Asake Denise Foye Jones




Asake Denise Foye Jones




Asake Denise Foye Jones


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Sandra Anne Frazier


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Asake Denise Foye Jones. Asake is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is February 4, 2009. It is now 5:10 in the afternoon. I want to thank you so much for taking time to do this interview with me. Would you please tell me about your quilt "The Sunshine of My Life."

Asake Denise Foye Jones (AJ): "The Sunshine of My Life," it is a quilt inspired by the campaign and election of President Barack Obama and the quilt is actually an opportunity for me to show the reverence that Barack Obama has for the women in his life. When I initially thought about doing a quilt for him, I was just so excited about Barack Obama running for president and what this meant to me personally, what it meant to my children, my grandchildren, and also my mother and grandmother who are both deceased. I was kind of all over the place trying to decide what to do but I had a deadline [laughs.] so I kind of got centered. I like to mediate, walking mediation, sitting mediation, every type of mediation and it just wasn't coming. But I just kept thinking about the women and just looking at how he has this closeness with Michelle and his daughters and his mother-in-law. It came to me, 'Why not do that? Why not have that as the focus? Why not show in the quilt some how that connection he has with them,' so hence that came. Often times when I'm working music comes to me. I listen to music and sometimes music just plays in my head and serendipity music, a song just kind of replay [laughs.] over and over again. I like Stevie Wonder and found out that Michelle and Barack also likes Stevie Wonder. "The Sunshine of My Life" just kept coming. I just kept hearing that so I said, 'Oh that's it.' These women are the sunshine of his life and again I started thinking about a design. What can I incorporate? I am relatively new in the art quilts world. My introduction was traditional quilts but I always wanted to do something a little left of center, something a little edgy with quilting and I started with African prints and kind of did a few things that were considered, that I consider art quilts. I wanted to follow this in the same theme. As I was trying to come up with a design, the Grandma's Fan design which is a design that I always wanted to do, one of the first designs I wanted to do and actually never did it. I did the fans and there are six fans and on each fan is an image with President Obama and the women in his life and those women are his wife, Michelle, his daughters, Sasha and Malia, his mother, Ann Dunham Obama, his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson and his grandmother. In addition to that, there are actual photographs and the photographs are framed, some with batik fabrics, some with very colorful cotton fabrics. I did some beading on the quilt and the beading, as the fans radiating up. I wanted to show sunshine so yellow and gold glass beads were used on there. I also was thinking about doing a silhouette of Obama kind of looking at these women and also there is another image of him at the bottom and it is actually on point so it is kind of like a diamond shape if you can kind of image that. At the bottom is a circular image of him, very small with his him looking up in a prayer position. In addition to that, I can be quite loquacious [laughs.] at times and I knew I wasn't going to be with the quilt or have an audio on there so I did more research and actually found quotes that Obama said about each of these women and they were embroidered on the quilt.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your style?

AJ: I would say it is. I'm evolving a style if you will. I have a lot of ideas. I enjoy actually coming up with ideas and kind of playing around with them. I like to do a lot of piecing and as a quilter, the technical concept of a quilter is one who not only creates the top but also stitches the three layers together. I do a lot of piecing and I'm evolving. What I like to do and you will see in a lot of my quilts is that I like to do bead work and I also like to incorporate leather or leather-like fabrics in the quilt.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

AJ: The quilt will be shown at the "President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts" at Montgomery College in Silver Spring, Maryland and I'm just elated about that. I'm also considering donating the quilt. Not sure, but I have a place in mind I know won't want to sell it or keep it for my own grandchildren.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

