Public Thinker: Chawne Kimber on Constructing Quilts and Speaking History

"You cannot talk about race without talking about cotton. The materials that I use are desperately important as a layer of meaning in the work that I make."

Dr. Chawne Kimber is a mathematician, academic dean, and quilt artist who helped revolutionize the contemporary quilt world, first with her “expletive” quilts, then with a series of portraits, pieced words, and exquisite tiny blocks with expressive hand quilting, all of which address the history of cotton production and contemporary issues of racism and social justice. She notes that her “ancestors (unwillingly) participated in the building of the United States,” and were made to pick, gin, and sew cotton. Importantly, she uses American-grown and woven cotton in her quilts when she can.

In a quilting community that is predominantly white and middle-class—reflective of those in this nation who have at their disposal the means and time to buy fabric and sewing machines, contributing to the $4.2 billion quilting market—Dr. Kimber broke down barriers. She inspired hundreds of politically engaged quilt makers, who have followed in her footsteps by using the medium for social activism.

Her work has been shown and collected in both the quilting and art worlds, with recent exhibitions at the Fashion Institute of Technology (online due to COVID-19), Schweinfurth Art Center, Grossmann Gallery, Brick+Mortar, the Sigal Museum, the Museum of Design Atlanta, the Ross Museum of Art, QuiltCon, and the International Quilt Festival, among many others. Her quilts have also been acquired by institutions including the Smithsonian, the International Quilt Museum, the Michigan State University Museum, the Petrucci Family Foundation, and others. She travels nationally to deliver lectures and classes on quilts and quilting. When modern quilting took off as a new maker community around 2006, via blogs and other forms of social media, Chawne’s was one of the transformational sites from which other quilters learned. It once was here.

Rachel May (RM): You make art quilts. But you’re also a modern quilter of quilts you use as functional pieces.

How do you think about where you fit into the quilting world? Most people who don’t know about quilting don’t know about all these complexities and the conflicts.


Chawne Kimber (CK): I put myself at the intersection of all the different categories. You have the traditional quilts, which have the standard geometric patterning. This is where the precision of your work is valued. These quilts are made to be used.

Then, there are the art quilts, which use any materials you like. It doesn’t have to be expressive art; it can be any sort of art that’s valued in the art world. And utilitarianism is not a value, necessarily, for art quilts. It’s art for art’s sake, but just using those same fiber methods as in traditional quilting.

And then there is the modern quilt world. I don’t know how controversial I want to get, but the modern quilt world is not all that special. It just focuses on the mid-century modern style of patterning and design. I would call it more of a design movement than anything else. And so, the values of minimalism and reverence of improvisation (in its association with jazz, for instance) equate with the mid-century modern era. But my lineage also comes from improv, more than anything else.

I would definitely put myself at the intersection of these three categories. With any particular quilt I make, I’m certainly not thinking ahead of time about which category it’s going to be in. It’s whatever works to convey the message that I have at the moment. And then we see where it goes. But I would say that anything I make just at random would end up being at the intersection of all three.


RM:  Can you talk a little bit about your F-bomb quilts and why that language is important to you and how you feel it functions in your quilts? It’s kind of funny that there was so much controversy around those quilts. And if you were in the art world, rather than the quilting world, you wouldn’t have faced the same sort of backlash.


CK: I don’t use that language as much now as I did at the beginning of my public quilting career. But, it was important to me to address the issue of those trying to censor what is discussed on a quilt. There are those who believe that there are a limited number of subjects that are allowable in a quilt.

I just wasn’t having it. It’s important to me that we address it straight on, in a careful, scholarly way. A lot of people laughed at what I made, but I grounded it in the academic study that comes from the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has been regulating language for, well, forever. And what does it say, how does this change over time? For example, George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV.” I remembered hearing his comical bit about going to the Supreme Court with these seven words that he said on the radio and got arrested for. And you know, that was a big part of my childhood: learning about this event and the conversations that we had in our family about the language that we used. I was always taught that, yes, these words exist but you should always try to come up with more creative language, because it’s funnier. My dad would always say, “Go for the laugh.” But it’s a shock, right? We have to first put those words into the quilt world before we can start riffing on them to face these censorship issues head-on.

I didn’t know it would have the impact that it had, but, it went from there.


RM: So, as you mentioned, in addition to quilting, you work as a mathematician—a scholar—and a leader in academia. In these roles, you talk about changing institutions. So many of your quilts are about social justice and have responded to current events, like the murder of Trayvon Martin, with the quilt “The One for T,” and the “I Can’t Breathe” quilt (entitled “The One for Eric G”).

