Carol Beck




Carol Beck




Carol Beck


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

C&T Publishing


Durham, North Carolina


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Carol Beck. Carol is in Durham, North Carolina and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is February 19, 2009. It is now 2:07 in the afternoon. Carol thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk with me.

Carol Beck (CB): It is my pleasure.

KM: Please tell me about your quilt "A Dream Realized."

CB: "A Dream Realized" is based on a poem by Langston Hughes "What Happens to a Dream Deferred," which is from a montage that he wrote. For some reason every time I'd read or heard about some of the various challenges that Barack Obama had gone through in his life this poem kept popping up in my mind - and not only for him, but also for my ancestors too. The poem starts out, 'What happens to a dream deferred. Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun or fester like a sore?' I frequently thought about his parents and all of the members of his immediate family- his mother, father, and both of his grandparents and how all of them from my view had dreams that were deferred. His mother always wanted to find the happy place and the perfect people and to have a major impact on society. She was traveling to different places in the world seeking this and, thank goodness, she gave birth to Barack during one of her little travels; but basically her dream was deferred. She never really found the happiness that she was looking for and we certainly know about his father; he is definitely an example of a dream deferred. Dreams in my mind are not the things we do when we sleep. Dreams are the goals that we set for our lives and our struggle to try to reach those goals are the dreams that are realized.

His father very much wanted to have a major impact on his country politically. I think his family had some kind of political connections and were instrumental in some of the positive things happening in Kenya, but he wanted to come to a school that he heard was one of the finest in the world, Harvard, and he did everything possible to get there. Finally he was successful. I think through a Kennedy Foundation Scholarship or grant he was able to come. He got his education and of course he married and had a son. When he went back to his country, he wasn't received as he had dreamed he would be. He wasn't involved and welcomed as a well educated leader, getting his education in the west, now coming back to help his country be all that it could be. In fact, he was almost rebuffed and it became a major, major problem for him. He became depressed, which was almost like the sore that festered and then was running. He became an alcoholic and we know that he developed diabetes and his legs were amputated. Ultimately he died, I think in an automobile accident, and never realized that dream that he had. Barack's grandfather had a major dream in Kansas. He had his wife and little daughter, this lovely little very bright young child, and he thought that he was going to follow his dream and go to Hawaii as many other people were doing at the time. He was trying to better himself and get a better life for his family so off they went to Hawaii. His dream wasn't really realized as he had planned and thought it would be. The grandmother, certainly her most important dream was this wonderful daughter that she had who had shown all of the promise of being a major player in society, a person who was going to help society be all that it could be. Barack's mother had a good heart. She was very, very intelligent and then all of a sudden here she was going off of this basic path that they had thought they had set for her and she was going all over the world. Every other day she was in a different college. She was in various countries. She was with different gentleman, not in a frivolous sense but in a sense that she was looking for something that she seemingly didn't quite find. The grandmother's dream was definitely deferred and the next thing she found out, she was raising the son of her daughter because her daughter was now living in Indonesia, married to someone else and now had a little girl. The grandson [Barack Obama.] ends up coming back to live with her. She is now raising a bi-racial child and they had been struggling. As did many people at the time, she was struggling with racial issues as a result of her own culture that she had grown up with. She wasn't a twenty or thirty year old person, but a grandmother now raising this little bi-racial teenager who is beginning to feel his oats and struggling with who he was. I give Barack credit because he followed his dream and the goal that he had set for himself of being a very valuable human being and a person that was going to change society. He didn't let the societal walls that often exist stand in the way of him following his dreams. Sometimes he got off the track and he has written about how he played around with drugs or alcohol. Those are usually just sort of numbing types of things that many young people and sometimes older people do in order to kill the pain as they try to seek and find out what they want to be. He managed and we know his struggles made him a stronger person who has incredible mental strength. He managed to pull himself together, went to several schools, came to California, eventually got himself into Columbia - at which point he decided to he was going to be a hermit. [laughs.] By that I mean, he stayed in his room reading and just engulfing himself with education. He was back on the track of 'I want to do this and I'm going to do this.' He then ends up in Illinois and it was really quite fascinating that he ended up in Illinois where he had an opportunity to live among a black population so that he could come to grips with his blackness that he had been struggling with. Hawaii is not quite like some of the other states. They are accustomed to different racial groups and are not quite as race conscious as some of the [mainland.] states. He was just sort of in between, not white, not black, not Japanese, or Asian; he didn't quite know what he was. Most of what he thought a black man should be or a young man should be is the same kind of information young people now get from hip hop, the television or the way we wear our pants, the way we speak or greet people, the kind of language we use; in short that is how he was trying to define himself. But he wasn't comfortable with that because that is not really, really who he was. He wasn't just raised by black parents, he was raised by white parents too, so he didn't have the kind of anger and hatred for a different race that some of the other young people would have. His educational opportunities before coming to Chicago had prepared him to be the leader, the spokesperson, and the analytical thinker that they needed; that is just who he was, that was who he had become. He embraced that and thank goodness he ran into a young woman who had the same kinds of ideas; he and Michelle together made an incredible team. That is why I made the quilt.

