Carolyn Mazloomi




Carolyn Mazloomi


Carolyn Mazloomi talks about her quilt 'He Stands on the Shoulders of Many', a story quilt made for the 2009 exhibit "Quilts for Obama" at the Historical Society of Washington, DC, as well as the Women of Color Quilters' Network, which Mazloomi founded in 1985.




Carolyn Mazloomi


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Susan Quinn


West Chester, Ohio


Kim Greene


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Carolyn Mazloomi. Carolyn is in West Chester, Ohio, and I'm in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is April 21, 2009. It is now 9:03 a.m. Carolyn, thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "He Stands on the Shoulders of Many."

Carolyn Mazloomi (CM): That quilt was inspired by the Selma to Montgomery March that occurred in 1965. When I think about being a citizen in this country I think about the right to vote because that is one of the greatest treasures of being an American, that freedom and that right to vote. It was because of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march that there was legislation that got African Americans the right to vote. That Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights lasted three weeks and one of the turning points of that march was what we call "Bloody Sunday." "Bloody Sunday" occurred March 7, 1965, when there were 600 civil rights marchers that headed out east of Selma, Alabama, on US Route 80 and they only got six blocks. There was a bridge, the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and when they approached that bridge to cross, the state and local lawmen attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. They drove them back into Selma and that was a big turning point for the civil rights movement because there was a lot of media there and across the nation local well national television shows were interrupted with a broadcast of what was happening in Selma, Alabama. It was the first time America, the nation, got an opportunity to see really what was going on with the civil rights workers and people were horrified that these marchers were beaten down like they were. Initially this march started out with 600 people, but by the time three weeks later when they actually got a court order to set out to Montgomery [Alabama.] there were over 3,200 people and then they ended up, the final count was 25,000 marchers. Twenty-five thousand people from all over the country came to join in that march and that would not have happened had not the news been broadcast across the nation that people were being brutalized just for attempting this civil rights march. That was a catalyst of this voting rights act so that was the inspiration for my quilt because when I talk about the President [Barack Obama.] standing on the shoulders of many, it took the sacrifice of many African Americans, not only during this period in our history but from slavery until this period in our history., many sacrifices, politically and socially to get to this point that we have an African American elected to the highest elected office of the land. That was the inspiration and in particularly I think about Congressman John Lewis because I vividly remember seeing him as a young person watching this on television, seeing him get hit in the head by state troopers and mauled by the dogs and now this man is a United States Congressman and he was one of the inspirations for that piece as well because he is a very gentle, very gentle spiritual soul who had been through so much and indeed the President stands on many shoulders. When I started out making the quilt I wanted a map in the quilt to indicate geographically the route of the march and the quilt is appliquéd, is hand and machine quilted. Very seldom now I have the opportunity to make quilts because I'm so busy doing other things, however, it was important to me to participate in this particular exhibition because of the occasion.

KM: Tell me more about the exhibition.

CM: Roland Freeman called me initially when he had the idea of an exhibition ["Quilts for Obama: An Exhibit Celebration of our 44th President" at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.] and asked me if I would find quilters to participate in the exhibition. I suggested that the quilts be in small format because the quilters only had a month to make the quilts and it was during the Christmas holiday and Thanksgiving holiday and people were really, really busy and didn't have that much time. I looked to members of the Women of Color Quilters Network to pool artists who might be interested in the project and who that I knew could create work in a short period of time that would be during Thanksgiving and Christmas. I told Roland Freeman after I got the list together and contacted everybody that he was getting the best of the best, the best that Women of Color Quilters Network had to offer. One of the things too that I asked for artists when making these quilts, I told them that this is not just about the physical image of President Obama. I didn't want to see 44 quilts that are portraits of the President because this exhibition that they were creating for was about more than the image of one man. Actually it was about the journey of African Americans as they weave their way through the social and political politics of this country. It is about the journey, it was about the journey of African Americans in this country from the slave ships to the White House. I wanted them to address that story, because that's how President Obama was able to be the president. We've been through so much in this country socially and politically and economically and every strata, every facet of this country being African American and African American culture is woven through it so I wanted to see the artists address this history and they did not disappoint me. The quilts are some of the best works to ever come out of the Women of Color.

KM: Is "He Stands on the Shoulders of Many" typical of your style?

