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Quilting Outside the Box

Nicole Crawford | 5/19/2010, 10:24 a.m.

The Textile Art of Esther Iverem

A few years ago, Esther Iverem experienced a rite of passage common to many parents of teenage children: Her son, Mazi, got finicky about his clothing. His once beloved carpenter jeans were now too corny to wear. Other jeans were banished as "high-waters" or the wrong shade. But Iverem couldn't bear to throw or give away her only child's castoffs. So she decided to use them to make a memory quilt for Mazi's 16th birthday.

While making the quilt, Iverem reclaimed a dormant passion. A noted journalist and poet - she is the founding editor of SeeingBlack.com and the author of We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 - Iverem had spent much of her career critiquing art. Now she wanted to focus her attention on making it. The result is "The Oya Series," her debut collection on exhibit at Zimstone Gallery in Hyattsville, Md., through Sat., May 22.

"Creating quilts and creating collages with fabric and mixed media immediately immerses me in a world of color, pattern and texture," said Iverem, whose mother taught her to sew when she was a child.

"I created some of my earliest works of visual art as an undergraduate at [the University of Southern California]. Creating [Mazi's quilt] allowed me to reconnect to this love and expand my vision to fabric works on stretcher board."

Mazi's memory quilt - the dimensions of a king-size bed - is the largest work on display. Made mostly of his numerous pairs of old jeans, the quilt also incorporates keepsakes from his childhood: parts of a picture he drew of Black inventors in elementary school, logos from his various sports teams, scraps of a Tee-shirt bought on vacation in Jamaica. After completing the quilt, Iverem realized that she liked working with denim and made the fabric a motif of the series.

"Working with denim makes a statement about my generation," Iverem, 50, said. "It represents a generational shift from how my grandparents - and to some extent my parents - viewed the fabric."

Iverem recalled how her grandparents would get annoyed when she'd wear jeans.

"Why you want to wear those farm clothes?" they wondered. To Iverem, denim was chic. To her grandparents, it was field-hand clothing, a reminder of slavery and Jim Crow.

In addition to denim, Iverem, who lives in Northwest, uses other fabrics and fibers - such as raffia - as well as photographs and other images, in her multi-media creations to evoke aspects of African and African-American tradition and lore.

Another motif of Iverem's is Oya: the series' namesake. In Yoruba mythology, Oya is the warrior-goddess or spirit of the winds, a change-agent who brings on hurricanes. She also communicates with the ancestors and is sometimes vengeful.

"I've always been struck by the fact that hurricanes in the Atlantic follow the path of the slave ships from the Horn of Africa," Iverem mused.

Oya recurs in Iverem's work as a fabric silhouette starting her spinning dance or as an image of Harriet Tubman, whom Iverem imagines as a child of Oya.

"I wanted to create a figure in my work, but I didn't want it to be a face or anything cliche," said Iverem of Oya's emergence.

"I wanted a figure that had a mystery, that had [its own] stories and narratives, that I could attach my fantasies onto."

Jeff Brown, owner of Zimstone Gallery, which specializes in sculpture from Zimbabwe, first saw Iverem's art displayed at a mutual friend's house party. Impressed by her fresh interpretation of traditional African-American quilting, he decided that Iverem's pieces would make an ideal exhibit for his gallery.

"I thought, this was different. It was quilting outside the box," Brown said.

"Although she has traditional quilts [in her repertoire], her pieces created for wall space intrigued me."

"The Oya Series" can be viewed during Zimstone's gallery hours: Thursdays and Fridays, 4-8 p.m., and Saturdays, 12-5 p.m. For more information, e-mail jeffbrown@zimstonegallery.com or call 301-699-1499.