Some 35 years ago, a small group of Baltimore women formed a club to talk about sewing. They were schoolteachers, administrators and other professionals who had learned from their mothers, grandmothers and godmothers how to piece together a suit or knit a sweater.
At first, it was an informal group of four who met in Beatrice Wright's home and "and snacked and talked about what we were making," recalls Adelle Foreman, a former educator who lives in Cross Keys. The women asked other women to join, and soon there were painters, calligraphers, fashion designers, quilters, embroiderers, knitters and crocheters.
There was Lucretia B. Whitten, a retired accountant from the Morgan Park neighborhood, who as a child spent rainy afternoons quilting with her seven sisters.
There was Viola Stokes, who has been knitting since fourth grade.
And Audrey Davis, a former Baltimore City school administrator, who learned to sew on her mother's old-fashioned Singer treadle machine.
They called their club "Arts Unlimited," and met once a month. Pretty soon, "we had people knocking each other down to get into the club," says Foreman. "The common bond was art."
The bond still holds. And now that members are in their 60s and 70s, it is about much more than art. It is also about friendship, loyalty and an abiding sense of what is important in a quickly changing world.
For anyone attuned to Baltimore's peaks and valleys, its struggle to stay economically and politically viable, a small core of women who have met continuously for 35 years may be invisible.
But for anyone who understands, at a more profound level, that Baltimore is still about community, about people who care about neighborhoods and art and friends, Arts Unlimited is but one example of the city's vitality.
Saturday, Arts Unlimited held its annual, end-of-spring luncheon at a Charles Street restaurant, where the year's artistic efforts, dresses, suits, card-table covers, quilts, evening wraps and other finery were on display to be admired by club members and their 40 guests.
The members wore, as well as exhibited, their creations. Davis was chic in a tri-color linen sheath. Whitten wore a refreshing white linen pants suit. Cummings had on a tangerine-orange suit decorated with a parade of Egyptian figures. Stokes was pretty in a pink knitted top.
"It's an elegant group and a very smart group," Stokes said at the festive cocktail hour preceding the luncheon. "We like to be very creative, to try something new, something different, something very odd," she said, pointing to Cummings' crisp white shirt decorated with fabric playing cards on display.
The club serves as a collective memory bank. Foreman remembers how she often stayed with her godmother, a dressmaker who lived across the street. As she worked, "she would throw the scraps over at me and I would make doll clothes."
Her first wearable creation was a red, short skirt with pockets on the back that she wore to school at age 10.
Today, the skills learned from her godmother sustain Foreman. "Sewing is a part of my life. ... Now that I've lost my husband, it's therapy for me. It's what I do in the evening by myself that gives me pleasure."
Joining Arts Unlimited has always been a privilege, by invitation only and stays purposefully small. Membership has never exceeded 15. As people left, others were invited.
"You can't get too many artists together," said current club president Jeanne Cummings with a wise smile. A surfeit of artistic idiosyncracy might be too much of a good thing, she tactfully suggested.
Recently, members realized that without new blood, their tradition of sharing techniques and inspiration might be lost. No member has died, but illness and other complications have made it harder for some to continue to work on their creations.
And so on Saturday, two new, younger, members -- Terrelle Jolley-Gray and Theda Bevans -- were officially welcomed.
Jolley-Gray, a vice principal at William H. Lemmel Middle School (who sews and does cross-stitch), used to listen enviously to her Aunt Lou Whitten's accounts of how club members took classes at G-Street Fabric in Rockville, then taught one another beading, applique, quilting, the intricacies of working with ultra-suede.
"How come I can't be in the group?" she'd ask.
Now, for Jolley-Gray and Bevans, the fourth Saturday of every month when the club meets will become a sacred trust for them as well as for the older women.
They will adhere to the club's constitution, which calls for diversity across the arts. They will adhere to the club's unspoken rules when discussing their art: "We don't ever use the word crafts," said Cummings, who lives in upper Park Heights.
Before the luncheon, Cummings, a former administrator at Northern High School and Paint Branch High School in Montgomery County, acknowledged members who could not come. One member broke her ankle the night before and another had to tend her sick husband. Cummings herself was recovering from a violent mugging.
But she was upbeat as she reminisced about the three and a half decades during which the club has had a "unique relationship having to do with the arts," and during which members have learned so much from one another. And, if [we] can't learn from each other, we go to school."
After lunch, the members and their guests admired the exhibition again: Foreman's two-piece denim suit, Parrish's crocheted afghan, Whitten's mola-inspired pillows and other labors of love.
And then, the women auctioned off some of those labors. They bought one another's pot- holders, paintings, pillows and other treasures -- with play money. Because, as Cummings said, "We do it for joy and not for making money."
Pub Date: 6/18/98