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Quilt maker speaks through her craft


In the cluttered basement of her Charles Village rowhouse, Melody Healy meticulously sews quilt wall hangings that adorn walls around the world.

She chooses vibrant and rich fabrics from Senegal and Nigeria for many quilts and arduously selects a theme for each. Her job is tedious and solitaire. She often works under a single bulb, the hum of one of four sewing machines the only noise.

"These quilt stitches will go on for about two weeks and that will be all I do," she says.

"I'll absolutely talk to nobody. I'll brush my teeth and hope that my husband will fix some kind of meal for us."

Mrs. Healy, 54, started making quilt wall hangings more than two decades ago and has made hundreds since.

None are the same, she says, and each is a small window into her world.

"I am a 20th century woman, African-American and so my world offers me a host of experiences, a host of emotions to express," she says.

"An African-American quilt is as different and as daring as an African-American person is and so that becomes an important reflection of how I view my quilts."

Today, Mrs. Healy is scheduled to leave for a two-week trip to Kanagawa, Japan, where she will teach and lecture on quilt making and its history to citizens and community groups.

Her trip is fully sponsored by the Japanese government and is part of a sister states program with Maryland.

The first leg of the program was in 1991 when a Japanese expert in woodblock art prints spent a month teaching classes and giving seminars on the art in Maryland.

Jean Van Buskirk, director of the sisters program of the Maryland International Division, said Mrs. Healy was selected for the trip in September from referrals and an interview process.

"It will show our culture from a teacher who is skilled to show how we do it," Ms. Van Buskirk said.

Although Mrs. Healy had some background in needlework, she never intended to make quilts for a living when she started in the basement of her home in the 2800 block of Guilford Avenue in 1972.

"I wanted to know how we as African-Americans had impacted on culture through needlework because I'm from a family where we have knitters, weavers and people like that," Mrs. Healy said.

"But it's gratifying to me. It's an important opportunity as an African-American quilt maker to show that contribution that we make."

Mrs. Healy's quilts range in both size and price. She made one quilt that was 15 square inches and another 110 square inches. Her most expensive one costs $9,000.

Mrs. Healy's most recent quilt -- a commissioned gift for a California woman who recently married and hopes to have children -- is of an African fertility goddess. Several small dolls -- delicate silk figurines that signify the hope for a healthy child -- are also on the quilt.

"Ideas are always the hardest, then comes the execution," she says.

"But then what begins to happen is that as a 20th century African American I start playing with the technology and sort of my cultural experiences with them."

While researching quilting, she learned that quilts for black people were used solely for utilitarian purposes -- as a way to keep warm in the slave owners' houses.

"But now it has moved into the realm of art. My quilts rarely ever go on beds," she says.

"Most people who buy my quilts want a piece of art that they can hang. They want a soft piece of art."

In her fertility quilt, the theme is a first-time mother and healthy children.

"I live in Baltimore City, I pick up the paper everyday and there is some terrible thing going on. So when you say healthy children, you're talking about a sense of well-being, you're talking about children who can be safe."

"I try to portray myself, how I view the world, my cultural experiences. I try to portray Melody, African American, 54-year-old woman living in Baltimore who has had a lot of these experiences."

Despite her quilts being sold to customers around the world, few are sold to Marylanders.

"A lot people buy my work because they want work from an African-American quilt maker," she says.

"But for some reason you have a difficult time selling quilts and making a decent living here. We are still at a point where Baltimoreans and Marylanders either don't know about them or don't want to buy them."

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