CM: That quilt is typical of my style. I enjoy making story quilts. I enjoy making narrative quilts. I find the work more interesting if I have a theme or a story in which to work from, some theme that I want to address in my quilts. Usually the quilts are either based on something political, of a political nature or they address issues that are close to my heart. Personal issues that I enjoy, such as music. My quilts either deal with music, jazz particularly, or women's issues because I'm very much involved in both.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

CM: I have no plans for it. [laughs.] It's been in the show and I've received the quilt back maybe a month or two ago. I have no plans to show it again. That's that. It is here and it will be in my collection. I collect quilts. I have over 700 of them [KM remarks "wow."] and not mine, [laughs.] but I have over 700 quilts. That quilt is historically important to me so I probably will just keep it in my collection.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

CM: My interest in quiltmaking has been more from the aspect of an organizer. 25 years ago I founded the Women of Color Quilters Network and that's been my life work and the making of "He Stands on the Shoulders of Many" was a departure for me because the past four or five years I haven't been able to make that many quilts because I've been involved with running the Women of Color Quilters Network and that's like a full time job, so it doesn't leave time for much of anything else. I started the organization as a means to let African American quiltmakers know about the cultural significance as well as the monetary value of their quilts. We started out with nine people and over the years it's grown tremendously. One of the things that we do is present quilts, quilt exhibitions to museums around the country. We give workshops around the country to children and youth, try to interest them in learning to quilt because when you think in terms of the quilt population of African American quilts within the realm of quilting in this country, there are not that many of us so it is important to me to try and interest young people in learning how to quilt. That is very important, because I think about the future.

KM: You mentioned Women of Color Quilters Network, do you belong to any other art or quilt groups?

CM: I am on the board of the Studio Art Quilt Associates. I'm a member of a local quilt guild here in my city, West Chester, Ohio. I'm a member of the Women's Caucus of the Arts. The American Quilting Association. I'm sorry the National Quilting Association. That's it so far as quilting organizations.

KM: Why is it important to you to belong to these groups?

CM: I'm interested in communing with other quiltmakers. I'm interested in learning more about quiltmaking. The Women of Color Quilters Network is about preservation. Outside of that with other groups I'm interested in the camaraderie, I'm interested in learning. I have never had time, I've never had the opportunity to really take any quilt classes. I'm totally self-taught so I enjoy reading about techniques, I enjoy being around people that utilize new techniques and I can see pretty much what's going on and hopefully take away something that I can utilize in my own work. It's about learning and it's about camaraderie. I often say in my travels, and I travel across the country at least once a week. I never meet a stranger in the quilt community. Quilters are very special people. It doesn't matter what region of the country you are in or what group of people, quilters are just very special folks. You don't know any strangers.

KM: You curate, you write, you lecture, you collect, what is your favorite thing to do?

CM: My favorite thing to do is curate shows and write the books that accompany the shows. I think it is important for the sake of history to have these shows and especially have the books that commemorate these exhibitions because it is like a footprint that, especially for the network, for the African American quilter, like a footprint on the canvass of American quiltmaking. It documents our participation in American quiltmaking and that is very important to me, it means everything to see that African American quilters are duly recorded in history, quilt history as being active participants. Especially I'm interested in the maker of contemporary quilts within the African American community because prior to ten years ago there was not that much emphasis on the contemporary quilts made within the African American community, most of the emphasis was on improvisational quilts. It is very important for me to see that these contemporary quilters carve out a niche in history for themselves to make their presence known and to let people know that African American quilting is more than improvisational quilting. We as a community participate or rather make all types of quilts, not just improvisational quilts. There are people that make traditional American Patchwork and appliqué quilts, as well as art quilts and the improvisational quilts. That has to be documented and it has to be written about so I see myself as an instrument to make that happen. This is how I like to spend my time and it is my favorite thing to do.

KM: Whose works are you drawn to and why?

CM: I have many favorite quilters and of course I think, well for the most part there are American quilters. I admire the quilts of Gwen Magee from Jackson, Mississippi, the stories that she addresses, the issues that she addresses in her quilts are important and they make people stop and think, as well as being well crafted. Her quilts are impeccable, the technique impeccable. I like the quilts of Marion Coleman, again these are narrative quilts. Again, she is one that tackles issues and I like to see that and they are well crafted. Another favorite quilter is Penny Sisto who is not only, she is a dear friend as well and I always look forward to seeing new quilts by Penny Sisto because they are very dramatic, visually dramatic as well as being seeped in stories. Both she and Gwen Magee, and then there are two young quilters within the Women of Color Quilters Network, Carolyn Crump and-- [door bell rings.] Oh my gosh did you hear that?

KM: I did.

CM: Just one moment.

KM: That is okay, go ahead. [laughs.]

CM: I'm expecting an exhibition bag.

KM: Go right ahead.

CM: Gosh. Okay, I have someone to take care of that. I'm sorry.

KM: That is okay. You had Carolyn Crump.

