe three or four years before I made another one.
KM: What made you take it up again?
MOS: A woman out of Brooklyn, New York named Marie Wilson called me because she was in Charleston visiting a friend of 30 or 40 years who had just retired and moved back to Charleston and she knew someone who had seen my “Record of a Rich Heritage” quilt here in Charleston and who told her that if she ever came to Charleston to get in touch with me because they wanted her to see it. She called me and I told her that would be fine. Her friend brought her here and we started talking to the point that I realized the friend was bored and I told the friend that she could leave her and my husband and I at the end of our visit took her home, but Marie Wilson was just so impressed with this quilt and she was talking about the length of the stitches and the fact that I had a scalloped edge on this first creation. She just went on and on and on about the workmanship in this quilt. Of course that meant nothing to me at that time either, as I said, we took her home and in about a week I received this packet from her and in it were all of these magazine articles and photos of her work. I learned that I had been in the presence of a nationally known master quilter and did not realize it and so that caused me to look at my work differently. I felt that if this woman with all of her experiences felt that I was a quilter then perhaps I was a quilter and that is what caused me to go back to it. The interesting thing was within two weeks after her visit I got a call from a gallery in Manhattan asking me for permission to have that quilt in an exhibition. This was I believe 1992. I sent that quilt on and that was the beginning of my exhibiting. [In 1993, it was included in the book, “Contemporary Pictorial Quilts” by Wendy Lavitt.] All of this was with my first quilt so it excited me and I decided that maybe I needed to pursue this more.
KM: Tell me about your creative process.
MOS: Interestingly most of my quilts come to me in my dreams. They come sometimes fully executed, in color and for many years–I mean long before I started quilting when I was doing other kinds of creative things, I would always wake up in the middle of the night and jot down what I had perceived because I had learned that if I did not do that by the next morning I would remember that I saw something but I would have no idea of what it was like. Now, when these thoughts and dreams and perceptions come, I immediately wake up and do a rough sketch, just enough to trigger my memory the next day. I usually even put the time. Some of them have become quilts, some of them are still in my packet of quilts to do, and I look through them sometimes and I see 5:13 a.m. Washington, D.C., not even at home but where ever, if I’m out of town and this happens, I will jot it down and do the time and the place that the inspiration came. “They Paved the Way” did the same thing. If you remember when I mentioned talking about election night, my first concept probably would have been something about shoulders because that was my thought, my thought was President-Elect Obama standing on the shoulders, but this idea, once I named it “They Paved the Way” the idea of having a walk, a paved walkway appeared in my dream and most of my work comes that way. Because it comes that way, I consider it a gift and I realize that nobody else will interpret my gift exactly as I will and so I feel obligated to do it myself.
KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?
MOS: Except for silk, I guess the lasting thought of my initial class has been my preference for cotton because as I told you the class was in the back of an antique shop and before we started the class Helen took us in the shop and showed us some antique quilts there and her point was to show us that in a lot of the old quilts where they used a lot of different fancy fabrics, like in Crazy Quilts, she showed us that many of the pieces had disintegrated or were beginning to fade in color and etc., and a constant was that the cotton portions of the quilt remained almost intact and so I still have a preference for using cottons because I guess I’m egocentric enough to hope that they will outlast me. Now I would image if I’m just making something for the fun of it, it might not matter but to date it has been cotton in terms of fabric. Now in terms of techniques, I am experimental. I read QuiltArt [listserve.] and subscribe to the Quilting Arts Magazine because I’m fascinated with all of the new techniques and tools and products and I buy them as if when they announce them, in three weeks they are going to be not selling them again, so as soon as I learn of them I want them and so my stash of tools and materials and products is quite vast. But when I get ready to do something, you know if I wake up in the middle of the night and I have a concept and I want to get up early the next morning and start it, in most cases I have what I need. If I had not purchased that Etal two or three years ago, I would not have even thought of having it to put on this “They Paved the Way” quilt. Ironically now it’s no longer being manufactured but I have gold and copper and silver and one other color, I think it might have been aluminum that was being sold at the time that the man was making this fabric. My technique varies depending upon what it is I want in that piece and I will do whatever it takes for me to get what I have perceived. Some of my quilts will have commercial fabric in it, it will have fabric that I have hand dyed. It might have fabric that I felt a need to do some painting on, like with the fabric paintstiks or other paints. It just really is led by my vision of what I want it to look like and so I’m not tied down to any techniques and I’m not turned off by any techniques.
KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?
