More than two decades I was introduced to Faith Ringgold’s gorgeous quilts. They became catalysts for a memoir unit with my middle school students in New York City. We visited an exhibit of Ringgold’s quilts to look up close at the beautiful illustrations, vivid stories, and craftsmanship of her quilts. Not only is Ms. Ringgold an artist, she is an author and illustrator as well. I read to students her famed Tar Beach, a beautiful story quilt turned picture book, introduces readers to Cassie Louise Lightfoot. She has a dream, to go wherever she wants for the rest of her life. One night the rooftop (tar beach) of her family’s Harlem apartment building, her dreams come true when the stars lift her up, and she flies over the city, claiming the buildings and the city as her own. The pictures themselves are bright and colorful illustrating Cassie as she floats among the stars and night sky. Students wrote their own memoirs with magical realism elements like Ringgolds.
Faith Ringgold’s art is now on display at the New Museum in New York City. The museum states, “Bringing together over fifty years of work, “Faith Ringgold: American People” provides the most comprehensive assessment to date of the artist’s impactful vision. For sixty years, Ringgold has drawn from both personal autobiography and collective histories to both document her life as an artist and mother and to amplify the struggles for social justice and equity. From creating some of the most indelible artworks of the civil rights era to challenging accepted hierarchies of art versus craft through her experimental story quilts, Faith Ringgold has produced a body of work that bears witness to the complexity of the American experience.” Within the beauty of her art she brings attention to issues of race, gender, and economic inequalities. She provides an element of art history and art criticism to her work, especially her quilts, and borrows from other cultures to present her art work in new ways likeTibetan Tankas. Her work is semi-autobiographical which lends it self as a model of agency and voice in art and writing.
As a explored the exhibit and mused over Ringgold’s lifetime of work, I thought there were multiple entry points to use her artistry in the classroom.
Art History & Representation
The New Museum provides on its website, an activity for kids based on
The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles: The French Collection Part I, #4, (1991). In The Sunflowers Quilting Bee at Arles, Ringgold portrays a group of famous and influential Black women from across history seated at a quilting table: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Madam C.J. Walker, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Ella Baker. These women advocated for African American rights, freedoms, and opportunities, reshaping the course of American history. The group stitches fabric covered with sunflowers, while the mid-nineteenth-century Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh, stands in the background holding a bouquet. Some of Van Gough’s most famous works are his paintings of sunflowers in Arles, which are referenced in the title and imagery of this work.
Ringgold said of The French Collection series:
“….I wanted to show there were Black people when Picasso, Monet, and Matisse were making art. I wanted to show that African art and Black people had a place in that history.
…For me it also had a lot to do with my mother, as you know. She was a seamstress, and she taught me how to back the quilts up and how to put the seams in and hold them together. Although she was a dressmaker, she still knew all the steps to make quilts, because she had grown up at a time when African Americans still made quilts to go on beds. Women would sit around and make quilts and talk and tell stories as they did. So yes, storytelling and quilts have been related for centuries…”
— Faith Ringgold, interview in the exhibition catalog, Faith Ringgold: American People
When students examine the quilt, ask them “What is the relationship between the man holding sunflowers and the women at the quilting table, and what are they doing? Who is in the background? Who is in the foreground or front of the painting? Who do you think the artist wants us to notice first?”
Think how Ringgold’s mixed-media story quilt inspire us to make a narrative artwork honoring people we know from our own lives and families, or important people from history or today?
Students can create a mixed-media story quilt collage using materials available (or digitally) to celebrate people we know and love in our daily lives, or people we admire from afar.
Blending Art, World Cultures, & Personal Heroes
Besides Ringgold’s story quilts, she created “tanka paintings” — tanka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity. In the 1970s, Ringgold began making paintings on fabric inspired by Tibetan tankas that could be easily rolled, transported, and stored. Although they represented a departure for Ringgold, an important thread from previous series remained: the use of hand-painted text. The Feminist Series includes quotations from nineteenth-century feminist icons such as Maria Stewart and Clarissa Lawrence that hold special resonance for Ringgold.
Students can learn about and research Tanka paintings. Similar to Ringgold, students choose an icon they wish to represent on a Tanka they will create.
History of Quilting
Faith Ringgold took the traditional craft of quilt making (which has its roots in the slave culture of the south – pre-civil war era) and re-interpreted its function to tell stories of her life and those of others in the black community. African American quilts are significant artistic pieces of both the past and present history for black Americans. They tell stories of slavery and segregation, giving viewers valuable history lessons while also representing beacons of hope. They are symbols of culture, community, and freedom. For more information about the stories behind African American quilts check out arthelp.com. Students can research and report on the incredible history of quilting and see how it impacts present day fabric artists like Bias Butler.
One of Faith Ringgold’s most famous story quilts is Tar Beach, which depicts a family gathered on their rooftop on a hot summer night. Check out the video about Faith Ringgold talking about creating her quilts.
Memoir & Storytelling
Faith Ringgold’s artworks–startling “story quilts,” politically charged paintings, and more–hang in the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and other major museums around the world, as well as in the private collections. Through her quilts she retellings her family memories. Have students write their own memoirs and then illustrate them.