AJ: My interest in quiltmaking. Well my mother was a dressmaker. She had a business here in Philadelphia and was a highly sought after dressmaker. She had a retail outlet as well as she did custom and I grew up in that environment so I've always had an interest for fabric, textile, texture, that kind of thing. Often times I would play in the fabric and manipulate and wrap it around me or on the floor just trying to create whatever. [laughs.] I also took some art classes at Fleisher Art Memorial here in Philadelphia, the Neighborhood Arts Center in Atlanta and as a volunteer with Operation Crossroads Africa when I was a student at Spelman College in Africa and I spent time in the Cultural Centers of Liberia and Ghana, West Africa. Again with the intent of learning how to do some advanced things with tie dye and batik while I was in West Africa, so the combination of my being raised with a mother who sewed and my insatiable interest in art quilting kind of came out of that if you will, kind of something all over the place but it kind of came out of that. I have a friend in Atlanta who was actually doing quilting with African fabric and that really drew my attention so this is in the eighties, I would say mid-eighties, early-eighties in Atlanta. I actually was doing some piecing with her and that was my first quilt project I would say. I moved back to Philadelphia and took a class. Just some hand quilting. I guess about 1992, '93 I attended the first meeting of the National Association of African American Quilters, met some people here in Philadelphia who were quilters and we formed the first guild of the National Association of African American Quilters and have been a guild member ever since. About that time I was teaching and in graduate school full time and raising my children, so quilting was kind of secondary. Since then the degree is finished, children are grown and I'm actually not teaching anymore so I'm devoting more time to quilting and I'm having a lot of fun. I'm learning more about beading and in the process of getting ready to take more classes because I really want to do this quilting more. I'm not necessarily looking to pursue a career as an art quilter. Right now, I'm really enjoying my life coaching practice, but I do want to incorporate quilting and I would say doing art quilt project like these into what I do as a life coach. I consider myself a hobbyist more or less.

KM: I don't remember in my lifetime a president-elect inspiring so much art. Why do you think Barack Obama inspired so many quiltmakers to make quilts?

AJ: I don't think its just quiltmakers. I have other friends who are artists and he is just a very, very inspiring person. When you talk with people, it's like what is it about this man that inspires you and it is so many things about him that I love. I love his intellect. I love his integrity. I love his wanting to make things better. I love his creative approach. I'm a very creative person. I like to try. His knack and interest for bringing people together and I am so much like him and I'm sure a lot of people would say that too but I can really relate to Barack Obama. I've always been a peacemaker in the midst of craziness. People kind of look to me to bring folks together and I see that energy, that spirit in him. You hear this all the time, 'People are ready for a change.' I really think people are. I think it is some spiritual thing if you will that is happening, the phenomenon to me, I think if it wasn't Barack it would have been someone else. He just brings a breath of fresh air. He really, really does. You feel good. I can relate to ordinary kind of person and reading his book I think the title is "Dreams from My Father," ["Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance," Three Rivers Press, 2004.] you get a real sense of who this person is and really see his journey of finding self and finding self in this world and finding self in wanting to make a difference

KM: You mentioned belonging to a guild. Tell me more about the guild.

AJ: The guild is, as I said we started in 1993. We are a group of women. It started as a guild. The first guild from the National Association of African American Quilters and we are I guess twenty-five to thirty member guild. We meet once a month. We've done I guess about four or five shows here in the Philadelphia area, primarily women. Age range I would say thirty to seventy [laughs.] and our interest is to promote and support quilting among African American women and/or about, excuse me not women, African Americans. [laughs.] Don't want to be exclusive of men, but African American. That's pretty much it. We do a show and tell at our meetings. We are a, our meetings are informal at times. I think twice a year, three times a year we do a formal meeting and our motto is "Each on, teach one." Those of us who learn different techniques and so on we share those. As a matter of fact I will be doing a bead making, not bead making excuse me, beading on fabrics, quilting workshop in a couple of months so I've taken some beading classes and I will be sharing that with the guild. I've done fabric dying in classes in the past. We get that opportunity to do that and our logo is the North Star.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out in quiltmaking?

AJ: The advice I would offer would be to take a class, take a class, align yourself with and if you don't have crafters in your area connect with someone who is doing quilting. Some people recommend that people do hand stitching first. I'm not that much of a purist when it comes to that. Whatever floats your boat, if you feel comfortable sewing on a sewing machine I say learn there. I think the key thing is to really take a formal class or find someone that will mentor you or work with you to get you started and keep it simple. Keep it simple; that is the key thing. [laughs.] You will progress to the bigger stuff.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

AJ: Whose works? [KM hums.] In terms of quilting or in terms of art?

KM: It can be both.

AJ: I'm really not good on quilt artists' names. [laughs.] There is a woman in North Carolina and I'm so blanking on her name.

KM: You can always add it.

AJ: Pardon me.

KM: You can always add it.

AJ: She does some awesome portrait quilts. Her stuff looks like photographs. Hollis, I think her last name, but anyway hers are just phenomenal.

