Quilts in Remembrance by Jo-Ann Morgan

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Visual artist Jo-Ann Morgan is Professor Emeritus of African American Studies and Art History at Western Illinois University, and author of The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture (Routledge, 2019). Her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture won the Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2008.

Since 2020, Morgan has been a full-time fiber artist, creating stitched fabric wall hangings on themes related to social justice and gun violence. Among her awards are a Cultural Commentary/Social Change Grant from Fiber Art Now (summer/fall 2021), a Not Real Art Award from Culver City [California] Arts Foundation (2022), a Weyerhaeuser Juror Award at the 2021 Great Northern Art Explosion, Grayling, MI, and several honorable mentions. Her work has been in over twenty five juried shows. Solo exhibitions include Dalton Gallery, Arts Council of York County, Rockhill, SC (February 2022), Park Circle Gallery, North Charleston, SC (November 2022) and Maude Kerns Art Center, Eugene, OR (February 2023). 2023-'24 shows include Rehoboth Art League, Rehoboth, DE (September 2023), Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, KA (October 2023), Alma College, Alma, MI (November 2023), and the Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts, Fond du Lac, WI (January 2024). 

I began sewing during the pandemic. Quilting and applique’ techniques seemed a perfect choice for making art that could offer comfort during trying times. I created a female figure as a focal point and named her Nuestra Dama de la Corona (Lady Corona). She was to be a comforting presence, not unlike a deity or favorite doll, to offer respite and hope within scenarios that brought attention to social inequality. Her visual attributes are a crown, gloves, and mask. She can be found with children separated from their families at the U.S. southern border, attending memorials for those who have passed, and comforting grieving people. Gradually other figures took on a similar role in the artwork.
There is a concept popularized by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s that states “the medium is the message.” An interplay between medium and message helps make my work accessible to a broad range of people. The wall-mounted hangings are constructed in layered cotton fabric in a manner of working much like the way children learn to make pictures with cut-out paper, or, collages. Because quilted comforters are familiar and approachable, the medium is ideal for addressing provocative topics related to social justice and inequality. If there is a message running throughout this work is “seeking comfort in a fraught world.” Art can be a way to process events and experiences that are almost too much to bear.
From the global pandemic, brutality by police, “kids in cages” cruelty at the US southern border, the horror of Russians massacring Ukrainian civilians, massacres at schools and other places that should be safe—bad news is unrelenting. My work offers a visual chronicle in an attempt to wrest something lovely from tragedies.
I am proposing an exhibition of work that addresses the tragedy of gun violence in its many forms. I think of these quilted wall hangings as similar to the spontaneous memorials that communities erect after an untimely death. I first noticed this impulse after the death of Trayvon Martin when scores of people created portraits of the young man, and again after the death of Michael Brown when a tower of flowers and other items was raised in Ferguson, Missouri at the spot where he was killed by police. Similarly, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd brought out widespread commemorations, expanding into a national movement we know as Black Lives Matter. In addition to artwork tributes to Taylor and Floyd, I have completed quilt memorials for Elijah McClain, Aurora, Colorado and Ronald Green, Monroe, Louisiana; and Ahmaud Arbery, Brunswick, Georgia, who died after an encounter with police, or, in the case of Arbery, a retired policeman and his son.
More recently I have begun a series in remembrance of the nineteen children who were killed at Robb Elementary School in of Uvalde, TX. These quilted memorials are individualized portraits but they are also meant to be universal. They celebrate the short lives of the ten-year-old victims and are meant to evoke our collective outrage.

January 12, 2024 - February 23, 2024