By Shanti Flagg, FORCE Studio Director & Collective Member
Welcome to the first installment of the Monument Quilt History Series! With this series, we aim to highlight some of the incredible people who influenced the creation and direction of this now enormous project. It takes so many passionate and generous people to make this work happen, and we want to celebrate that. Once a month (or just about!), I will post an interview with one of these leaders where we’ll talk about their history with the Monument Quilt and their own work and story — stay tuned!
I’m so excited to present this interview with Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, an incredible Baltimore artist, educator and community activist known for her intricate quilts detailing the history of emancipation in Maryland. Her quilts tell personal stories as well as sharing larger historical narratives, show us how large events are made up of the minute and intimate details that shape our lives. They make you stop and stare, and from them you absorb the emotional energy of the stories they tell. Her pieces have been exhibited all around Maryland including a recent show at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History. Joan regularly hosts public quilt making events where she teaches her process.
The Monument Quilt project as it is today wouldn’t exist without Joan and her artistic influence. Co-founders Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle each took social justice quilting workshops with Joan at different times, and their learning her method of storytelling through quilting as a means to create social justice greatly influenced what would become the Monument Quilt. It has been an honor for Joan to become involved with the Monument Quilt, single handedly created 16 squares in winter 2017.
Joan opened her home to us for our interview. Her house has an energy of concentration because you can see how many quilts she’s working on, each with hypnotizing detail. Listen to hear Joan speak about her quilting process, life lessons from her grandmother, her relationship with FORCE, what makes this moment so important for art, and more!
Thanks to Ellery Bryan for video & audio editing and Emily Benke for transcription!
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT [EDITED FOR CLARITY]
Joan: Do I need to say my name?
Joan: Dr. Joan M.E. Gaither. [laughs] Retired educator and fiber artist. Documentary story quilter.
Shanti: I want to ask you to talk a little bit about who you are and what your work is.
Joan: Well, I consider myself an artist, an educator, a researcher, and a community activist, and somehow they have all rolled into one. And it’s like my work—it’s layered. So, sometimes, the work—you get the educator in me because the work—it’s important that I want people to know these stories—a lot of them have been overlooked or missed or just not represented. And I’m interested in not just having the history research, but I want the players in the game. I want the time in the event—the context, actually, within. So, and then I’m constantly trying to tell the story of people in my own community, and to know things that are in the past that are important to us today. And, a lot of it, documenting it, I’ve thought, I would start with myself because—and I say to folks: you know, you know how to do you, I know how to do me, and that if you take a pebble and throw it in the water, as it ripples out, if you are the pebble in that middle, you then can tell the story of others: your biological family, your community, your state, your nation of humankind. So I look at this as my individual story within a shared experience that we all know, but sometimes aren’t aware that we share that experience. How’s that?
Shanti: Great! So, what kind of medium do you use?
Joan: Well, you know, originally, I don’t know—I was an art teacher, you know, high school, so you do a little bit of everything, but I, especially, I was doing a lot of watercolors and photography. And my photography was more the presence of life without having the people in it. So, here again, it’s: what are our footprints that we’re leaving? And so, I have, and I was a collage artist—I love collaging—just puttin’ stuff together. And so, I really believe that my early collages were really the first quilts because my quilts look like my early collages. And I have been inspired by medieval stained glass windows, so you’ll see that heavy black line that runs through and divides and brings the story together. And it’s colorful—it gets your attention. And they [stained glass windows] were made to educate people. And that’s—that’s I think at the bottom of what I do. I still do some watercolors every so often. But the quilts, now, this medium—I call it quilting from the soul. It’s something—you know, like I have a story, you have a story, I think everybody has their story that only they can tell. Okay, I know how to do me, I don’t know how to do you, but I can share with you ways to bring that story out. And it has to be a story that’s important enough to be told. So I want it to come from the depth of your soul—you have to feel it in your gut. And the importance of it because, I think, you know, we make things and we’re made aware of a lot of things, but we are only aware. I want the work to move people—to do something, move them off the dime. So, the yellow ribbons, we know, reminds us to remember the troops. Pink ribbons, you know, protect the ta-tas. Breast cancer. But, how do you move beyond that? And while it’s important to me, it may not be important to you. So then it’s up to me to find a way—a vehicle, a format, a process—to make it so powerful that you will at least stop. What I try to do is give people a cause to pause. And once you pause, [whispers] I got you. You know? So that’s it, and, you know, if you think about walking through a mall—you just walk, walk, walk, walk. And all of sudden, somethin’ goes: [pause] and then you stop and go about your business. It wasn’t important enough. And then you walk a little bit more and then something else gets you and you actually walk over to it and you start looking at it, and you go, no-no-no, and walk away. But then there’s that third thing that just grabs your attention and forces you to just stay there—even though you got someplace to go—it’s just something there. That’s what I try—that’s what I try to do. And I think I’m pretty successful, you know, with that. Because people will say to me, “I got stuff to do, Gaither, I don’t have time to be sittin’ here—but I’ll come back tomorrow. I’ll come back and visit it.” Because I do realize that it’s so layered—the memories are so layered, that it takes time to unravel all of it. And I can appreciate it, but that’s our lives, as well.