The way the quilt is structured, he is in the center. There is an appliquéd portrait in which I used approximately fifteen different skin tone fabrics to make his face, to illustrate the fact that he is not just the black president, he is the president of all the people. In the background behind him, but almost a faint type of background is the Capital Building with the statue on the top. He, of course, has his little flag pin on and surrounding him are those things that surrounded and shaped his life. At the top, there is an area that has the American flag fabric, which represents his mother's, grandmother's, and grandfather's roots in the United States. The bottom of the foundation is the Continent of Africa. I put a little jewel over where Kenya is so that we know - sometimes we think of the African continent the same way we think of a country - each one of the places is separate and unique to itself and so East Africa and Kenya are duly noted. On the sides are two areas where I used fabric with basketballs. Basketball is very, very important to Barack and I don't think he really understood the importance of basketball until his adult life. This was a gift, the only gift, that his father gave him when he saw him at ten years old. He came and brought this basketball. Barack always bounced and played with the ball, but didn't understand that the ball was a means of relaxation, a means for him to go inside himself and be alone and be calm and to think and to analyze. To this day he does the same thing. In fact, I think they are thinking about removing the bowling alley and putting a basketball court in the White House. [laughs.] I'm sure we will hear loud roars from across the country. It won't be an earthquake, it will just be people. On the other side in the corners, I've put four of the major states or locations that were important in his life. There is Illinois and you will see flowers, and those are the flowers for each of those states. I have also cut out the shape of the state and I have a little jewel that shows Chicago, and of course, New York which is where Columbia [University.] is, and Massachusetts, and Hawaii which is where he was born and Massachusetts which is the location of Harvard University and also where he really was able to define who he was: a person that could fit into any culture and who didn't just have to be a black man, a white man, [or]a bi-racial man - he could just be an intelligent man, a leader. When he was elected to the Harvard Review, I think that was just something that let him know that he truly was a leader.

Those are some of the major inspirations I felt about Barack Obama, but as I was thinking about the quilt I thought about my ancestors, [my mother and grandmother.] who also had dreams. They were originally from Mississippi. They were sharecroppers living in Port Gibson a little area in Mississippi. She had quite a few children, thirteen to be exact. [KM Wow.] She had ten boys and three girls; no she had four girls and nine boys. The oldest boys were like the fathers because her husband, my grandfather was a preacher. What is interesting about both of them, they both knew how to read and write and for black people in the south to have the tremendous skill of reading and writing is truly rare. He was an avid reader who had tremendous penmanship. But he was also a preacher, an itinerant preacher which meant he was traveling all over the place and we know that there wasn't the type of birth control that we have now so that is why she had so many children [laughs.] With every return home and leave, the next thing you know she was pregnant again. Her oldest boys, three of her oldest boys, the three oldest children were more like the fathers than big brothers. They helped with the sharecropping when the father was gone and there came a point when they were teenagers that they decided enough of this, we have to get out of here. Also it was a time when the Great Migration was taking place so they decided to leave. Before leaving, they went down the road to one of the neighboring farm down there, that had some daughters and all three of them got engaged to three sisters and within two days of each other they all three got married. They packed their things and off they went north. They informed my grandmother that they were leaving to go to St. Louis because there were jobs up there. My grandmother of course almost had a stroke. When her husband returned home from a preaching trip, she told him their oldest sons were leaving and she couldn't stand that, she had to go too. She carried on. Shortly thereafter he agreed and they packed up the rest of the little people and off they all went to St. Louis, Missouri.

