To look at Elizabeth Scott's quilts is to see a world of life and a world of art. They refer back to her African ancestors' way of making fabrics, and they resemble abstract art. They reflect her parents and grandparents and growing up on a South Carolina plantation. They include the world around, from stars to insects, that everyone can recognize. And they embody emotions that everyone knows.
Scott, who will be 82 Feb. 7, learned quilting at her mother's knee in South Carolina. But as an adult she gave it up for decades of being a Baltimore wife and mother and working at a succession of jobs. In the late 1960s, she began quilting again, and since then her quilts have earned increasing admiration for their originality, aesthetic appeal and depth of meaning.
Unlike traditional quilts with regular patterns, Scott's are free-form, often employing materials from her life arranged in odd, ungeometrical shapes. Her surfaces can be densely crowded, her compositions usually asymmetrical and her colors intense.
Scott's work has appeared in group shows from New York to Baltimore to Atlanta. But now, for the first time, she's having her own show. "Eyewinkers, Tumbleturds and Candlebugs: The Art of Elizabeth Talford Scott" opened Thursday at the Maryland Institute, College of Art. It displays 45 of her quilts, plus additional quilts related to them by family members and others, and comes complete with catalog. It was organized by George Ciscle, founding director of the city's Contemporary Museum and well-known curator and aficionado of contemporary art.
"I'm very happy about it," Scott says of the show. She is sitting in the second-floor workroom of her West Baltimore house, surrounded by the paraphernalia of her art. The newest quilt, a constellation of stars in a kaleidoscope of colors, its surface awriggle with thousands of beads, sits on the revolving tabletop in front of her. To her right, a worktable contains other materials she uses. At her right hand, needles stick out of the wide upholstered arm of the chair in which she sits. And more quilts occupy the sofa on which the visitor sits, the chair across the way, even the floor -- spread out there for the moment by her daughter, Joyce, herself a nationally recognized artist.
To visit Scott is to know that shows and recognition and art movements could never replace her triumvirate of essentials: her daughter, her memories, her quilts. And that is what makes her art so thoroughly her own and so richly resonant.
Ask her where the inspiration for her extraordinarily creative, colorful and varied designs comes from, and she doesn't talk about abstract art or African roots. She points to her head. In there.
Ask her why she took up quilting again in later life, and she doesn't talk about long-suppressed self-expression finally blossoming forth, though anyone who has seen the quilts will have no doubt that was part of it. "I first started doing this when my child [Joyce] got a scholarship and went away to college," she says. "It was kind of hard for me because my child had never been away before.
"I taught it for a while. I used to have a class in school, and I taught them how to make flowers and things so they could have a quilt. But then the school couldn't afford it anymore, so I decided to do it at home."
Today, scores of quilts later, Scott's art provokes admiration for its mingling of centuries-old traditions with a 20th-century sensibility and an outpouring of deep emotion that springs largely from family memory.
The way it was
Elizabeth Scott was born in South Carolina in 1916. As young as 9, she learned quilting from her mother, but her father and many others in her family and community also quilted. "That was the way of life in those days," she says. "We didn't buy blankets and spreads the way we do today. The churches had 'choirs' that were clubs where people would get together and go to each other's house and do quilting.
"My father worked for the railroad, and he would stop in Charleston, where they had factories that made materials. If there was an oil spot on a piece, they would just whack that off and give it to my father. There was also a button factory, and my father would bring them home.
"At 9 years old, we had to help. We would baste things on and then the mothers would come and sew that on. I learned to strip and other things."
In the show is a quilt by Scott's father and another by her mother that clearly show the piecing and stripping tradition out of which Scott's quilting grew. But Scott never uses strips in regular repetition, nor do her quilts conform to a completely preconceived design. Of her method of working she says, "I put something down and I study it." Her daughter, Joyce, says there have been preliminary drawings at times, but Scott does not feel obliged to follow them. Obviously, she doesn't turn the creative spirit on and off but lets it flow.
In 1940, Scott moved to Baltimore and subsequently married Charlie Scott from Durham, N.C. Her daughter, Joyce, was born in 1948. The demands of work, marriage and a family required Scott to give up quilting. But she took it up again in the late 1960s, when Joyce, a graduate of the Maryland Institute, was in Mexico earning a master of fine art degree.
The first quilt in the show is "Fifty Year Quilt," which she had begun in 1930 and completed only in 1980. It is a combination of strips and blocks, and Scott says of it: "That is my father's pattern. That's the way he made his quilts."
