I tried to get an interview with artist-author-educator Faith Ringgold before and during her visit to Omaha a few years ago but her tightly packed schedule just wouldn’t allow it. So, with an assignment due and no interview to draw on I made the best of it by planting myself at the lecture she gave here and liberally borrowing some of her comments to inform my story. I also viewed an exhibition of her work here. At the conclusion of her talk I unexpectedly heard my name intoned over the auditorium’s amplifier system. I was summoned to the stage to meet Ms. Ringgold, who apologized for not being able to speak with me earlier and offered me the opportunity to ride with her to the airport and interview her enroute. I declined because I was already rather time-pressed to get the story in but I thanked her for the offer. I thought that was a gracious and generous thing for her to do and it’s certainly not something most celebrities would think to do in the aftermath of a gig and heading out of town. Her art is sublime. She taps deep roots in her work, which is infused with images of yearning, hope, joy, and life, and some pain, too. You feel the images speaking to you. There is energy in those visuals. You sense life being lived. It’s easy to get lost in the ocean of feeling and memory she evokes.
Artist-Author-Educator Faith Ringgold, A Faithful Conjurer of Stories, Dreams, Memories and History
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Artist-author-educator Faith Ringgold spoke about the power of dreams during an October 8 lecture at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall, whose nearly filled to capacity auditorium testified to the popularity of her work. The official role of her Omaha appearance was to give the keynote address at the Nebraska Art Teachers Association’s fall conference. But her real mission was to deliver a message of hope and possibility, as expressed in the affirming, empowering tales of her painted story quilts, costumes, masks and children’s books and her life.
Her visit coincided with her 75th birthday, which organizers celebrated in a musical program that moved Ringgold to tears, as well as two area exhibitions of her work. Now through November 20 at the UNO Art Gallery is Art: Keeping the Faith (Ringgold), a selection of illustrations from her children’s book Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, along with examples of her story quilts, tankas and mixed media pieces. Now through December 23 at Love’s Jazz and Art Center is a selection of book art from Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House, along with two of her finest story quilts combining fabric, painting and narrative.
The Harlem native has broken many barriers as an African-American female artist with works in major collections, books on best-sellers’ lists and art embraced by culturally and racially diverse audiences of children and adults.
“My art has been a celebration of my life, my dreams and my struggles and how I learned from other people,” she said.
Much of her work, whether story quilts combining painted canvas on decorative fabric or book illustrations done in acrylic, depict the struggles and contributions of historical black figures. Many are in praise of the Harlem Renaissance artists she came to know, such as Alfred Jacob Lawrence. Many are about strong females like herself, ranging from underground railroad conductor Harriet Tubman to Civil Rights heroine Rosa Parks. She often creates series of works. Coming to Jones Road deals with the trains of refugees on the underground railroad. Her most recent is a jazz series called Mama Can Sing and Papa Can Blow.
“For the image of a people to be celebrated is an important thing for their creative identity,” she said.
Her books often show her child alter ego, Cassie, interacting with men and women of achievement, whose life lessons “of being resourceful, being creative and being strong” offer inspiration. In Ringgold’s award-winning Tar Beach, which began as a quilt, Cassie takes imaginative leaps of faith that enable her to fly over the world and, in so doing, own it. Flight represents the liberation that comes with dreaming.
“That’s what flying is — it’s a determination to do something that seems almost impossible,” Ringgold said. “Cassie is an expression of that feeling — Who said I can’t do it? Unless I say it, it doesn’t mean anything.”
As she reminded her Joslyn audience, many of them teachers, “Every good thing starts with a dream. Children growing up without dreams is really no growing up at all.” The “anyone can fly” and “if she can do it, anyone can” themes from Tar Beach are so closely associated with Ringgold, who also wrote a song entitled Anyone Can Fly , that they’ve become the catch phrases for her vision. After her Joslyn lecture, the Belvedere Bels choir from Belvedere Elementary School in Omaha serenaded Ringgold with a soulful rendition of Anyone Can Fly.
Related to her visit and showings here, Omaha Public Schools students this fall are studying her work, viewing her exhibits and creating their own story quilts.
Her favorite medium, the story quilt, is rooted in two African-American traditions — oral storytelling and quiltmaking — traced to slaves, who created images on quilts that recorded family history, symbolized events and revealed coded messages. She’s the latest in a long line of master quiltmakers in her own family, going all the way back to her great-great grandmother, a slave, and down through her great grandmother, grandmother and her later fashion designer mother, from whose hands she learned the craft and with whom she collaborated on her first quilts.
Beyond the familial and cultural connections, quilts appeal to Ringgold for their practicality and accessibility.
“It’s the most fantastic way of creating paintings. You have it become a quilt by piecing it together, so that it doesn’t have that fragility of one piece of paper or canvas. A quilt is really two-dimensional, but it’s also three-dimensional, and that’s why I really love it,” she said. “You can make it as big as you like it and it doesn’t have weight to it. You can roll it up and carry it around.”
She enjoys, too, the communal aspects of the form.
“Quilting is something a group of people can do. You can have a lot of people engaged in the activity, so that your art doesn’t become such a solitary thing.”
Her impetus for doing story quilts arose when editors balked at publishing her autobiography unless she changed her story to conform to what she considered a stereotypical black female portrayal. She refused and instead found an alternative form, the story quilt and performance art, for charting her life and for sharing her perspectives on the figures, events and issues affecting her and her people.
“It made me really angry to think that somebody else could decide what my story was supposed to be or decide my story’s not appropriate to me, an African American woman. So, I started writing these stories,” she said. “I used performance and story quilts to get my story out there. Writing it in the art, when the art was published in a program — the words would be to, unedited.”
When her work hangs in museums or galleries, her simple or elaborate but always eloquent words can be appreciated by viewers. Often splayed all around the borders, the text acts as a narrative frame that focuses the eye on the central image she paints in her palette of sure brushstrokes and bold colors.
The many influences on Ringgold, who studied at City College of New York and has traveled the world to soak up art, are apparent in her folk-style work, including her rich African-American heritage, the traditions of European masters, the abstract expressionists and Tibetan tankas. A professor of art at the University of California in San Diego, she lives in Englewood, NJ, where she has her studio.
She continues a busy schedule of creating art, lecturing and dreaming.
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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