My mother is the third youngest of the thirteen children, the youngest girl, and the only one of the thirteen children who graduated from college. As fate would have it, when she graduated from Stowe Teachers College she ended up becoming pregnant and at that time the State of Missouri did not allow teachers to be married or to have children. There I was and so she went to this special facility for unwed mothers and I was born there. She felt my birth was her dream deferred. I ended up living in foster care with nineteen boys. I grew up there until I was twelve and then I went to live with her. The Missouri State law pertaining to teachers was relaxed. During that time, she was able to remain a teacher. As an infant I did not know her as my mother, I knew her as a lovely lady who came to visit me and things like that, but I didn't know her as my mother because you can see I talk a lot. I might have told somebody and then she would have lost her job and that would have been a catastrophe. My mother was also a draftsman and was one of the first female black draftsmen who drew the blueprints for battleships during World War II in Puget Sound.

I ended up as a musician. I started my piano lessons with eight different children, a public service that they provided for children that were wards of the state. I ended up with a Bachelor of Music degrees from Fontbonne College, which was an all girls Catholic College [which is now a co-ed University.] near Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. I won a scholarship and was the first black student there. I then decided to move to New York City to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Company, [but as blacks were only allowed in the chorus.] I decided I didn't want to do that. I became a junior high school music teacher, have a Bachelor of Music degree [from Fontbonne College.], and a Master's of Music in Ethnomusicology Degree from Brooklyn College which is the study of music of non-European cultures. I've also written several books. One of them is the Methods book for the Kalimba, which is the African thumb piano. I have a professional diploma in administration, Administrative Policies in Urban Education from Fordlham University. I retired as a public high school principal in New York City [sixteen.] years ago and feel myself getting old. During my educational, professional period of education in New York City I created several programs. One of them is called The LYFE Program, L-y-f-e [which means Living for the Young Family through Education.], and in fact I received a Proclamation from [the United States.] Congress because of the program. It started with two schools and with a grant from the city council. The City Council President of New York City, Carol Bellamy, was instrumental in creating a group that focused a taskforce on teenage pregnancy and my program became the living product of that taskforce. The [LYFE.] Program operated in regular high schools, not special schools or segregated schools for young people in that situation, but they were learning laboratories. The infants of these children provided a learning laboratory in regular schools. The children were two months old to two years old and I was instrumental in changing quite a few [state and city.] laws and rules to make the program a reality. That was my dream: to reach back and help teenagers know just because you became pregnant and the little baby is now here - whether you should or not have is a moot point at this junction - we need to do all that we can to address the education of this new human being and also help you get settled down and get focused and get some dreams and goals of your own.

KM: How did quiltmaking come into your life?