Can you talk about how you think we change institutions? Is it through art making or is art making part of the process that helps you survive an institution? What’s the work that you do as an academic and as an artist that can help create those changes for the people who follow after you?


CK: We desperately need artists to help us to process emotion and, often, articulate things that we don’t know we’re actually going through. I say this as a person who has admired art for a long time—no self-aggrandizing here. There are times when you engage with a piece of artwork, and you realize you hadn’t thought about something that way before. Or, maybe, learn about something that you never, ever heard about.

Take the MOVE bombing down in Philadelphia that happened late in the 20th century. I just happened to be in the museum that happened to be having an exhibit about these bombings. There was photography and sculpture and painting.

I was transformed that day, because I suddenly learned about an incident that I had no idea ever happened (I was in my twenties and in the South, so I wouldn’t have necessarily heard about something happening in Philly). But, after seeing the exhibit, I needed to learn more, so I did what I normally do: I embarked on a reading tour for a few months, reading everything I could get my hands on to try to understand what was going on, what were the motivations of all the people involved, why did the police feel that they needed to end some sort of siege and to do it in such a violent manner?

I was turned. There was something about the interaction with this artwork that made me unable to deny that I needed to know about what was happening there.

What I’m trying to do is similar. On a different scale, obviously, but about similar incidents in the United States. Injustice needs to be addressed, it needs to be exposed, and it needs to be done in a methodical and continual fashion. We cannot let people rest from being confronted with what happens here in this nation. We cannot rest from empowering people to ask that the world be different.


RM: How does offering art that is engaging and complex in the form of a quilt, which is traditionally comforting, affect people’s reception of these ideas they might find challenging? How do we cognitively make sense of those two elements—a functional quilt asking very uncomfortable questions that force us to reconsider our country’s and world’s values?


CK: There is a kind of dual purpose. One, I want the quilts to be admitted into spaces where people are not typically confronted by the world. And so, yes, in a quilt show, I find that the audience will be very affected by the messages; even if people are turned off initially, they’ll often return to engage later. And that it’s in the medium. The people who frequent quilt shows, who came out to a quilt show—they’re the ones I want to reach.

They may let the message marinate as they lean in to examine the technique/artisanship in my quilts. The quilting unites us, and this can allow viewers to hear the messages eventually. My work is saying to quilters, “No, I am just like you, but I have different experiences.”

So, when I talk about my quilt work, I always start out with those traditional quilts that I made. And I try to get people to laugh along with me before I show them these other quilts that hold more powerful messages, so that we can find our common space; then, they’re more likely to be open to hearing about how we’re also different.

The comforting, cozy, grandmotherly association with quilts cannot be denied. So, in an art space, that juxtaposition tends to bring people in. Even so, I will never stop believing that you cannot talk about race without talking about cotton. The materials that I use are also desperately important as a secondary layer of meaning in the work that I make.

Injustice needs to be addressed, it needs to be exposed, and it needs to be done in a methodical and continual fashion.

RM: Can you say a little bit more about the history of cotton? I know that your ancestors were enslaved and forced to pick cotton. How does that work for you as an artist when you make and use upcycled materials and create?


CK: Upcycling a fabric is just a nice way of talking about the ways that my great-grandmother made quilts. So, it’s only in modern times that we treat it as something special. But the quilts that my great-grandmother made—which were the quilts that were on our beds when we were growing up—were these improvisational-style, utilitarian quilts made from old clothes. There was a lot of making do. But they were absolutely necessary for the part of Alabama where they lived, which was rather mountainous and super cold in winter. So, multiple quilts would be on the beds.

They were very heavy because this is the pre-batting age, and they would just pick up cotton fluffs at the gin, and then mat them down to make an insulating layer. And once a quilt wears out, that quilt becomes the batting for the next quilt. So you have just layers and layers of years of quilt making in one quilt. And, I remember how heavy it was on us and on our beds. It’s the original weighted blanket.

I am so not a gadget girl. I desperately want to connect to how my great-grandmother made these. I do use a sewing machine for my piecing, because those can be really insanely small pieces. But, I want as many hand processes as possible. So, I do hand quilt, hand bind, and hand appliqué. My great-grandmother got away with using just needles and thread and scissors, and made these enormously beautiful quilts. I desperately want to connect with that process. The classical way of saying the connection today is upcycling. I often use my own clothes, which, because of the “fast fashion” production process, wear out far too quickly. I’m always incorporating into my quilts some shirt or something that has a hole that I can’t repair.


RM: Upcycling is fascinating. Can you talk about that piece of fabric you found, which you surmised was from a sharecropper and went on to incorporate into a quilt?


