SEWING HISTORY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She'd been making acclaimed art for years, and many of her works depicted little-known events from history.

So when Joan Gaither encountered a professor a few years back, his words came as a shock.

"Those stories on your quilt, the ones about the Underground Railroad, aren't documented," he said. "So they aren't historically true. They're just hearsay."

Even now, Gaither, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a widely known maker of documentary quilts, bristles at that exclusionary notion of history. Even if Maryland law had permitted slaves to write (it didn't), how could a runaway have taken the time to put his thoughts to paper?

"That hits a nerve with me," she says.

But Gaither, a cheerful woman with a window-rattling laugh, would rather make art than recriminate. She was up late one recent night adding last-minute embellishments to her most recent project, a multicolored, 11 1/2 -by-8-foot quilt called "Black Watermen of the Chesapeake."

The work, the sixth in her American Series, tells in fabric, artifacts and words a largely untold story: African-American life around the Chesapeake Bay. Marylanders will see it for the first time this week, when Gaither brings it to a series of quilting sessions before taking it on a national tour next month. The public will be asked to add their own embellishments.

The gatherings will go a long way toward showing why Gaither, a Baltimore native, has chosen to focus mainly on community quilting.

"What I love about this [kind of] project is that you don't have to have to have credentials to contribute," she says. "You don't have to have somebody else acknowledge your right to tell your story. It gives everyone a chance to say, 'This is who I am. This is who we are.' "

She was raised in the housing complexes of Cherry Hill, the daughter of a chauffeur, and she doesn't recall a time when she wasn't surrounded by caring, creative people. "Stay humble and spiritual," her grandmother told her, "but soar as high as you can."

That last part wasn't always easy. Gaither, 65, remembers long car rides to New Jersey, where her father's white boss had a summer home. En route, the employer could get out to use the restroom wherever he liked. Gaither and her father, both African-American, had to find trees to squat behind. "It's how things are for now," her father told her.

Creative hobbies helped. She always loved fabrics - her mother taught her to quilt - and as her love of art grew, Gaither yearned to make quilts that "held people's stories, not just their bodies."

She started gathering material in the mid-1960s, after graduating from Morgan State and moving to her extended family's 7-acre parcel in the woods of northern Anne Arundel County. Gaither realized she was surrounded by ordinary people who were also remarkable in their American-ness - an uncle who was an educator and raised horses, an aunt who taught math for generations.

Their stories could be lost, and so would those of a county where industry and expansion were displacing families and old-world ways.

"Neighborhoods were changing and disappearing," Gaither says. "I wanted to make sure there was something that documented their existence."

She used a traditional "Baltimore album" format - individual panels depicting people or themes - to capture family members in a 9-by-10-foot "Family Quilt" (2000), then tales from the days of slavery in Maryland, elements of vanishing black life in the county and other subjects in quilts like "At Freedom's Door" and "Trails, Tracks and Tarmac" (both 2006).

They came in eye-catching hues and sizes, but the more closely you looked, the more particulars you saw - jewelry, ornaments, bits of clothing, family pictures, storytelling text. The works appeared at MICA, the Maryland Historical Society, the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis and elsewhere.

Starting with her family and moving outward, she was weaving African-American history in an unusually personal way.

"I didn't even know I was working on a series," Gaither says with a laugh, "but it kept escalating. It surely became one."

Star stuff

The artist says she didn't fully grasp the power of her medium until halfway through "Trails, Tracks and Tarmac." She didn't want to try telling the whole story of northern Anne Arundel herself, so she left space around the quilt's edges, invited community members to quilting sessions and asked them to sew in personal memories.

The new material overflowed the quilt so quickly that she had to hold sessions to teach guests to make their own. People brought in family heirlooms like pickers' checks - post-slavery-era coins that paid for field labor - and manumission papers, documents that granted slaves their freedom. They sewed these into 26 quilts, all of which were hung alongside Gaither's in a 2006 exhibition at Banneker-Douglass.

Genevieve Kaplan, the museum's manager of public programs, said those who had worked on the quilts each brought five or six friends, spreading the word, and those friends visibly treated the amateur quilters with the sort of reverence usually reserved for famed artists.

"There was tremendous pride at having taken part," Kaplan says.