Shanti: Yeah. I’m really struck by the way you describe people’s stories, and respecting people’s stories. And it’s like, you know you can speak for your own self and then you can help people realize and speak their own stories, so that’s obviously very similar to how the Monument Quilt Project functions, and one of the basic philosophies of the Monument Quilt, and your work and your influence was a big part of how this project got created. So I just wanted to ask you how you got involved with FORCE.
Joan: Uh, well, it’s—I don’t even know how long ago it was, Hannah, that we had that class—that course Karen Carol, the Dean at Maryland Institute—the Center for Art, the Center for Art Education—asked me to teach a course in social justice using this technique because a lot of my pieces were about—I mean, who knew at the time—it was really just about my identity. You don’t get to tell me who I am. And I’ve lived long enough that in the 20s, the word that was used to identify people who looked like me was “colored.” My mother was “colored.” With no birth certificate, they kept records of their birth in the front of the Bible, the family Bible. My birth certificate, which I have, says “Negro.” By the time I got my first job in the 60s, the word used to define who I am was “black.” My grandmother was very upset when I used that word because that was an insult to her back in the day. In the 70s—and, being black, my skin was too light to be black and too dark to be white. And neither group wanted me to belong, so I decided—and I think that’s where it started—that I would form my own group. So my group is very diverse, and I work with four-year-olds up to a hundred-and-four-year-olds. But it’s about my own identity, my signifiers of identity. I wear a hat all the time. But it’s not just ‘cause I think it’s sharp, but it’s out of respect for my grandmother. So, all of this, sort of, social justice ideas that’s based in identifying and the color of one’s skin and where one should go is the groundwork for that. And I was a child, with my grandmother, in downtown Baltimore in one of the department stores—Braeger Gutman’s—that she wanted to buy a hat, and the clerk/saleslady would not let her try it on. And I remember saying to her: “But what if it doesn’t fit?” And the lady looked at me—I was ten years old—“Once it’s been on a n—‘s head, no decent white woman would ever wanna wear it.” So I wear my hat out of respect and to honor the lady that I know my grandmother was. And all of the women in my family wear hats. And I wear it all the time. So, that was a part of it—once people can identify you a particular way, they feel like they also can determine what your outlook is and everything. My high school counselor—when I went to Eastern, we had to integrate the schools in the 50s—told me that I was wasting my time—that I should go somewhere, to a school where I know I could get a job, and I should be—I should go to beautician school, but that wasn’t what I wanted to be. One of my other teachers said, “The law says you have to be here, but there’s no law that says I have to teach you.” So, those are the kinds of things that are deep in my soul. I don’t even know if that teacher is still alive. But to be able to say, I’m glad my parents and my grandmother taught me to respect elders, but they told me also that I could soar as high as I wanted to, as long as I was spiritual and I didn’t get cocky. You know, but to be able to say to that person today, “My name is Dr. Joan Gaither. You didn’t stop me, you didn’t stop my dream, and just because of—you identified something in me only on the color of my skin. So the work, then, evolves around, here are the things and the identifiers that were put in place, but here are all these other things, you know, that are going on. So, when I did the course at MICA, I just shared my story and the events in my life. And so, it’s like, in the 1960s was a really important, pivotal point in my life. I graduated from high school, graduated from college, got married, got my first job—you know, all of these things that are important. But at the same time, Martin Luther King was killed—assassinated. Malcolm X, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Birmingham—I mean, it’s like all of these things were happening at the same time, and I think I realized: our stories need to be told in layers of memories because that’s how we exist. And if I can show you something that’s a part of my existence. [phone rings] So, basically, I taught the course—Hannah was in that course. And it was a one-week workshop first, and then I had a semester-long course. And the object was to take something that you feel passionately about and use the quilt-making process in whatever your environment is to make people aware and move off the point. And so, Hannah, did this “sex as a weapon” quilt for the exhibit that—I mean, the students just did awesome pieces—but that piece was so strong because the women in the shelter did that, and it was just poignant, powerful, and just honest. And I think something moved Hannah when she saw the power of that piece, and she has just moved forward and just brought it to a larger national scale, and I’m so very proud of her. So when I saw that’s what she was doing with the Monument project, and I thought, okay, I can do this. I can do this.
