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Newsletter

In the Shadow of No Woman: Male Quilters in Action

By Carolyn Warfield
Great Lakes American Quilters Network

            Passion for African art and textiles keeps my research focused on spiritualized art forms which originate from inherited traditions of personal creativity and contemporary thinking. The inspirational experience of interviewing male quilters allowed me to hear endearing expressions of respect and favorable opinions of female relatives who were catalysts in developing faith and perseverance: concepts demonstrated through action. The men presented in this survey live in the Midwest and have embraced a specific idiom of making art by quilting. Their quilt work has cultural meaning, is spiritually powerful and has links to family and national heritage. Several of the men made quilts for special family members or to commemorate events cherished by their children and grandchildren.  These quilts remind us of the power and rite of male dominated needlecraft which has continued for a very long time.

            Sewing is specialized among men in Africa and has origins in African textile techniques and cultural traditions. Male sewing and tailoring guilds flourish throughout the continent, are found among the Fante of Ghana, Dogon of Mali, Fon, Hausa and Taureg of Nigeria, where military flags, cloth funerary masks, royal banners, decorative embroidery and leatherwork are circumscribed by certain lifestyles and special duties. Quilt making in the Americas was a direct outgrowth of observation and execution. Many quality and anonymous quilts attributed to European makers in plantation households were made by African bondsmen.

Men of Action:

            Daniel Groce, Jr. (1913-2005), a descendant of Texas slave ancestry, took up quilt making after retirement. He owned accounting and barbering businesses, two service-related occupations. In 1947, Groce permanently settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife Katie and children, after honorable discharge from the United States Navy. Daniel’s family was owned by the Groce dynasty of Jared Groce, Sr, Jared, Jr. and Leonard, some of the wealthiest land owners and cotton producers in the territory. Groce, Sr. removed to southeast Texas in the early 1820s and cultivated his first cotton crop near Hempstead in Waller County not far from Houston. Daniel’s mother lived on the owner’s property but died when he was just a toddler, leaving her older sister, Ellen Edwards Williams, to help raise him. Daniel learned to sew by watching his great-aunt Ellen.

            Rich historical knowledge can be recovered from material objects. With oral history, records research and extant quilts, I was able to savor a glimpse of Daniel Groce’s unique creative mastery and wise mental comprehension when several of his quilts were exhibited in January, 2006 at the Michigan Woman’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame in Lansing. Disparate elements of emotion, meaning and values characterize his intergenerational messages. The hand quilted three generations friendship quilt with ten-point stars cut from formerly owned clothing of his mother and great-aunt read as historical records and biographies of the two female descendants closest to him and invoke their spiritual presence from clothing they wore. Sewing with recycled clothing has served to preserve memories and experiences; favorite clothes are treasured as connections to what is remembered. Juxtaposed in between the stars of the deceased loved ones (which the Kongo people believe are souls in flight) are striped fabric blocks of bed sheets that belonged to Daniel’s biological children, thus recording his life as a father and parent. Clara Williams Chappel said “striped goods were reminiscent of striped cotton goods worn in the summer,” when she recalled her social history on Col. Groce’s plantation in the Texas Slave Narratives.  As a member of the black fraternal order of Prince Hall Masons who assisted fugitives along the Underground Railroad during colonial and antebellum slavery, Groce was quite familiar with secret Masonic symbols. Over time, Daniel enjoyed drafting, tailoring, woodworking and making latch hook rugs. Marjorie Groce Blackmore is especially proud of the “Big Fish” wall quilt her father made before he passed on.

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Big Fish Wall Quilt

“My parents spent joyous hours fishing,” Blackmore said. The panel depicts sport fishing in the Alaskan wilderness where fish are abundant in rivers, lakes and remote seaports.  The panel is bordered by multiple patterns of Checkerboard and Shoofly designs. The Shoofly motif: a square with triangle in each corner is a Masonic indicator.  The textile absolutely sparkles with life and dimension and can be compared with an African prestige cloth based on thematic content and the oppositional variations which define the repetitive checkerboard patterns. Texas painter John T. Biggers often used the checkerboard pattern to signify the union of man with nature.

            Needles and Threads Quilters of Chicago gather to share their art and lives. Members benefit from the group through fellowship and working together on individual and collective projects. The guild serves greater Chicago by community service and making products for local charities. Otis Grove and Bobby Joe Page belong to a guild that provides communal exercise in the folk process.