According to Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute and author of the catalog essay on Scott's work, it incorporates multiple aspects related to African tradition. Among them are techniques (such as sewing strips of cloth together and applique work), patterning and an improvisational quality.
But Scott also decorated "Fifty Year Quilt" with the beginnings of her own complex style, adding appliqued flowers, representations of animals and areas of stitchery that make abstract patterns.
"Some of this is free-form abstract design not related to anything," says Ciscle.
Quickly Scott became more and more adventurous with her use of designs and materials. Her visual repertory expanded to all kinds of creatures, including insects like the candlebugs (fireflies) and tumbleturds (dung beetles) of the show's title. (Eyewinkers refers to the winking eye, and eyes appear in several quilts, though not necessarily winking.)
Scott also incorporated more and more nonfiber materials, ranging from stones and shells to beads and buttons. In "Grandfather's Cabin/Noah's Ark" (1993-1996), she even adds sections of plastic packing material to represent the cabin door.
"That's my mother's father's cabin," says Scott. "He built his own cabin. And this was the front door. It was big, too. You could set another house in that door."
Aside from their pure visual delight, Scott's quilts have a strong narrative strain that relates to her own experience and, by extension, to African-American experience. "Grandfather's Cabin/Noah's Ark" includes a representation not only of the cabin but also of the family that lived in it, the king snake that became a family pet and the stars above.
In Scott's view, moreover, one quilt's imagery can also have two or more distinct meanings. In "Grandfather's Quilt/Noah's Ark," the cabin door becomes a ship with its pointed bow; the family and the snake represent the living world that will enter the ark; the swimming creatures beside the ark are fish in the sea that rises to engulf the world.
"Plantation Quilt" (1980) has several meanings. Its stars on a white background represent the pattern of stars overhead on the plantation where Scott grew up and where members of her family were sharecroppers and descendants of slaves. The patterns of sewn stitches on the background represent the plantation's fields.
This quilt also relates to African-American history. "In African-American tradition," says Ciscle, "quilts like this would be maps of escape routes to the underground railroad, giving clues -- stars to follow or rows on the ground indicating directions."
But Scott has also told Ciscle that the central star and the smaller ones attached to it represent the mother with her babies, while the other stars represent children who have grown up and gone their own ways.
There's still another level of meaning. A person on the Earth would have to look up to see the stars and down as if from a plane to see the patterns of fields. But if one thinks of this as a single view, only God would be able to look through galaxies of stars to a single farm on the Earth. So the quilt suggests that God's vision encompasses both the universe and the individual. Scott's quilt thus relates to universal experience in its familial and religious meanings, to African-American history and to Scott's own experience looking up at the sky from her childhood home.
As the 1980s progressed, both Elizabeth Scott's and Joyce Scott's work began to receive wider recognition. Joyce's bead sculptures with sociopolitical messages look quite different from her mother's work. But the two have influenced each other on more than one level, Joyce says. Elizabeth influenced Joyce in the use of needle and thread; Joyce influenced Elizabeth in the use of beads and other materials. They also sustain each other in their commitment to art as a way of life.
And they share the ability to reach out and connect with the viewer. If Joyce's sculptures can make hard-hitting points about race relations, Elizabeth's quilts resonate with human emotion. "Stamps and Flags" (1980) pulses with good-natured happiness.
"Birthday Quilt" (1994) was made for Joyce. "For my baby's birthday," says Scott. "It's made of neckties. Some of them were her grandfather's neckties. Her godfather's in there. And a dog or a cat. And Grandma, though you can't see her."
And Mother's in there, too, and you can see her, though not in terms of representation. She speaks through the border of deep green and black that hovers protectively around the intense red of the central rectangle, like a mother protecting her child. She speaks through the way bits and pieces of green and black float through the red as if broken off from the border, like aspects of the mother's looks or characteristics shining through the child.
But sensing the emotional level of a Scott quilt is less a matter of explanation and interpretation than of the communication of pure feeling. "Birthday Quilt" doesn't have to be interpreted to have its love revealed. Elizabeth Scott put the love there, and to see the quilt is to know it's there. That, above all, is her gift. To the world.
What: "Eyewinkers, Tumbleturds and Candlebugs: The Art of Elizabeth Talford Scott"
Where: Maryland Institute, College of Art, Mount Royal Station building at Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street, and Fox building at Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays), noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; through March 1
Tickets: Free Call: 410-225-2300
Pub Date: 1/18/98