Gwendolyn Magee, 64, first started making quilts in 1989 during a six-week quiltmaking class at a local Jackson quilt store that no longer exists. She only planned to make a quilt for each of her two daughters before they went to college, but by the time she finished their quilts, she was hooked. "Eventually, I really started becoming dissatisfied with just taking a pattern and following it, making things that were just pretty," Magee says. She wanted to make quilts with more meaning, and she tapped into her roots as an African American growing up in segregated High Point, N.C., for her inspiration.
When Magee shifted from creating more traditional quilts to composing politically charged narratives with highly textured fabrics, she found a voice through her art, communicating messages about slavery, African Americans in prison, the promise of education, Hurricane Katrina and current events.
"I think once I moved in that direction, that's when it really took off into becoming a true art form," Magee says.
Hurricane Katrina was the inspiration for Magee's two most recent projects, and she anticipates a small series on the topic because there are still things she feels the need to address. Magee's first truly three-dimensional quilt, "Why," features a storm brewing over the Superdome, with an old woman in a wheelchair emerging from the surface of the quilt. "Requiem" portrays the corner of N. Villere and Lesseps Streets in New Orleans, where her daughter's house was lost to flooding. Light and Mardi Gras-colored "music" spill into the street, only to be swallowed by the swirling floodwaters.
Magee says that working such emotionally charged quilts can be draining.
"I literally could not work on anything else for several months," she says of "Blood of the Slaughtered," a memorial to thousands of African Americans lynched from the 1850s to the 1940s. "When I did work on another piece, it had to be an abstract piece, something that was just full of color and good feelings and life."
Magee recently received a $50,000 grant from United States Artists. She was surprised and honored to discover that she was known enough outside the southeast to win such a prize. "When they called to tell me, I was speechless," Magee says, laughing.
"Five Years Hard Labor," inspired by a song about men on a chain gang, is on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in The Mississippi Story exhibition. A book about her work, "Journey of the Spirit: The Art of Gwendolyn A. Magee," is available at the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Mississippi Craft Center.
I think Magee is an excellent artist, and I hope she will have all her work on display again soon. I missed the last time she did.
Great article on Gwen. If you have not seen her quilts you are missing a real treat. She is a very talented artist and we should be proud to have that kind of artist among us here in Jackson. The details and her passion are seen throughout her work. Congratulations Gwen!