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Quilters' club features diversity of skills, techniques and colors

Catonsville Times
African American Quilters of Baltimore show is open at Salem Lutheran's Agape Gallery

When the African American Quilters of Baltimore opened their gallery show at Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church's Agape Art Gallery on Sunday, they brought with them a 26-year history of quilting in Baltimore.

From now until January in the gallery of the church at 910 Frederick Road, dozens of quilts on display will represent members' wide variety of quilting patterns and styles.

The group meets on the first Saturday of every month at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on Edmondson Avenue, just over the city line from Catonsville.

Its members hail from all over central Maryland, including a number from Catonsville.

It was founded in 1989 by three Baltimore women looking to form a guild that would serve as a space for black women to freely express their creativity with quilting. It has since evolved into a diverse group in just about every way except for a shared interest in quilting and community, where members regularly reach out to young people to introduce them to sewing and quilting.

AAQB landed at Salem Lutheran after Arts Committee head Char Brooks came across a quilt at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park & Museum in Oella last spring. She asked the Banneker staff where the quilt had come from and was told it was the work of AAQB.

Almost immediately, she said, she got in touch with the group about displaying some of their work at Salem Lutheran.

"It's just a little opportunity to do some networking among people who do art," she said, adding that many of the church's congregants are very involved in quilting. "It's been wonderful to have this whole group here working together."

Catonsville resident Bernice Clarke, a member of the guild since 1994, said she comes to most of the group's shows prepared to give demonstrations to visitors curious about the women's work.

Clarke employs a unique method to quilt making. She works mostly in paper piecing, a style of quilting that involves using a pattern print on paper as a guide and is usually recognizable by the sharp points unique to the style.

Although she's mastered the skill now, it took getting involved in AAQB to ignite a passion for quilt making.

"For me, quilts were always the stuff you put on the bed," said Clarke, a former sewing factory worker.

Then she joined the guild and saw the artistic quilts members had made not as extra bedding, but as art to be displayed on a wall.

"A whole new world opened up for me," she said. "That's when I decided this is something I really wanted to get involved in."

Today, Clarke said, the guild is an irreplaceable resource.

At the group's monthly meetings, which can last as long as three hours, the group always cuts out time for a show and tell activity. Each member shows the other members what they've been working on, asks for input on how to make the project better, if needed, and fields questions about the techniques they used to get the look of each detail.

From finding a new idea to discovering new designs and techniques, Clarke said, "You leave the meeting inspired."

Paradise resident Kay Smith was inspired after reading an article about the guild in The Beacon,. The article indicated that the group accepts members of any gender and skill level, as well as any race, said Smith, who is white.

The deal was sealed when she heard that the group didn't even require members to be quilters, she said.

"I thought, 'OK. There's a place in there for me,'" she said. "I called [the group] up and said, 'Is it true?'"

At the first meeting, Smith said, she was so overwhelmed by the quality of the work the women displayed and the imagination of the group members that she walked out before the meeting was over.

"I was so blown away by the creativity in the room," she said. "My brain was on overload."

A year-and-a-half later, Smith said she still learns something new every time she attends a meeting.

"I'm not an A quilter. I'm probably not even a B quilter," she said.

But the support from the other members encourages her to keep trying, she added.

One of the women whose work other members look to for ideas is Catherine Wooten, a Lisbon resident and longtime guild member.

A dressmaker and upholsterer by profession, Wooten's ability to make her own patterns has garnered her a reputation among other members as a high-level quilt maker.

But Wooten, whose work will also be on display at Salem Lutheran, wasn't always so enamored of quilting.

For many years, she said, she sewed everything but quilts.

"I did quilts with my mother when I was a child," Wooten said. "After I grew up, I didn't want anything to do with quilts."

That changed 15 years ago, after she joined a friend on a trip to a quilt show.

Not long after, she gave up her resolution against quilting.

The first quilt she sewed, she said, told the story of her hometown, Pinetop, N.C.

That quilt, complete with images of her childhood home, her yard and local ball field, now hangs in a museum in Pinetop, she said.

While she also sews soft dolls — her work has been featured in doll magazines — being a part of AAQB, she said, has helped her find a love for quilting that now rivals the love she has always had for other kinds of sewing.

"Quilting is a way that you can express yourself more than anything else I know," she said. "Whatever you want to do, you can do it. You can put pants on ants."

Carolyn Burnside, a Baltimore City resident, has been coming to meetings regularly for about eight years.

Although she loves quilting, it's the friendships she's formed there that keep her coming back, she said.

She found the group years ago while shopping for quilting supplies in Catonsville. At a bead shop on Mellor Avenue, Burnside, who is white, met Rosalind Robinson, who gave her a flier advertising an upcoming AAQB show.

"It was one of those kind of connections that people make sometimes," Burnside said. Beyond checking out the show, Burnside said she knew immediately that she wanted to be part of a guild like AAQB.

"I said, 'Would you all let a white girl in there?'" she said.

As it turned out, Robinson said, they would. But don't expect the group to change the name, she added.

Fifteen years later, Burnside, the current vice president of the AAQB, says joining the group is one of the greatest decisions she's made.

"It's the best group of people I have anything to do with ... besides my family," she said. "It's the most wonderfully creative group of people I've ever met."

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