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Barbara Pietila, Baltimore quilter and fiber artist, dies

Barbara Pietila, a Baltimore quilt artist shown in a 1999 file photo, died Saturday at age 77.
Barbara Pietila, a Baltimore quilt artist shown in a 1999 file photo, died Saturday at age 77.(BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR / XX)

Barbara Pietila, who created story quilts of moments from African-American life, died of respiratory failure Saturday at her Cheswolde home in Northwest Baltimore. She was 77.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Spring Street, she was the daughter William McKinley Moody and Marian Jones, who were both canning factory workers. She was a 1960 graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, and completed dental hygiene training at Baltimore City Community College, where she was an instructor for several years.

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According to a biography prepared by her husband, she worked for Dr. Curtis N. Adams, a Mondawmin-area dentist, and the city health department. She also trained as a nurse’s aide and worked at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and the old Rosewood Hospital in Owings Mills.

She met her future husband, Antero Pietila, who is now a retired Baltimore Sun reporter and former foreign correspondent, at a party at the Sutton Place apartments.

“Our first date was at the Famous Ballroom, listening to Stan Getz,” said her husband.

Ms. Pietila inherited her interest in quilting from family elders, her husband said. She began quilting while her husband was reporting for The Sun in Moscow. She often bought her quilting supplies in Helsinki, Finland, where the fabric was of better quality than what was available in the old Soviet Union.

“I draw inspiration for my work from everyday life and from my childhood, which was rich with conversations, many relatives, and special occasions,” she wrote in an essay that accompanied her quilts.

In a 1999 Sun article she explained she used a technique known as applique, applying fabric to another piece of cloth.

“After choosing a fabric for the background of the quilt, she draws and cuts out the shapes and stitches each carefully to the fabric,” the article said.

Her husband said her most recognized story quilt is called “Signifyin',” a term for meddling and gossiping.

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“Signifyin’ depicts a Sunday morning," Mr. Pietila said. “Two neighbors chat on front steps, while another pair of women gossip on the street, dressed in their Sunday best, complete with church hats. In the foreground, a signifyin’ neighbor holds a telephone receiver in her hand and cranes her neck out of a window, trying to eavesdrop.”

“Signifyin” was exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.

“She was renowned as a fiber artist,” said Carolyn Mazloomi, founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network who lives in West Chester, Ohio. “As a person she was kind and no nonsense. She was also a fabulous artist within the quilt community.”

Ms. Pietila, who was also among the founders of the Women of Color Quilters Network, made quilts that showed moments from African-American life. She stitched scenes from fruit and vegetable Arabbers and from her youth in East Baltimore.

Her husband, author of “Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City,” said that some depicted slavery. One quilt, “They Sold Aunt Nettie Down South,” ends in a fabric panel showing Nettie taking poison rather than being transported to an uncertain future in bondage.

“Quilting excites me. I always did like fabric, but the clothing I made didn’t seem creative enough,” she said in a 1999 Sun article. “But quilts! I can embellish them. I put buttons and all sorts of things on them. I can do anything I want.”

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In addition to the Museum of Arts and Design, her work was exhibited at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, the American Craft Museum in New York, the Toronto Textile Museum, the Reginald F. Lewis in Baltimore and in displays that traveled to China and Cuba.

“She cherished participating in Artscape,” Baltimore’s annual free summer arts festival, her husband said. “She had a booth for eight years. She may not have made much money selling her quilts, pottery, jewelry and clothing, but had a glorious time meeting other artists and kibitzing with loyal customers.”

Ms. Pietila suffered a brain aneurysm in 2006, limiting her quilting abilities.

“She was no longer able to work on ambitious projects,” her husband said. “She could continue her love of cruising with me. We visited China, Vietnam and Thailand, and after two cruises to Iceland and Greenland spent the New Year of 2016 in the waters of Antarctica.”

Her husband said his wife took pride in voting. She volunteered in the 1978 City Council campaign of Kweisi Mfume, who won the Democratic primary by three votes.

Ms. Pietila restored a home on South Stricker Street facing Union Square, refinishing its floors and painting the walls. She was also an avid gardener.

She also conducted genealogical research about her roots in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. She was assisted by Sandra Napier of Catonsville.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. March 7 at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 4711 Edmondson Avenue.

In addition to her husband of 36 years, survivors include two sons, Carteen Wilkerson, Jr. of Macon, Georgia and Leslie Richard J. Wilkerson of Garrison; her brother, Paul Moody of Woodlawn; six grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Robin A. Talley, died in 2012. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.

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