When Severn resident Joan M.E. Gaither was born nearly 70 years ago, the word "negro" was printed on her birth certificate.
Gaither, an artist and retired educator, says she has channeled the hurt and humiliation she has endured from racism over the years into something positive — namely, her narrative quilt pieces, in which she aims to show the legacies and contributions of African-Americans and denounce the idea of racial segregation.
"When I should die, I don't even care if my name is on my grave," she said. "I just want to be remembered as a person."
Through May 25, Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church, 611 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd. in Severna Park, is hosting a gallery of Gaither's quilts, which is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays.
The work uses carefully selected fabrics, patterns, collaged text and images to intertwine personal stories, historical events and the experiences of others. Among her goals is not only to share history but to be inclusive.
"You go to a bookstore and there's an African-American section, but you don't see anything specially marked for Caucasians," Gaither said. "I want people to recognize and understand the context that it's all under one history."
Gaither, a Baltimore native, has taught art for more than 40 years, starting in the Baltimore public school system. Most recently, she worked as a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art for 14 years, until she retired two years ago.
Though she primarily specializes in photography, she stitched her first narrative quilt in 2000, tapping a skill she had learned from her mother. The series on display at Woods Memorial feature the stories of local philanthropists Ed and Sylvia Brown; Richard Scott, the first African-American intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital; and the story of land ownership and work on Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
The largest quilt, titled "The Black Watermen of the Chesapeake," is designed to tell the story of the watermen's contribution to Maryland¹s economy and the seafood industry. Gaither received a Maryland General Assembly citation for her work on this particular piece.
"The process of putting a quilt together — it's very intimate," Gaither said. "You start with one idea, and you keep finding new layers, new meanings."
The church has held regular galleries for the past five years. Nancy Saarlas, curator of the Woods Memorial gallery, said Gaither's work stands out for its rich storytelling.
The quilts are "just really gorgeous," she said. "They're very unusual and [Gaither] has great technique."
"Most of my work is based on the premise of identity," Gaither said of her works. "That's what I want to share."
In addition to the exhibit at Woods Memorial, Gaither will lead a free quilting workshop, hosted by the Four Rivers Heritage Area, from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. May 29 at the Captain Salem Avery Museum, 1418 E. West Shady Side Road in Shady Side. During the session, she will share stories about creating quits, present samples and offer advice.
Participants can bring photos, fabric scraps and other items to stitch into their quilt blocks. Registration is required. Call 410-867-4486 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.