CB: Quiltmaking came into my life because it was a dream that I always wanted to quilt when I retired. My grandmother quilted. In fact one of my inspirations was that when they left Mississippi there was a large Oak tree in the yard and she picked up a leaf as they were leaving and put it in her suitcase or bag, whatever she had and took it with her to St. Louis and used that leaf as a pattern to start a quilt. She never quite finished it as she was doing everything by hand. My mother worked on that quilt and I eventually saw everybody working on the quilt and now I have it and I finished the quilt. I said, 'Oh this is quite interesting.' I enjoyed the hand work of quilting. I like the fabric. I like working with fabric, color, and design of quilting. But I found that I'm really not a bed quilter, I'm more of an art quilter. I'm very interested in interpreting historical situations, poems and other pieces of literature. Two of my quilts have been awarded ribbons. I compete. [I enjoy being.] a competitive quilter. In fact, I have a quilt right now at the Mid-Atlantic Quilt Festival that will open next Wednesday, [February 26 - March 1, 2009.]. My latest quilt was juried in. It's called "The Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar. As you can see, I'm caught up in poetry. Two of my other quilts which have received ribbons. One deals with slavery and [is a history of the Underground Railroad and is part of my series.] called "Echoes of the Ancestors," It starts out based on the poem "Sympathy" also by Paul Laurence Dunbar with the line, 'I know what the caged bird feels, alas!' My quilt starts with the bird in a cage and we go through [thirty-six.] segments and then at the end the bird is free. The unique thing about this quilt is the patches are not connected with fabric, but with chain links [to signify slavery.]. It also has the crops of slavery with actual tobacco, cotton and rice and other things of that nature. The most important thing is I have a real stained glass window representing the significance of the church and the Underground Railroad. That one has won some awards. Last year I had another quilt that was an elephant, called "Ebony and Ivory" and it too was awarded a ribbon. This quilt focuses on the importance of the African elephant in the growth and establishment of the state of Connecticut, because when we think of slavery we always think of the south and frequently forget that the north had economic interests in slavery also. Over four million slaves died getting those elephant tusks from the killing fields to the shorelines so that they could be shipped and transported to the state of Connecticut. The state of Connecticut became involved because an inventor there came up with a machine that could slice very thin veneer off of the African elephant tusks to make piano keys. All of the piano keys in the world were made in Connecticut, the Wurlitzer, Steinway and all the organ and piano keys were made there. It is really quite fascinating. The town that started all of this was called Ivoryton, but now it is called Essex. I give Connecticut a lot of credit, they don't hide the fact that this was a dark period in their life - it was a dark and white period. It was dark in the sense that people and animals lost their lives, but it was a bright period because it helped them become established as an economic power on the East Coast. That is what I kind of do in terms of quilting.

KM: Let me ask you another question. What are your plans for "A Dream Realized"?

CB: My plans. I don't know. I was just so caught up in the finishing of it and the fact that it was here, but I had not thought about the next part, the next step. It was like giving birth and you forget that it becomes a toddler. [laughs.] Several of my other quilting sisters in this group had their pieces for sale and I said, 'no.' Now, I realize that wasn't a very good idea that I should put it for sale, so last night I contacted Sue Walen, our leader, to let her know that I would put it up for sale. I would sell it if someone were interested in purchasing it, but I would hope that they would understand the whole impact of what that piece does, not just to get it to match the couch.

KM: You are in the exhibit, "President Obama: A Celebration in Art Quilts.' How did you find out about the exhibit?

CB: I received an email to ask if I was interested in participating and so I responded and the next thing I knew I was involved with truly the most incredible group of women. [laughs.] I have learned so much working with this group of fantastic women because I was not technologically used to all of these things as all of them are. It took me forever to figure out how to join the group [on yahoo.], but once I was in the group I discovered they blog and they communicate and the level of instant communication is mind-boggling to me. It's almost like free thinking just happening on this little thing that sits on your desk and everyone is so helpful. It really has been quite an exciting journey for me to learn so many things and to meet so many interesting people. The women are all unique, we are all different but internally we are all alike. Everyone seems to have a very good inner spirit, a good soul. We care about each other. No discrimination in terms of 'No, I am professional,' or 'I'm not professional. I do more than you,' or 'My quilt is this type and when you look at the quilts you see…' It is so interesting to see the different interpretations of the concept of Obama, Barack Obama our new president, the 44th president, first black president of the United States. To see over sixty women can take that kernel of a thought and from their imagination and creativity come up with pieces of art that are so uniquely different and yet so beautiful. It is absolutely unbelievable.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

CB: In the exhibit?

KM: The exhibit.

