UNCG quilt show honors grad’s ‘contributions to the art world’

Posted on September 15, 2014

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Gwendolyn Ann Magee’s beautifully stitched quilts often depict ugly truths.

“Stony the Road We Trod” shows the feet of slaves, bound in chains. “Blood of the Slaughtered” portrays the horror of lynching.

Yet others convey hope and inspiration.

“Full of the Hope” shows a young black man and woman in graduation garb.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with its faces uplifted in singing, illustrates the song often considered the national anthem of black Americans.

On Thursday, 18 quilts created by this High Point native went on display at UNCG, the school from which Magee graduated in 1963 when it was called Woman’s College.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Quilts of Gwendolyn Ann Magee,” will remain in the Gatewood Gallery through Nov. 8.

After it closes, some quilts will move to the High Point Museum from Dec. 5 through Feb. 21 for “Pieces of the Past,” an exhibition created by UNCG Museum Studies graduate students.

Magee spent much of her adult life in Jackson, Miss., until she died at age 67 from pancreatic cancer in 2011.

Her colorful, vibrant quilts became widely known through exhibitions there. They also have been shown in New York, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington and even in France and the Republic of Namibia.

Yet she remains relatively unknown in North Carolina.

“This exhibition is an opportunity to reintroduce her to the place she comes from,” said Lawrence Jenkens, who heads UNCG’s art department.

The idea took root at the 50th reunion of Magee’s classmates last year.

“We felt that it was time that her home state and her university recognized her contributions to the art world,” said classmate Dot Moye, an art consultant in Georgia.

She talked with Jenkens, and he proposed the exhibition.

He asked Moye to become its curator.

They borrowed quilts from the collections of the Mississippi Museum of Art, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Michigan State University Museum. Most come from Magee’s husband.

The exhibition illustrates how Magee broke away from traditional geometric patterns to create pieces that tell the story of the African American experience.

Twelve of the 18 quilts come from her series that depicts lyrics from James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sewn between 2000 and 2004.

“When she was growing up, they sang ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ pretty much every day at school,” said her husband, ophthalmologist Dr. D.E. Magee Jr. “I think that’s why it became so important.”

The 2004 book, “Journey of the Spirit: The Art of Gwendolyn A. Magee,” tells her story in an essay written by African American quilt expert Roland L. Freeman. It was published with an exhibition of her work that originated at the Mississippi Museum of Art and traveled the state.

Gwendolyn Ann Jones Magee was born in 1943 and adopted by a middle-class African American family in High Point.

She was raised by her adoptive mother, Annie Lee Jones, and Mytrolene Graye, two educators who roomed together, recalled local historian Glenn Chavis, who focuses on African American history.

Chavis, a classmate of Magee’s at William Penn High School, fondly described her as “a little nerd,” an honors student who was not allowed to hang out in the park or attend house parties or the prom.

She grew up surrounded by a variety of craft-making activities, but not quilting. When she entered Woman’s College in 1959, Freeman’s essay recounts, she felt the reality of racism.

Though the college was in its fourth year of desegregation, she was one of only five African Americans in her class.

They were placed in a segregated dormitory hall, in a space that could accommodate 20 students. White students eventually were allowed to move into its empty rooms, with their parents’ permission.

One day, Ku Klux Klan members in white robes and hoods drove through campus and threw smoke bombs into dorm windows. It prompted the dean of students to tell black students how good race relations were on campus and ask them not to tell their parents.

Magee majored in sociology, graduated in 1963 and attended graduate school at Kent State University in Ohio.

Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., recruited her to research a local African American housing project.

After three years, a health center in Mound Bayou, Miss., hired her to help manage its research and evaluation department.

In Mississippi, she met D.E. Magee Jr., a medical student.

They married and moved to Philadelphia for her husband’s residency in ophthalmology, then to Jackson, Miss. She had daughters Kamili and Aliya and worked a variety of professional jobs.

When Kamili prepared to go to college in 1989, Magee wanted to sew her a quilt to remind her of home.

But she didn’t know how. So she found a fabric store that offered lessons.

She planned to make only three quilts: a test quilt and one for each daughter, her husband said.

“But once she started, she got hooked on it,” he said.

She sought information on African American quilters but initially found only references describing them from the “folk art” or “outside artist” perspective.

The references offered theories “that stopped just barely short of saying that we were not capable of matching points and putting together intricate and ‘well-made’ quilts,” Gwen Magee said in “Journey of the Spirit.”

“This was one factor in my determination that no one would ever be able to say that my workmanship was shoddy.”

Magee created more abstract designs. Her interests began to shift to cultural themes and images, focusing on the struggles of African Americans.

The quilt “Lift Every Voice and Sing” illustrates the entire song. Other quilts in the series depict select phrases.

“Full of the Faith” shows silhouettes of three women kneeling before a cross.

In “God of Our Weary Years,” a young African American man looks out sadly between prison bars. It contrasts with “Full of the Hope,” which depicts a young man and woman in graduation regalia.

On the back of “God of Our Weary Years,” another image has taken shape. The young man appears to be in a slave stockade, Jenkens points out.

“I don’t think she was planning to have a composition on the back,” Moye said. “It’s one of those wonderful serendipities.”

Most of Magee’s work is machine-quilted; some sections are hand-stitched.

To Moye, Magee took the 19th-century tradition of African American narrative quilts into new territory.

“Her skills and techniques were so expert and so refined that she was able to pull this together and tell the story in ways that were really beyond what had been seen before,” Moye said. “She never shied away from tough issues and felt a great responsibility to recognize the heritage and history and to bring it forward.”

Moye didn’t reconnect with Magee until about eight years ago. She had seen Magee’s art in publications and exhibitions, not realizing that she was the Gwen Jones whom she knew at Woman’s College.

When she read more about her, “It clicked,” Moye said.

She called Magee and re-introduced herself. “We talked about how we both got into the field and sort of caught up on 30-plus years,” Moye said.

They stayed in touch with phone calls and a visit.

When Moye read Magee’s recollections from her Woman’s College years, Moye apologized.

“I said, ‘I am so sorry we were so clueless about what a difficult time you guys were having,’ ” Moye said. “It seemed like an example of how you get so focused on your own concerns and are completely oblivious to the difficulties someone else may be having.”

Moye, Jenkens and UNCG colleagues and students, and the High Point Museum look forward to giving Magee her due, first at her alma mater and then in her hometown.

“My family is quite honored that the university would make this happen,” said D.E. Magee Jr., who planned to attend last week’s opening with the couple’s two daughters.

Chavis never has seen Magee’s quilts in person, only in the 2004 book and on the Internet.

“That’s the reason I am so excited about them coming here,” Chavis said.

When he looks at the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” series, Chavis said, it might bring him to tears.

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