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This Little Light of Mine 

Quilt show spotlights creativity, ingenuity, heart and soul

The best thing about a quilt exhibit is the sheer size of the work. There's an indescribable sense of comfort and stimulation that comes from walking among these huge canvases -- soft and puckered, stitched by hand over long hours, brilliant with color and intricate design.

This month, Colorado Springs' Pioneers Museum is host to a segment of one of the world's largest quilt collections, pulled together in the traveling show Let it Shine: Improvisation in African-American Star Quilts, a celebration of the artistry of African-American quilters, most of them born in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma in the early 20th century, many of them still alive today.

Collector Eli Lyon of Oakland, Calif., started collecting quilts in the 1970s when he discovered the huge number of patchwork tops that had come to California in the trunks of African-American families relocating to California decades before, to find work in the shipyards. His collection includes thousands of quilts, many of them finished in Oakland in recent years by master quilters.

The show focuses on the traditional star pattern -- basically hundreds of diamond-shaped patches radiating outward from a central point, stitched together to form a star. In the case of these quilts, the patches are cut from scraps -- used clothing, salvage fabric, tablecloths, old pajamas, whatever was at hand. In many of the quilts, the central star is surrounded by an irregular border of contrasting color bars. The works displayed here are characterized by raucous use of color and edgy contrast.

They are nothing short of breathtaking.

Take the work of Mattie Pickett, a healer transplanted from Montgomery, Ala. to San Francisco, known in the community for her laying on of hands, ministering to the sick. Pickett made quilts for her family and for "poor people who needed cover." Her piece in the show, "Star," pieced in 1986 when she was 79 years old is a joyful radiating flow of color, the center star surrounded by a jumble of overlapping stars that ripple across the fabric.

Or consider the "String Star" quilt of Janie Hawkins and her daughter Emma Lee Joe, both of Lake Providence, La. Hawkins and Joe are one of several mother-daughter quilting teams represented in the show. Called a string star because it links or strings a number of smaller stars instead of working outward from the center, this series of red-and-white-striped stars irregularly stitched against a white background appears to roll and jump, drawing the eye in circles with the suggestion of whirling motion.

Standing in the gallery among these works, the viewer's eye cannot stand still, but is inevitably pulled along with the movement evoked by the repeated concentric patterns and strong color contrasts.

Perhaps the master of contrasts, Johnnie Alberta Wade of Oakland, is represented in the show by a huge classic "Lone Star," complete in 1996. Alternating black and white diamond patches form the radiating central star, surrounded by bars of fuchsia, white and black, broken up by bits of primary colors. The star appears to hover above its background and surrounding border, an optical illusion created completely with Wade's impeccable color sense.

Equally impressive are the quilters' short biographies, mounted next to their work. Francis Sheppard, whose "Signal Lights Medallion" quilt was pieced when she was in her 80s, estimated she had pieced between 1,000 and 2,000 quilts before her death in 1992. When her husband died in 1954, she channeled her grief into her art, piecing more than 20 quilt tops a year for over 30 years.

Maple Swift of Arkansas, represented in the show by the most creatively named quilt, "Crazy Road Around the Star to Nowhere," could turn out 50 quilts a year at her prime.

Let it Shine is a remarkable showcase of creativity, ingenuity, heart, soul and pure artfulness. Don't miss its short layover here in the Springs.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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