            Otis Grove is quite happy to be among four generations of family quilt makers. As a young boy, he rearranged the living room furniture at grand mother Rosa Williams’ house when it was time to set up her quilting frame. After quilting friends assembled for a quilting bee, Grove made it his business to play near the frame where he could eavesdrop on the women’s conversations while they quilted. Otis also observed his active mother Hazel Grove, then in her 80s, take up scrap piecing to keep busy as an invalid in a wheel chair. Grove was formally introduced to quilting by Margaret Robertson after retiring from the floral industry as a florist. “Margaret encouraged my association with Needles and Threads,” Grove said. “I have found my niche during the past six years and truly enjoy quilting.” Daughter Kim Grove Miller and grand daughter Elena Miller are the fourth generation of family quilt makers. Elena made her first quilt in 2006. Consumed with quilting making, Grove “has made quite a few,” like the friendship styles of the pink and white Dresden Plate baby quilt for Lydia Miller and his toddler grand son’s race car quilt. Of the many exceptional quilts Otis has done, from photographs I have seen, I chose “Red Roof House” (with sunny interior) to symbolize Grove’s devotion as guild historian and genealogy researcher with the Afro-American Genealogical Society of Chicago.

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Red Roof House

In Nigeria, chiefs wear red hats as part of their ceremonial dress. Red is associated with life force and blood while such cloth protects the title holder from evil. The Sioux acknowledge red as a color that belongs to the sun and represents the coming and going of the sun.

            The first time I talked with Bobby Joe Page, he was preparing a trip to Horse Cave, Kentucky for his annual family reunion. The little town of Horse Cave, located near Mammoth Cave, about 90 miles from Louisville, boasts of a legend that Native Americans hid horses there as the cave had a river inside. Hidden River Cave is its actual name.  During our conversation, Page spoke about family mementos his mother gave him to celebrate her love for him. With a traditional approach to quilt making, Bobby Joe continues the legacy of his fore bearers by recasting a repertoire of quilt patterns his mother and aunt were fond of. The patterns include Grand mother’s Flower Garden, a six-sided block in hexagon format popular since the early 1800s. History recounts seamstress Elizabeth Kleckley’s pieced and embroidered silk “Liberty” quilt made around 1870 with flower garden hexagons of Mary Todd Lincoln’s gowns encircling the center medallion. Page also admires the Bow Tie, Double Wedding Ring and Fan patterns in addition to making tack quilts in crazy and string styles. Primary and pastel colors appeal to Bobby’s discriminating eye; purple and green are his favorites. He has probably made twenty quilts during the 40 years he has quilted. “I have not tried a sewing machine,” Page said. “I prefer the tedious, relaxing method of hand sewing. It might take up to two years to do the whole quilt.” During the winter months Bobby Joe is busy piecing and quilting; however, in the summer and early fall he is eagerly planting and harvesting a garden he shares with neighbors. This resilient man of quiet demeanor and stoic spirit has survived serious health challenges and is a blessing among us.

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Grandmother's Flower Garden Pattern

            Leo McClain, devoted family man and Michigan quilter, migrated to the Wolverine state from Oklahoma. “I am a cowboy at heart, love the highway and helping people,” McClain said. As a teenager, McClain was self-determined and independent “just like his father Max,” a respected farmer, his mother Belzora often told him. Journalist Juan Williams thinks “black farmers are like brave warriors in a battle with economics and racism they refuse to lose.”  Max McClain was no-nonsense in manner, well disciplined and self-employed his whole life. “Daddy knew how to assign responsibility and authority among us,” McClain said. Leo was the youngest of fifteen children and worked along side siblings and parents in the fields and house to keep the farm running smoothly. That meant cooking and sewing too! “The quilt frame was always up so I could quilt any time I wanted to. I still remember my first nine patch,” Leo said. Over the years McClain has attended sewing classes, toyed with the idea of being a tailor, practiced quilting in the Flint African American Quilters Guild and established a quilt collection while traveling back and forth across the nation. “I really like art quilts; I like to design things,” McClain said. “Quilting offers a lot of affection in seeing what people have done.” Here is an exciting Christmas quilt McClain stitched for his wife.

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McClain Christmas quilt

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