CB: In our group? All of them. One of them that fascinates me and I don't remember the name, but there is a young woman [Carol Ann Krueger.] who did her portrait using all beads. I embellish a lot. I use beads a lot. It never would cross my mind to use only beads. The whole piece is done with beads. Sue [Susan Shie.] wrote. She has writings and thoughts all over her quilt top and the portrait isn't necessarily realistic. It is not actually his picture. There is a man there. What is more important is all of the things she has written around him and about him and the other symbolism that she has there. There is one quilt where [Eileen Doughty.] has a dog that is sleeping in the grass and you think what in the world does a dog, [called "Every Dog's Dream".] have to do with Obama, but it has to do with the fact that the two girls want a dog and this dog is lying in her quilt. The dog is lying on the ground with this little [cartoon.] balloon above its head and in there you see the two little girls petting a dog and the actual dog is sleeping. So that is the dog's dream to be selected to be one of the dogs that the girls have in the White House. Sue Walen's quilt ["Home."] has the White House with the family outside and a little girl looking out of the window and one of them jumping rope and playing on the outside. Just some of them are just symbolic, words of "Hope," "Peace," "Love", using the American flag fabric. It is amazing how you can see so many different designs just using a simple piece of red, white, and blue fabric with some stars on it, with circles, with the emblem of his logo that we are all so familiar with, to see how many different ways that was used. The one quilter has the logo and then she has cut out hands, different colored, texture hands from wool and she has them overlapping, encompassing the logo. They are just absolutely incredible. I don't know all of them, but those are some of them that come to mind and as we are talking.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

CB: I belong to the guild. I am on the board of the major quilt guild here. I love this guild because it involves everybody. Some guilds focus on either traditional, Amish quilts, or more modern quilts, or art quilts but they don't have quilters that encompass the whole gambit of this movement, this fiber art movement and our guild does. My guild DOQ [Durham-Orange Quilters Guild.] and I also belong to another quilt group which is the African American Quilt Circle, AAQC, and find it absolutely incredible to be with that group of women who are focusing on quilting, not from a competitive standpoint - competitive meaning that you have to follow the rules of the quilt police - they are more interested in expressing an idea or a thought or a feeling and using [African.] fabrics that are vibrant and exciting. It doesn't matter what the color wheel is, whether it is a complementary color, it is whatever color they feel will signify or represent what they are trying to express and that level of freedom is quite interesting.

KM: What are your favorite techniques and materials?

CB: All of them. I like to embellish and transform fabric. I like to paint on fabric using various techniques be it paint sticks or fabric paint, transfer images to the fabric. I'm now playing around with a lot of other mediums, paint mediums, things from the art world that I'm learning and introducing myself to. Beads, a lot of beads. I also do art to wear, not just art quilt and some things with my art to wear, doing the same thing, painting and embellishing. In fact, one of my major exciting works in these genre that I did was an ensemble called "Chi Wari" which is based on a headdress that is worn in Africa. I made a coat from silk dupioni and on the back I have this appliqué embellished headdress which is unbelievable. I also utilized thread painting and all kinds of other techniques in the quilting. Instead of regular seams connecting the sleeves to the other components of the coat, I used over six hundred crystal beads, so the beads are sewn so that the parts are faggoted together so that everything is held together. The most important part is I made shoes. I quilted my dupioni silk shoe tops which had leather soles not slippers, real shoes with leather soles and heels and I made a pocketbook that goes with it.

KM: Very cool.

CB: It won Second Place at the Mid-Atlantic [Quilt Festival Art to Wear Category.]. Just playing around with all of the mediums and the art things that are available. I use cracked ice which is a [liquid.] plastic on the elephant quilt because I wanted to have water. I wanted it to look like water. I used puff paint. On the elephant quilt also I have rocks] and wood at the shoreline and sand embedded in the quilt. You use puff paint and then you can drop an object in there and once it dries then you put a heat gun on it and the paint will swell up and trap the object you placed there and it won't fall off. "The Mask" that is currently at Mid-Atlantic was made [using stiffened fabric to make a relief mask.] based on a papier-mâché mask that I made of our son when he was small. I cut the eyes out because that poem deals with who wears the mask that it hides our pain and our sorrow. ['We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.'] I cut the eye sockets larger so you can see inside because the mask is sitting up off the quilt but when you look inside I have a mirror and the final question is 'Are you wearing the mask?' [laughs.]

KM: Very nice. Describe your studio.