KM: It's Hollis Chatelaine.

AJ: Yes, Hollis Chatelaine. I mean, I could just look at her work all day long. She is just very, very inspiring. I'm no so influenced by a lot. I have friends here in Philadelphia, who are artists, who inspire me and I just soak up art all over the place. I'm blanking. [laughs.]

KM: That is okay.

AJ: Different mediums, sculpture and all the different forms. Iron work, oil paintings, watercolors, just inspired by so many different things. There is a beader the class I'm going to take. Nancy Eha, that is her last name, I'm taking a class with her and I'm excited because I've been looking at her work for a long time and I like that. Marilyn Belford, I like her. Carolyn Mazloomi, Dinga McCannon, Sherry Shine. Names are coming to me in quiltmaking. Bisa Butler, Romare Beardon. There are many, many, many people.

KM: What is it about their work that attracts you to them?

AJ: Just the way they manipulate fabric to create energy. Many of these people that I'm speaking of are artists. [laughs.] They have that sense and also for me I have an idea and I'm not really sure how to execute it and I'm going to be taking some art classes to help me through that. Their manipulation of fabrics to create an image, get a certain feeling or expression and they are able to capture that. I'm very impressed with that. Very, very impressed.

KM: How do you see using quilts in your life coaching?

AJ: That is something I'm trying to work through and I think I might be thinking too hard with it. [laughs.] As a teacher in the Philadelphia school district and it is not unique to Philadelphia but I find one thing that they will often cut out when they are cutting programs is art and music and I've always argued that it is such a wonderful opportunity for people to be creative and to problem solve and as a life coach what I do is I help people move forward and break some blocks. My primary focus is working with people who are having major issues with stress management and I look at creating art quilts as an opportunity again to be creative and hopefully that will transfer over into problem solving via creativity and also to create something that is not only esthetically pleasing but also something that is personal as well. I've done some projects. I do a retreat every year and during that retreat, the first one we actually did a journal, a mixed media journal with fabric and paper and they were fabulous. Actually I worked with another artist on that project. Last year we did rain sticks and with the rain sticks they were meditative rain sticks and they had to create rain sticks that reflected calmness and we did meditation prior to that and they took fabric and other embellishments and reflected on that. Oh my God, these women were like children. [laughs.] It was a three hour workshop that ended up I guess being eight hours because people stayed up at night working on the rain sticks, which is great. I love it. I love it. That's really what I'm looking to do and doing I guess actually.

KM: Describe your studio. The place where you create your art.

AJ: I create my art, I have a small two bedroom house and I create in the second bedroom. It is really special. It is yellow and I painted it yellow because my mother used to live with me prior to her passing. I created that room for her so it would be a nice bright room and at the time I had my little sewing area and she would watch me. She was so proud. She wouldn't always say it. but she would always ask me what I was working on and was always interested and she was like 'Okay, that is interesting.' [laughs.] She always liked it. She always liked what I was doing. I always feel good when I'm working in that room because her energy is there and a lot of things she likes to do and I like to do, gardening and have painting, some potted plants there and I have a really great print from an artist, that she really liked the piece. Leroy Campbell is the artist and it is a picture of a women with a quilt and she loved that. It's a very, very comfortable place to be. I kind of go in there and get lost. [laughs.]

KM: Do you work on one piece at a time or do you have multiple projects going on?

AJ: I always have stuff going on but when I'm actually working it's always on one piece at a time. That is pretty much the only way I can really focus my energy. I'm totally there, totally consumed. It takes on a life of its own. It's almost like the person that I'm with [laughs.] the person in my life. Sometimes it goes to bed with me. [laughs.] Whatever room I'm in, sometimes if I'm in the kitchen I might be looking at it thinking about what I'm going to do with it, what's the next step I'm going to do.

KM: Tell me more about your creative process. Do you draw things out ahead of time?

AJ: I try to sometimes. That is not really my approach. I kind of come up with an idea and it kind of unfolds and on the Obama piece which was the last one I did, I kind of had to rest from that, I did, I really said I'm going to really try to work this out the way, you see in books and stuff. I did a little bit of that but the quilt kind of tells you what to do. I think art that is the process of creating for a lot of artists. You have something in mind but the piece really talks to you. That is true with writers. I'm always amazed about their process and my writer friends say characters talk to them, I am would say, 'Okay that is interesting.' I know in terms of creating art quilts the quilts really tell you what it needs so I just work with it. [laughs.] I work with it. I just kind of allow the process to happen.