Shanti: So you’re submitting some quilt pieces today, which we have just taken a look at. Can you talk about why you decided to submit them now?
Joan: Well, one, my house was getting crowded [laughs].
Shanti: Well, it looks like you have a lot of stuff you’re working on.
Joan: Yeah, I am—I work on multiple pieces, but this really moved me. You know, it’s one of those things where you say “me too” with—you know, early on in my years, I was 20 years old starting in my—this person just reminds me, when I saw on television Weinstein, reminded me so much of my assaulter that it just put me in a place where it’s like, I cannot be quiet about this ‘cause I’ve never really been quiet, but I couldn’t remain quiet, so I thought, how can I help and let this be seen? So some of them are, you know, one of the quilts belongs to my sister Carolyn, who lives in Newport News, Virginia. She said to me, “Well just go for it. Make as many as you want.” So I just kept—because it was on the news, I had to end up turning the television just off because it was a constant reminder, and I thought, I wonder if people realize that victims, each time they hear this reported, it’s like another stab, it’s another jab, it’s another. And it’s hard to handle those triggers that put you in just another state. So, some of these are encouraging, some of them are painful, but I just think it’s a very worthwhile project. So, with my sister’s quilt, I only turned in 16 a day, but, with a little more time [laughs], I can make a few more.
Shanti: Yeah, it’s, uh, not that many.
Joan: How many—I don’t know, how many do you need? I had said you needed 3,500—is that about right?
Shanti: So we’ve actually kind of stopped doing a numerical goal. I think we’re just gonna get what we get because honestly we have enough quilts today we could do whatever we wanted. We’re just, you know, we wanna expand it.
Joan: Oh, okay, yeah, yeah, yeah. So I was thinking, 3,500…I’ve done since 2000 over 200 quilts. You know, and now having counted any of these, you know, and there are three-four-five-six-seven-eight others in addition to yours that I’ve done this year, and four that are on the table. So, it adds up really fast. So, got a little time, but I think it’s really a very worthwhile—just, I hate to say “project”—but it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and this is a way to address that concern. It amazes me still that the predators are believed or given a pass-through, still. And I’m trying to deal with this question of why that is the case. And I know it’s misogyny. But it’s something else that we have learned to live with and accept, and I think it’s the women who, as I listen to some of the testimonies, it’s: why didn’t you just fight? Why didn’t you cuss him out, you know? Why didn’t you—? But, but, why just submit yourself and not say anything or protect yourself? And the men just rake the women over the coals or threaten them in many ways, and it just sort of, goes away. So that to me is a topic of an area that still needs to be…
Shanti: Yeah, people aren’t given the tools to be able to take care of themselves—
Shanti: —or recognize when they’re being harmed.
Joan: Exactly, exactly. And ‘cause there are ways—I know when my perpetrator came after me, he was sorry. He was sorry [laughing]. I tried to make him sing soprano, and used a lot of the words that you can’t—that they bleep out on television, but it works. You know, but he didn’t bother me anymore after that. And so I learned that for future things that came up, that was my way. You know, “don’t touch me.” “Don’t put your hands on me.” “I told you the first time ‘cause you didn’t know. This now is the second time. This is a reminder. I promise you, if you do it again, I will not be so nice.” And I’m not. But then they go away. But they’re upset that I had to use profanity.
Shanti: [laughing] Even though they’re the one that made that situation happen.