CB: [laughs.] I shouldn't say like most quilters because mine is probably junkier, but it has everything. It is not just quilting fabric in there. I have a kiln in there because I make buttons and I make beads and sometimes I make the beads that I want to go with a garment that I'm making or the buttons that I want. All kinds of thread. I use every kind of thread known to man. Metallic threads, rayon threads, all kinds of threads. I have two sewing machines- my Bernina and also a Viking. The Viking is a computer so I really don't use it for the heavy duty types of experimental things where I'm sewing through leather and things of that nature because like a car it might get out of line. I have large tables. Oh you know what I'm doing now; I'm using a lot of DVDs. They are tremendous. Books in the past were important but the DVDs now are very, very helpful especially for someone like me. I'm getting older and I don't remember, retain as well as I did before but with the DVD you can. It is like you are in a class and you can always rewind and play it over again. You can watch the technique. You can try it and watch it again and that is absolutely an incredible way of learning new skills and new techniques. I do a lot of things that are taking place in England and Australia. They are the leaders. Those countries are the leaders in embellishment and in art quilting techniques at the present. The Japanese are also very good with design. I travel a lot. We travel every two months. In fact I just returned from Turkey and we are getting ready to go [on a cruise from Hong Kong to.] Dhabi on the 10th of March.

KM: How have your travels influenced your quilting?

CB: They influence my thinking because it allows you to see the design, how people deal with design. When we were in South Africa to see how women use color to design, to decorate the exterior of their homes or the clothing or the bead work that they do. That was another thing that really encouraged my beading is seeing how the various cultures use beads. It is fascinating also to see how the cultures, Australia, the Maui and some of the other cultural groups are so much alike. The Northwest Indians here, the Southwest Indians, the Indians in South America, all of the cultural groups, even though we are far apart seem to be doing the same types of things in design and it didn't just start yesterday. These things have been going on for hundreds of years, but they are all very much the same. The commonest among design and materials and techniques is really quite fascinating and using it now in a contemporary way.

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

CB: I'm pretty much one person, one project at a time. I do an awful lot of research. All of the research helps me to finalize the approach and the way I want to do it. With the "A Dream Deferred," I didn't just base it on that one poem, Langston Hughes used it in a montage on "A Dream Deferred" and I read all of the poems and things. It was from his Harlem series. I read all of the things from that series. With Paul [Laurence.] Dunbar, I read about his life, what influenced him, the groups that they hung out with, the other writers or artists at that time, what shaped their thinking so that I begin to think the same way and how can I transfer what they were trying to say then and apply it to what may be happening now or the approach I would like to bring to an issue that is contemporary.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

CB: [laughs.] As a person who was trying to teach the history of all people alive, all cultures alive. A person who tried to present it so that it was fresh and caused us to take a second look at something that maybe we heard or knew about or did when we were younger and that same thing can be applied to the present based on an interpretation that I may have brought to a piece that I'm working on.

KM: What dreams have you deferred?

CB: Oh let me see, what dreams have I deferred? Not really many. I'm really a fortunate person in that we have been married [an interracial marriage.] for forty-five years now, we have a [forty year old.] son, he is doing fine. Oh my dream deferred, I don't have grandchildren. [laughs.] Our son is not married. He is a computer geek and he is in Arizona. These computer people, the head hunters have him move around, so he moves around so much and works so many weird strange hours that he doesn't have time to have a social life, which means that I don't have a daughter-in-law and therefore no grandchildren. That is my deferred dream. [laughs.]

KM: Is there anything else you would like to share that we haven't touched upon?

CB: I just think that quilting is such a spectacular craft, a medium to bring people together and start the conversations. I was just absolutely astounded with my Underground Railroad, the reception it received at one of the exhibits here in the south. White and black viewers were all touched in different ways but also in a common way and it was really quite fascinating. It wasn't with anger or anything of that nature and that pleased me tremendously because that's all I'm trying to do is to provide art work that maybe has some historical relevance or significance that allows people to think and reevaluate their approach to whatever issue we are wrestling with at the moment. [Finally, my mothers, both biological and foster, were avid lovers of poetry. They were especially partial to the works of Negro poets. In retrospect one could say I view myself and President Barack Obama as examples of our families "Dreams Realized".]

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day and talking and sharing with me. You were wonderful.

CB: [laughs.] Thank you.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 2:52.


“Carol Beck,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,