KM: "The Sunshine of My Life" is 29 inches by 29 inches. Is that kind of a typical size for you?

AJ: Yeah, I'm working small now, as I'm beginning to do these pieces. Not ready to do large pieces yet. I think it is a confidence thing with me. I think if I do these small pieces and actually some of the pieces that I've done small. I guess it is a study if you will and I'm looking to do a lot of them larger because I'm learning as I'm creating. I do them small and would love to do them larger.

KM: You mentioned your mom being proud of you, what do your other family members feel about your quiltmaking?

AJ: I'm an only child [laughs.] so my other family members are, I have friends, I have wonderful supportive friends. As a matter of fact, the Obama show is in Maryland and to my surprise, I kind of sent out a blast and I got quite a few friends that are going to drive down on the Friday [laughs.] to the [Washington.] D.C. area so I've got a lot of support from them, which is great. I've got a great core group of women friends and male friends as well, but the women are great. I have two children. I have a son and daughter. My son lives here in Philadelphia and he is always encouraging me and that is really good. My daughter, she lives in Atlanta. [Georgia.] with her husband and their two sets of twins. My daughter knew I was working on it and I was kind of stuck and one day she sent me this wonderful email and, 'Mom, you are going to make it. Just keep on. Step back. You need to step back and know that whatever you chose to do is going to be good.' So she is always encouraging me. She is a quilter as well. She is a quilter. My son actually made a quilt once when he was in elementary school. At a Montessori school and they did a project. Actually he completed a quilt before I did. [laughs.] My grandson, the boy twins, they have given me a quilt that they worked with their mother on it. They are eight and a half and the three-year-old girls helped their mom on a quilt a birthday gift quilt for me. I get support from them and I guess participation as well. Actually I want to do a quilt with definitely with the boys but I want to do one with the girls. [laughs.] I kind of want to do a generational one with my daughter and the three-year-old girls and myself when they get a little older.

KM: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

AJ: What makes a quilt artistically powerful? Hum. I would say if you're able to look at the work and be inspired each time you see it or see something different. It's like art. You can see a work of art and each time you see it there is something else about it that you didn't discover before. There is a piece of [Auguste.] Rodin. It is called "The Cathedral" and I've looked at that several times and I love that piece. It is just a very, very powerful piece, very simplistic and very, very powerful. In the piece, and I think that is the thing that an art quilt does, every time it is a new experience.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

AJ: My quilting is kind of intermittent. I say it is more in a month stage. Within a month's time I probably, four or five days if I'm not working on something. If I'm working on something I'm on it, sometimes it's all I'm doing, but I would say four or five days within a month's time.

KM: How did you find out about the exhibition?

AJ: The Obama Exhibition? [KM hums.] I'm on the ArtQuilt listserve. It is a digest [you can also get it as individual emails.] that is pretty extensive, so I don't read it every day. The days I do read it, I don't read all the listings but I just happened to read that particular listing on that particular day. There was a call. Sue Walen had a call. She is like, 'Wow, he won and I did an Obama quilt and I was wondering if any of you guys have one that you would be interested in an exhibit,' and I'm like, 'Oh my God, yes.' [laughs.] I sent an email, 'Yes count me in. I'm interested. What do I need to do?' I'm excited. The adrenaline was going and I just responded back. I was just excited and telling a few other friends that this is going on. I was just full of excitement. [laughs.] I knew I wanted to do something but again didn't have a clue and actually been wanting to do something but was so glued to television and newspaper and email and whatever I could get about the election and so the creative energy didn't kick in. The energy of what was happening historically that I was caught up in. I settled, centered, [laughs.] and made the quilt.

KM: Do you plan to make any other Obama quilts?