MOS: I don’t belong to any guilds that meet regularly. I do belong to the Quilters of South Carolina because its been maybe 12 or more years ago I was reading the morning paper in Charleston and it stated that very next day a state guild was going to be started in Columbia, South Carolina, which is the capital of South Carolina and about a two hour drive and the thing that caught my attention was that they were going to meet once a year. I got up the next morning and drove to Columbia to join this guild that promised me it was going to meet once a year. They have kept pretty true to that. That was a spring meeting and so we annually have the spring meeting, which this year in April is going to be in Charleston because it moves around the state and they try to move to the lower part of the state and then the upper part so that no one has to make these long drives annually. A few years later they had a retreat at a wonderful facility and it was so much fun, it was a three-day retreat, Friday to Sunday and it was just so much fun that has remained in place. That happens in the fall, either September or October and so now it meets twice a year, which still I find is something that I want to do. I have never wanted to join a group that met monthly because I don’t quilt that way. There have been periods where I have not quilted in terms of actually having fabric and threads in my lap and hands for maybe a year. Now in that time period, I perhaps have had quilts exhibited, I have perhaps done lectures on quilting and related subjects in various places around the country, I have attended quilting conferences or exhibitions like I’ve been to Houston and etc., so I’m still in touch with quilting but I don’t have to physically quilt daily, monthly, yearly to still feel that I’m a part, a very integral part of the quilting community. I’m also a member of the Women of Color Quilters Network. I was one of the early members because when I met Marie Wilson, she had been one of the earliest members and she immediately put me in touch with Dr. Carolyn Mazloomi who has become a dear friend. Early on, in the early nineties, I became affiliated with that group of women and those two are really the only two organizations that I am a part of.
KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?
MOS: I don’t have a favorite person whose work I’m drawn to. There are just so many artists whose work I see and I just am in utter awe, Hollis Chatelain comes to mind and I’ve met her and talked with her and seen her work up close, not just through pictures and I’m just fascinated with her technique and her command of her technique. More recently I’m fascinated by the work of a younger artist that I’ve met through the Women of Color [Quilters Network.], Carolyn Crump, who is an artist that just does tremendous work but I tend not to focus on anybody’s work because I don’t want to be personally influenced by it. I find that I have long memory and if I became attached to somebody’s work, I think almost without realizing it, I might find myself wanting to do what they do. For example, another person whose work just fascinates me is Penny Sisto. A few years ago I had the opportunity, along with some others, about five or six others, to go and spend a weekend with Penny in her log cabin home/studio [Indiana.] because I had just been fascinated with the incredible faces that she does and I like faces. Penny showed us exactly how she executes her faces and except for coming away with her sharing of some of the places where she had gotten some of her fabric that she used for the faces and my having ordered some, that is as much as I’ve done with what I learned about her faces. I still am fascinated by her faces which she does with a lot of stitching, etc., but I have not wanted to duplicate that.
KM: How do you want to be remembered?
MOS: I want to be remembered as a quilt artist who took the time to do the research that was necessary to share important stories through quilts. I started that from the beginning of my quilting. This is long before I started with the computer and I would spend hours in the library researching before I even attempted to do a quilt. I did a series of quilts, they are called “The Gullah Series” and I’ve spent untold hours researching the Gullah culture and its connection between the Sea Islands from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida and Bunce Island in Sierra Leone [West Africa.], because when I did the quilts, I wanted to be sure that anything I included would be accurate. Now I rely on the internet more but I still do very serious research. I’m an educator who quilts and so the same approach that I used when doing my dissertation, the thorough research, I bring to quilting. You just bring what you have. For example, I was having breakfast with a friend in Columbia a few years ago and during breakfast she asked me had I ever heard of a female Buffalo soldier and I hadn’t and so she began to second guess herself. She said, ‘Well I was looking at the History Channel last night and I did fall asleep but I think I heard something like that.’ When I left there, I was in route home and in the two hours on that interstate, that stayed in my mind. I was not home half an hour before I was on the internet and I discovered that it was true and that is now a quilt. [With permission from the National Archives, copies of her enlistment and discharge papers are a part of the quilt.] It was the story of Cathay Williams, who was a cook, but learned that the males that the African American males were being paid more and so she disguised herself as a male and served two years. That’s what I want to be remembered as having done, as having quilts to share unknown stories.
KM: Is there anything you would like to share that we haven’t touched upon before we conclude?
MOS: I really cannot think of anything. I think during this process we have covered so much of what I have done and what I want to do. I would image that the one thing that I might want to conclude with is that I have approached quilting from the dual focus of an educator and an artist and so, while I want people to really, really appreciate the esthetic beauty of my work, and I try to use the best workmanship, I also want them to remember the stories.
KM: I think that is a great way to conclude. I want to thank you so much for taking time out of your day and sharing with me. You were wonderful. We are going to conclude our interview at 9:50.
Interviewee: Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook
Interviewer: Karen Musgrave
Transcriber: Kim Greene
Project Name: The Barack Obama Quilt QSOS
Location: Charleston, South Carolina
Time: 9:05 p.m.