Tracy Vaughn: Quilting as Textile Jazz
by Nancy Deneen
Tracy Vaughn thought she knew her limitations as an artist. Although she plays the flute and sings in a choir, in the visual realm, she says, she couldn’t draw an interesting stick figure. Then she entered a new friend’s house one day and what she saw hanging on the walls amazed her: quilts, in the softest silks and richest velvets, in swirling colors and unusual shapes, quilts just begging to be touched. Walking through that door, she walked into her life as a visual artist, and a maker of dazzling quilts herself.
Vaughn, who now teaches literature in Weinberg’s Department of African American Studies, had her transforming moment in 2002 when she was teaching. She had just met the quilter, Heather Williams, a historian whose area of specialization is slavery. Vaughn remembers, “The quilts had no patterns and that really appealed to me. They had jagged edges; some of them were circular. Some had archival images of slaves, which Williams had transferred to fabric. The quilts were just spectacular and they elevated those in the images, as well as the art form of quilting itself, to a level of nobility. And I thought: I have to learn how to do this.”
Williams taught Vaughn and a group of faculty, staff, and students to hand-quilt—no sewing machines allowed. Vaughn found the quiet, steady simplicity of doing the stitching soothing, and she found the creative process exciting. “At each stage, the quilt changes: you are piecing the top part and it becomes something, and then you add the batting and the back and you baste it to hold the three layers together and it starts to take shape. At each stage, it excites me because it takes on a different dimension.”
The quilts Vaughn now creates are a feast for the senses. A far cry from the folksy, homespun, patterned quilts of the American frontier, Vaughn’s are made of the finest silks, cottons, wools, and velvets. They are mostly hand-sewn, spontaneous compositions, which Vaughn calls ‘textile versions of jazz.’ The fabrics themselves “speak” to her, suggesting by their color and pattern which piece should go where.
For her Northwestern students, they are a tactile connection with an art form that features prominently in the stories of black women.
Says Vaughn, “When I began quilting, I noticed that quilts are significant in Toni Morrison’s novels; Nikki Giovanni has a collection of poetry called Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea; and in one of Terry McMillan’s short stories, as the woman continues to miscarry, quilting helps her heal. I introduce my students to quilting through Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use,” and display my own quilts for them to see.” In black women’s writing, Vaughn tells us, quilts are often mentioned as a touchstone for history, for home, for comfort.
African American quilting reaches almost as far back as the history of colonial America. Slave women on plantations were often needed for spinning, weaving, sewing, and quilting. Some made scrap quilts for their own families with leftover material, discarded clothing, and feed sacks.
“The enslaved would take these scraps to make quilts to supplement their bedding to keep warm,” Vaughn tells us. “But even in that was a certain level of pride in its artistry and construction and its originality. What I try to do is to tap into that and show progress from that history and that legacy.”
Progress for Vaughn means using the most luxurious fabrics for her quilts. “The enslaved had to take whatever they could get and do something with it. I am going to get the most original, most unique, most exquisite fabrics I can find and do something with those.” Vaughn seeks fabrics hand-dyed by artists from all over the world. “Taking the best and engaging in the same activity as those who took what they could get is a way of showing progress. On a deeper level, that’s what quilting is to me.”
A highlight of Vaughn’s life as a quilt artist was Toni Morrison’s visit to Northwestern in 2006. Vaughn teaches a Morrison seminar, and after the author’s talk, Vaughn reminded her that all of Morrison’s novels mention quilting.
“Professor Morrison said, ‘I don’t have quilting.’ And I said, ‘Yes you do. In The Bluest Eye, you say it here and in Sula, it’s there.’ Thankfully, I could remember each incident. And she said, ‘You know you’re right. And it’s so funny because growing up I hated those quilts. They were heavy and patchy and scratchy.’”
When Morrison asked Vaughn to create a quilt for her, Vaughn was almost speechless. How should she proceed; what should she include? But within the year, she had produced a work of art in which each block of fabric represented in an abstract way one of Morrison’s novels. For Beloved, Vaughn found a fabric with the shadowy image of a woman in the shading of the dye, representing the ghost of the novel. The final block was a portrait of Morrison, for which Vaughn had found a wool yarn flecked with gold and silver, recreating almost perfectly Morrison’s trademark dreadlocks. The quilt was presented during the author’s retirement ceremony from Princeton, at the Lincoln Center in New York.
“I had made the quilt all by hand and I thought, ‘I want knock her socks off,’” says Vaughn. “When we unfurled the quilt on stage, it was a dramatic moment. Her arms flew up, and she just wept.”
As we spoke with Vaughn this summer, her quilts were already on a plane to her new home on Northwestern’s Qatar campus in Doha, where she will teach literature for the next two years. Vaughn is a newly-wed, and she hopes the quilts will help the new apartment feel like home for her and husband Jesse Manley, a retired Marine officer. She hopes to have an exhibition of her quilts there, as she did at Northwestern’s Dittmar Memorial Gallery two years ago, and perhaps start a quilting group among colleagues and students, as she has at Northwestern.
She will share with her Qatari students the significance of quilting in the stories of American women. “I expect Qatar to be an incredibly enriching and enlightening experience,” says Vaughn. “I look forward to introducing this art form to students who come from such a different culture, to see what they do with it.”
She added, “Doha is a city of tailors and they have two outdoor markets dedicated to just fabrics. When I heard about it, I thought, ‘This is just wonderful!’”