Joan: Exactly, exactly! But it works. You know, so I decided that no, you don’t get to do this to me. 20:00 No. No, no, no, no, no. But to help the young girls out—you know, it’s like, who’s teaching them now to say “these are possibilities”? And it happens when you get in your first jobs, you know? In power. So, I don’t know.
Shanti: Yeah, so I guess that kind of goes into the last couple questions I was gonna ask. I was gonna ask you: what’s one thing that you’ve learned now that you wish that you had known when you were younger?
Joan: One thing I’ve learned now that I wish I’d known when I was younger…that’s really…something for me to muse about!
Shanti: Well, think about it [laughing].
Joan: But, you know, I think with my mom—my mother—my grandmother in particular said to me, “Don’t let anybody stop you from doing what you choose to do.” And she said—and it’s on one of my mentor quilts—“Soar—you can soar as high as you want to.” “Reach for the moon because if you fail you’ll still be in the stars.” You know, kind of thing. So, I have that—I believed her. You know, I really did. And to do something positive every day. And so I try to do those things. And I think what I have come to realize over time is that that’s good nurturing and building of your own character—being self-sufficient. And I didn’t realize it until much into my, you know, adult years. But, you know, I think that, as our life progresses, you get what you need when it comes to you, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for all of those other ugly things that happened along the way. You know, and my grandmother filled me with lots of little, you know—“the more difficult the obstacles, the more glorious the victories”—you know, kinds of things. Or, “make somebody happy every day.” When you put your head down on your pillow at night, you should be able to smile, you should be able to smile and know that you made somebody else’s day happy. And it’s not about money. It’s about just a gentle word, or something. So, I think, you know, my life is what it is. So, whether I know it now, couldn’t’ve changed it back then. But it has helped me to be who I am today. And to let people know that—and especially people who don’t look like me—you don’t get to choose who I am. You do not get to choose my signifiers of identity. And I have no problem in saying that. You know? My mother always told me I was really mouthy. I’d like to think I was assertive and not aggressive. [laughing] So, did I answer your question?
Hannah: Basically we wanted to launch the blog series with you as the roots of the Monument Quilt.
Joan: Oh! Did I talk enough about the roots? Okay, and one of the other things about that class and the roots of it was that my concern, my passion, was about identity. But for the class, and the students, they had to find their passion. So, for Hannah, it was about the women and abuse. There were other folks in the class that were concerned about the environment, about gender issues. They were just really powerful. So, and one of the other students was in a senior center and Barbara took her work there. So it had to be something that was in your domain, in your space, and where you saw that there were issues that could be better. So, how then—and this project, Monument project—does—it brings this awareness to people. When I first saw it, it was at the museum, at the BMA. And I had to leave. I just—I had to leave. Because it was in your face. You couldn’t, when it’s on the ground—and I know that from my own work—there’s power in these pieces when they’re hanging. When they confront you. And you can’t avoid it. You can’t avoid it. Which may not be such a bad idea. But there’s a sense of safety when you can walk through the path on the ground, on a lower space. So, while it works, there is power when they’re up. And they’re dripping off of the wall and spilling out into the floor. So, but, that’s where it happens. And so, Hannah and Rebecca are just taking it to a whole other level, you know. Which is exciting, and you talk about timely and timelessness. It’s now. It needs to be done even now.
Shanti: Yeah, I was gonna ask you actually: what do you think is the responsibility of artists right now, at this point in history?
Joan: Well, I think, always artists have used their own—one of the whole concepts about creating is that artists use their own lives and experiences as a basis for subject matter of their work. I think that is up to artists to creatively help show the way for folks and help them to see things that maybe go, you know, unnoticed. Artists have choices to make in what they choose as subject matter, what their format is. I’m very much interested in working anecdotally, symbolically, metaphorically—juxtaposing ideas that people are really sure about and slamming ‘em up against somethin’ that is very painful—to just sort of make that awareness. So, artists have to be honest. That’s all they can do. They have to be honest with their work. And, when you’re dealing with social justice pieces, I think there is that internal desire to make this a better place. You know, it’s like, when your time is up on the Earth, will people know what your purpose was here? And I think artists have a purpose to make people aware and to give people, as I call it, a cause to pause and think about “Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing?” If that’s important things. So, if ever there was a time for artists, it is now. It is now [laughing].
Shanti: Okay, yeah, thank you!
Joan: Oh, thank YOU!