CK: The sharecropper shirt was found by a friend named Elspeth. She was visiting a farm in South Carolina. She actually is an archivist in DC and so she knows what it means to preserve or conserve things. But she just found some fabric poking out from the ground. So she just like yanked it out, didn’t really think twice about it.

It’s old, but it’s clearly a shirt. It has button bands; the buttonholes are hand cut, and certainly the patterning of the fabric is late 1800s, early 1900s. And because of the cut, hand sewing, hand seam, she predicts that it was probably a sharecropper’s shirt.

She just washed it in horse shampoo. [Laughter]


RM: Oh, no, what?


CK: It was all dirty. There was no conservation going on here. But she immediately thought to send it to me because she knew that I would do something with it.

And I carefully laundered it by hand in very gentle soap. And then I just sliced it up. You know, we all have our standards.


RM: Yes.


CK: I had some flour sacks that I had dyed with indigo. So I recombined these strips of this shirt with the sacks. And the shirt had all sorts of holes, tiny holes, big holes; I preserved the holes as part of the patchwork, backing the holes so that it’s all safe as a quilt. It’s a very small quilt because it was a very small piece of the shirt.

The shirt actually arrived two days before one of my students passed away. And it ended up being this revelatory project that I did in the days after he died. It was quite the tragedy, and I spent a ton of time taking care of students for days and not taking care of myself. And it ended up being the project that let me let things out.


RM: Wow, I’m sorry, that’s awful. I didn’t know that story.

You said you hand dyed with indigo. Have you been doing a lot of hand dyeing?


CK: Only indigo really. Indigo is a process that I love. It’s highly labor-intensive. I have been known to not like a quilt when it’s done and then just overdye the whole thing in indigo, and literally it’s transformed into something just out of the world, out of this world. I highly recommend it. But then there’s another familial connection with where my mother’s family was enslaved. They grew rice and indigo.


RM: Oh, wow.


CK: Yes. And they brought the processes of dyeing with them.


RM: It’s interesting that you’re engaged in all of the same processes as your ancestors. And I read in the Washington Post piece about how you love the sound of the cotton thread coming through cotton fabric.

I love that, too. That’s one of the best sounds. It’s so relaxing.

Can you talk a little bit more about all of those tactile elements and what happens when you’re dyeing? Because you were talking about how intensive indigo dyeing is and dipping the fabric in and out and waiting…


CK: The dyeing process is a full-body endurance sport. In my kitchen, it’s often like swimming, because it’s a giant mess. I often will say I Smurfed my kitchen after dyeing.

Because of the oxidation process of indigo. First of all, the dye bath smells terrible, so then you get to open all your windows and have this very natural environment of outside air coming in a little more than you normally do. So you dip in and your fabric turns green, and then you oxidize by letting it just sit out in the air. I use a lot of drying racks. And then it turns blue. And then, you can’t be bamboozled because it always looks dark, dark blue after one dip, but if you were to end there, it would just be light blue when you washed it to get the dye out. So, you have to keep dipping and oxidizing, dipping and oxidizing, until you believe it’s the color that you want.

I guess I could be more scientific about what I’m doing here but I actually don’t want to be. I want the serendipity that comes out of not knowing. And then I’m often just dipping yardage that will be incorporated into other projects. So I’m never dyeing with intentionality.

It comes down to the intensity of finding flow. That’s what I’m looking for when I do these highly laborious projects. I’m not talking about the piecework that you would find in a sweatshop. That is not where I find flow. Where I find flow is in processes that require deep thought, reengineering, changes of plans. This is why improvisation is so attractive to me. I don’t use a design wall, which many fiber artists do; I’m too much of a perfectionist for that. I love it when I don’t know what a quilt looks like until it’s completely done and on a wall. It is just absolutely astounding to me that sometimes things turn out the way I had it in my mind’s eye since the beginning.

RM: Can you talk about why you love the log cabin so much? I see the log cabin in lots of your quilts. I love it for its historical context. I wonder why it appeals to you?


CK: Yes. So the first thing is it is a very strong construction just as an engineered object. If you precisely put it together as a square, it’s going to stand and hold no matter how far you build it out as long as you’re careful. If you are just a small degree off and don’t have 90-degree angles at each corner, you’re going to get beautiful bias, and all heck breaks loose.


RM: Yes. [Laughter]


CK: And I just love that—I love taking advantage of it because over the years I’ve learned how to deal with that bias and how to enhance it and make it work for me.