That kind of feeling is easily explained, says Vince Leggett, a public historian who helped provide content for "Black Watermen of the Chesapeake."

"Normally, the people who take the time to share a story or a recipe or a part of their life don't see the result of it," he says. "It becomes part of someone's dissertation or an $80 coffee-table book. But [with these quilts], those people can come back, and their children and grandchildren can come back, and see their work in community displays. They can put their hand on it, work it, smell it.

"Having these people lifted up in this venue, in this fashion empowers a whole community," Leggett says. "The people feel it. They feel like rock stars."

Kindred spirits

History, they say, is written by the winners. In the case of the Chesapeake Bay, that tends to mean those who prospered most.

This has always bothered Leggett, a Baltimore native who in 1984 founded the Blacks on the Chesapeake Foundation, an educational nonprofit in Annapolis.

"When you go to a library or university, and you pick up books on the Chesapeake, you see very few people of color," he says. "If you do, it's primarily crab pickers or oyster shuckers, and they never have names or voices. The question became, 'Who are these people?' "

Leggett has spent the past quarter-century finding out. He has crisscrossed the Chesapeake visiting attics and yard sales, museums and historical societies, putting 230,000 miles on his pickup while looking for the images, artifacts and tales that would rescue these vital chapters of black history and pass them along.

What he learned firsthand was that blacks were not only "the backbone of the seafood industry" - plucking oysters ("white gold") and crabs from the water, shucking and picking and later selling them - but also boat makers, decoy carvers, construction workers, privateers and entrepreneurs.

The foundation has amassed a warehouse full of evidence, and Leggett, who has helped produce documentaries and books, among other projects, is always looking for new outlets to share it. When he met Gaither in 2002, he knew he'd found a kindred spirit, and six years later - as she was finishing up "Journey to the White House," a community quilt about the election of Barack Obama that drew crowds to Banneker-Douglass - they decided to collaborate.

It was a chance to tell an elusive tale in bold colors.

"The subject is so visually rich," Leggett says. "And with someone of Professor Joan's passion and credentials [involved], no one can say, 'Stand down, step aside, we'll take it from here.' They can't pooh-pooh what we're doing."

"Black Watermen" debuted at the Bates Legacy Center in Annapolis on Thursday. Three more sessions will follow in Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's counties over the next 10 days, and it becomes part of an exhibit of Gaither's six-piece "American Series" in Hartford, Conn., next month.

One recent late evening, Gaither, Leggett and friends and relatives ranging in age from 5 to 85 worked in a garage studio, adding finishing touches to the "Watermen" quilt for its first appearance.

Spread on a huge table, it's multilayered and bright. An outer strip of African mud cloth gives way to a blue one symbolizing the ocean crossed by slaves. Hundreds of safety pins, some left open to represent the pain of separation, link to the next few layers: a red one for blood and death, a star-spangled one for the United States they lived in, and zippered fabric from a boat's canopy - all of which lead inward toward the story of black life on the bay.

Pictures - images transferred by computer onto fabric - tell much of that tale. There's Charles Ball, an escaped slave who became a privateer, then fought in the War of 1812. There's Capt. Thompson Wallace, who was lost in a storm at sea. There's a cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (1880), which chronicled the growing reach of the Chesapeake seafood industry and showed blacks at work. There are owners of black resorts, yacht clubs, seafood restaurants.

The panels, some festooned with oyster shells, crab claws or sailcloth bits, surround a deep-blue Bay of African batik.

The quilt appears full, but if you look closely, there's still lots of room around the edges. That's where members of the public will add their own words and images, expanding the communal record as only they can.

Admission to the events is free, the quilt work is easy, and Leggett asks anyone who knows of a waterman past or present, or any bayside lore, to help make history.

"Professor Joan will show you how," he says. "These are your memories, your disappointments, your hopes. Your subjects and verbs don't have to match. Come share your stories."

If you go

What: Quilting Sessions for "Black Watermen of the Chesapeake" When: 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, Meredith's Seafood and Carry Out, 3227 Main St., Grasonville; 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Captain Salem Avery Museum, 1418 East West Shady Side Road, Shady Side Admission: All events free More information: Call the Banneker-Douglass Museum at 410-216-6180

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