AJ: Yeah, I'm actually looking at doing something because I had an idea about doing something else. I actually wanted to do it with this but, my quilt is small and I thought people would say, you know you look at it and from a person who doesn't quilt or doesn't do art, sometimes people expect a lot. Some of my friends were calling me, I said to them that I'm working on the quilt and I said you might think it has a whole bunch of stuff going on, but it takes a lot of time doing research and in the process of doing the research and time constraints I really had to get busy on it. In the process of doing that, the research for that, and I was continuing to do research and reading things as I was doing it. I came up with another idea. One of the things I want to do. I want to do something with a cloth that comes from East African, Kenya came to me and it is called Kanga cloth and K-a-n-g-a. It is a panel and often times it's printed with an image of politicians and I was almost sure in Kenya they were going to do it and I found the piece and not all Kanga clothes have an image on it but Kanga cloth comes from Kenya so I just wanted to incorporate something of his father's family home. I do have a piece of Kanga but it didn't quite go well with what I'm doing. So yeah, I'm going to do another Obama quilt somehow using Kanga clothe. I did find a source for Kanga cloth but not sure what I'm going to do or how I'm going to do that.

KM: Do you have any other plans for quilts?

AJ: I actually do. I attended Spelman and this year is the reunion year for the class I started with and I'm going to do a quilt to auction off and also I'm going to do a quilt and I guess I can say it in this interview, I'm actually am going to donate a quilt to Spelman. Spelman has been a lot to me. It is where I started becoming a woman. [laughs.] I have my retreat coming up so I'm going to be working on a project for that. Just do more. Those four or five days I do per month I really anticipate increasing that. Definitely anticipate increasing that.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

AJ: Wow, my legacy how I want to be remembered. I'm assuming this relates to quilting. [laughs.] I want to be remembered as--let me think about that, give me a minute.

KM: Sure, take your time.

AJ: [pause.] I want to be remembered as a person who really tried to be authentic, who wanted to do something to make the world a better place, effect positive change in people's lives and to add beauty to the world and express this through art quilts.

KM: Sounds like a good way to be remembered. We have been talking for almost forty minutes now. Is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched upon?

AJ: You've asked some very interesting questions. Let me think about [pause.] I think we talked about family. We talked about what I'm doing.

KM: What is the appeal of beads? Why do you like beading on quilts?

AJ: The beading on quilts thing, how do I do that. My daughter is twenty-nine now. She will be thirty in August but when she was ten she had a beaded jewelry business so I was kind of doing bead work with her and had fun doing that then she stopped. After five years, she wanted to retire [laughs.] at the rip age of fifteen [laughs.] and I was. 'Oh my God, she can't stop.' A friend said, 'Let her stop. She's done that.' [laughs.] I held onto the beads and I was like, 'Oh my God, what do I do with these beads?' I think I had made a quilt or two, put a little something on there with beads. Then I just started adding beads onto things, and I really liked it. I love doing bead work and I eventually took a class at a local quilt shop and it was addictive. It's tactile. It adds dimension but it is something about the touch of beads. It is kind of working with them. I love it. I also like bead work that is done by the Yourba of Nigeria. I love the bead work you see of Native Americans. I've always had a fascination with those cultures and the bead work and embellishments they do on things, Haitian flag, like a spiritual flag and so on. I just have a love of it. Also in New Orleans they do gorgeous bead work on the costumes for Marti Gras. It is something about those, the touch on those beads that is just awesome. [laughs.] I just love it. Love it, love it, love it.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

AJ: It is important to me because it makes a connection to my mother. It really connects me to her and it also is a way for me. I've always loved art and when I was in high school I took an art class. One thing with me, I just didn't want to go through the process of really learning how to do art and I went to a Catholic school and everything we did was pretty conservative. [laughs.] The nuns wanted to take you step by step, it was very elementary and I really wanted to get to create something. What was the question again, I kind of lost it?

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

AJ: Connect to my mother, taking art classes, and I feel a way to create art. I don't draw. I don't paint. I don't do sculpture though I've tried my hand at wood carving and that is another beautiful medium. Maybe in another lifetime I will come back and do that [laughs.] or maybe later on in my life. Quilting is a way to create art for me which I love. It's an opportunity to add to the world of art, to express in a different way. [laughs.] It is important because it connects me to my mother and it's an outlet for creative expression.

KM: I think this is a good way to conclude. Asake, I really want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me.

AJ: Thank you, thank you, your questions were excellent.

KM: Thank you.

AJ: You really helped me reflect on some things.

KM: That is very good, thank you. We are going to conclude our interview at 5:55.


“Asake Denise Foye Jones,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024,