The historical meaning of the log cabin is that those red centers are the hearth of the home, and then you build out from there

For me, I’m often making commentaries that are on the surface contemporary, but are truly historical. Even when we talk about “I Can’t Breathe.” The name of that quilt is “The One for Eric G”; it says “I can’t breathe” nine times, and it’s meant to look like graffiti scrawled on the wall in a dark alleyway, with these white letters beaming out at you, and then the letters get darker as we go. But the background fabrics, improv-ed into the log cabins, are all Civil War–era prints in black. Because of the different tones of the black fabrics, you can see how the log cabins are built. So you can’t miss that I’m making commentaries about then and now at the same time.

RM: Who are some of your favorite artists to look at? Not just quilts, but just any visual art.


CK: Yes, okay. I love the old masters, so I picked out some paints during the quarantine—which of course sent me down the rabbit hole of reading about how to paint. Because I am that kind of nerd where I have to read everything I could possibly read before I try doing something. It’s maddening.

I’ve always been interested in Rembrandt, for instance, his use of light, and Vermeer. There is just something that is a revelation, and certainly for me as a scientist and an engineer as well, to learn how Vermeer was producing his images. It was fascinating to read about those and then to learn about painting techniques from a distance. I still haven’t painted much of anything. [Laughter] But to start to understand more of what there is to admire there.

I could never be a painter, I don’t think, because you carry the weight of the history of painting into trying to make contemporary statements. That would be a little bit too much of a burden. But Kerry James Marshall would be an example of this contemporary painter who paints the Black body in ways that are so compelling and loving and joyful. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately about how stories and depictions of Black people today are so much about struggle and pain. Yet, really, Black people have full lives and should get to see that depicted.

There is Kehinde Wiley, of course.

And there is Mickalene Thomas. She uses a lot of textiles in the backgrounds of her paintings. So you’ll start to see more why I might be drawn to these. But actually Mickalene Thomas is just a full human out there depicting women and exploring the full femininity of sexuality. It’s just gorgeous work.


RM: Who are some of your quilting heroes?


CK: Okay, some of my quilt heroes. I have quite a few. So, my great-grandmother, let’s just start it there. We’ve got to say it out loud. We called her Mamo. She passed away when I was two, but she raised my father on the farm, and by all accounts she was quite the authoritarian in the house.

And of course, definitely it connects then down to the quilters in Gee’s Bend, a similar region and a collective that has been exploited for far too long and is finally getting their due.

It’s been decades but they’re finally actually benefiting from direct—


RM: Yes. I just saw that they’re selling quilts now via Etsy, is that what they’re doing?


CK: Yep. But, for me, it’s also that I am always concerned about the slant that tries to pigeonhole all African American quilts into a single category or a single style. Strangely, I get told all the time that I don’t make African American quilts, and I just don’t know what anyone might be talking about when they say that. Just because they don’t look like Gee’s Bend quilts? I don’t get it. It’s one of those ancillary problems that we all deal with.

I like Gwen Marston, an improvisational quilter who just passed away in the past couple of years in Michigan. She was a national treasure: just in her attitude about what it meant to make a quilt and not following a single rule but still making quilts with integrity—like construction integrity; they didn’t fall apart, and they were just absolutely beautiful in her bold use of color.

I really like Anna Williams. She was in Louisiana, and this is another exploitation problem. She worked with small piecing in an improvisational fashion. Gorgeous work. She was more of a patchworker; she didn’t quilt her quilts. But just beautiful design work with piles and piles of scraps that she had, and she would cut them into small pieces and hand sew them back together.

And then Rosie Lee Tompkins, she is another exploitation problem. I don’t know that there is anyone who’s not being exploited. But Eli Leon collected her work and recently he donated it when he passed away. It was all donated to BAMPFA, a museum at Berkeley. And just amazing expressive patchwork using every possible technique and material but still honoring the form of the quilt. Just amazing stuff.


RM: There is an exploitation problem: all these quilters’ quilts being collected for just a few dollars probably back in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, so the quilters didn’t really profit from them. Then, their work becomes hugely popular, but they’ve made a few dollars, essentially.

Most people don’t know about that. They don’t know about how the Gee’s Bend women’s work was made so popular by the Whitney exhibit, but how the women weren’t profiting directly. It’s a foundational problem in the quilting world.


CK: Yes. The past year or so has seen a renaissance of Black art in the United States. There’s a lot going on right now to, at least temporarily, right some wrongs. But, I don’t know how long this trend will last.

Still, here are more and more Black artists being collected by museums and being exhibited by museums. So the hope is that this is the start of the trend of trying to find some equity. Who knows how long it might go on for. I’ve recently made a couple of prominent sales, and a few other quilters have as well. And so there is then an opportunity for those of us getting opportunities to try to pass it on. You always extend your hand back to try to bring others up with you.


This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohenicon

Featured Image: Thomas Kosa Photography / Lafayette College Art Gallery.