A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories synthesizes three decades of Roland L. Freeman's documentation of the world of African American quiltmakers. The exhibit builds on roots in Freeman's childhood experiences with quilts, quiltmaking and related folk culture. In the mid-1970's, as Director of the Mississippi Folklife Project, Freeman began documenting traditional crafts and practitioners for the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies. In 1979, he published Something To Keep You Warm (now out of print), the first book about quilts made by African Americans, and also curated the related national touring exhibit, the first of its kind. Additional images from Freeman's quilters documentation can be seen under Roland L. Freeman, in Gallery 3 (Click here to close this window and open that Gallery).
As Freeman's understanding of the world of African-American quiltmaking grew, the project evolved and expanded, and, as Freeman viewed the impact of the quilts as they passed from generation to generation, A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories took shape. Fieldwork both reflected and shaped this evolution. Freeman contacted Quilters who had been documented in the South early in the project who had moved to other parts of the country, and they often provided access to additional Quilters and networks. Younger generations of quiltmaking families were sought out and documented, and when they had preserved family quilts, Freeman added historical photographs of the deceased quiltmakers to his documentation. Often, during interviews, quilters would identify others for Freeman to document, sometimes located nearby, and other times across the country. Over time, Freeman realized that these individual stories were each part of an important collective, and he began systematically to link them, ultimately covering the country, region by region, revisiting areas to fill in gaps and follow new leads. The exhibit draws on continuing fieldwork, and includes individual quilters in about 40 states and Washington, D.C.
In addition to its landmark scope, the project has yielded some truly special results. For example, there is documentation spanning twenty years of the Johnson family, Phoeba and her daughters, Annie Dennis and Emma Russell, fourth and fifth generations of quilters. There are instances of families that though dispersed geographically, have reaffirmed their cultural and spiritual connections through the sharing of family quilts and the histories they represent and recall. And, there are the many quilts with stories linking families pre- and post-slavery. A Communion of the Spirits was the first project of its kind and scope, and received extensive national attention.
The National Touring Exhibition for A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories, is curated by Roland L. Freeman and produced by TGCD. It contains about 175 photographs of varying sizes (about 35 of which have quilted frames produced especially for the exhibit), a selection of the surveyed quilts, interpretive panels, and a limited amount of other artwork related to the quilters. At least one photograph from each of the locations where fieldwork has been carried out is included, and several of the quilting groups are highlighted.
The exhibit has been designed to provide for flexibility around a standard exhibit core, permitting accommodation to differing space sizes and shapes at its various venues.
A companion book, A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories, was published in October 1996 (Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, TN). The book is over 350 pages in length, with about 300 photographs, most in color. It includes a narrative that chronicles how Freeman came to this quest, what that journey has been like, extensive documentary and interpretive material drawn from the interviews and other research, and listings of all those who have participated.
Individual prints from A Communion of the Spirits, as well as the book A Communion of the Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories are available in the Online Catalog.