CM: Yes. They are serious art quilters that make abstract work, they both dye and paint their fabrics, they use all types of interesting techniques. Carolyn Crump's work is three dimensional and just mind boggling in it's form. She has not been exhibited that much but hopefully within the next eighteen months she will have several major exhibitions and her work will be introduced on a national level. Both she and Sonji Hunt I think are going to do very well, very well in the quilt world because their work is so unusual. So unusual, so I think people are going to be in for some big surprises with these two young folks. Those are my five favorites.

KM: That is a wonderful list too. You mentioned collecting quilts and that you have more than 700 quilts. What criteria do you use for purchasing a quilt for your collection?

CM: Most of the quilts are African American made quilts and they are African American contemporary quilts but then on the other side I collect all types of quilts, everybody's quilts but most of them are African American. The quilt has to touch my spirit, it has to speak to me. I have to be able to live with it. I rotate the hanging of the quilts in my home and in my studio and when I can wake up and look at it first thing in the morning and want to see it all day long then I know okay that's the quilt for me. I have to be able to live with it. It has to touch my spirit. It has to mean something to me. That's the criteria. I have no criteria in so far as technique. I don't look for particular artists, the quilt has to speak to me. That's the criteria. It is a totally, it is a spiritual thing. I have a wide range of quilts. I have quilts by Faith Ringgold as well as most of the major artists within the Women of Color Quilters Network. There are few favorite artists like Marion Coleman and Faith Ringgold and Carolyn Crump. For my favorite artists I may have several of their quilts. It's like candy. It is like chocolate. [KM laughs.] I can't have just one. I think that's my personality too, compulsive. I can't have just one of anything. My favorite quilters I may have several of their quilts or dozens. [both laugh.] It just depends.

KM: You mentioned your studio, so describe your studio.

CM: My studio is in my home on the lower level. It's 1,100 square feet and I have. It serves not only as my studio space but my husband calls it "My Art Gallery" because I have many of my favorite paintings downstairs and the work that I love I have to live with it, I want to see it, I want to be surrounded by it. I want to see it first thing when I wake up in the morning. I want to live with it because it makes me happy. In my studio I have not only quilts but I have my favorite paintings up as well and my sewing machine that I'm sort of; I'm compulsive about organization as well, so everything has to be in its place and all the fabrics are arranged according to color. I guess like every other quilter, we are very picky about our studio space and how it looks and how it's arranged that it can work best for what we do. My studio is like my sanctuary as well. My office space is on that level as well. There is one corner for my computer and books and whatnot. I could actually live there and not come up for air for a couple of weeks. [laughs.] It truly is a sanctuary. It's an environment that I enjoy. The quilts are scattered out all over my home.

KM: What do you think is the biggest challenge confronting quiltmakers today?

CM: For the art quilters it's acceptance of the art form within the larger art community. I think that is a challenge for some quilters. Different groups though have different challenges. The Women of Color Quilters Network and the African American quilters that belong to that organization have a totally different set of challenges and that is just the acceptance of the work period. Any kind of work that they produce if it is not improvisational work. The challenges vary with the group, it depends on the objectives, organizations, and the objectives of the quilters themselves.

KM: How have you seen things change in the 25 years that the Women of Color Quilters Network has been around?

CM: There have been lots of changes in so far as first of all technology has brought so much to the quilt world, introducing new tools and new ways of doing things, new materials that are all incorporated into quilts and quiltmakers using these tools and materials to create quilts so that has been huge. It's made quiltmaking easier and technically more challenging and it's brought about a more sophisticated type of quilts, a different kind of quilts. I think the greatest change has been in technology. Then the again another change is seeing more quilts in museums. It's now like old hat. 25 years ago you didn't see that many in museums that would devote entire gallery to quilt exhibitions or space for quilt exhibitions and now you see that a lot and it's become quite normal to see the country's museums have quilt exhibitions.

KM: Why are quilts and quiltmakers important to you?

CM: Quilts are important because, physical quilts are important to me because they give me joy, they bring me joy, they bring me joy. That's the first thing and then the second thing I think about the historical aspect of quilts. I'm interested in recording that history, that is important to record quilt history because it gives us a window into American society, families and lives and social structure of people living here in this country. It is fascinating and it's important. That's what is important and then the quiltmakers themselves, people. There is just a wide variety of people that I've met and everybody brings something interesting to the table so that's been an interesting point for me, meeting quilters of all races, gender across the country and sharing that common love of quiltmaking.

KM: You talked about quilts speaking to you. What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

CM: The first thing I look at are the images in the quilts. I look at the image and the colors speak to me, color combinations speak to me and I look at the craftsmanship. The first thing I see, I see the image. The next thing I see is the color. Then I'm going to hone in closer and look at the technique. The graphics grab me first. If the quilt, as a buyer, as a collector, if the quilt is not well made I don't care how strong the graphics are, then that's not a quilt I'm going to take home.

KM: What are you working on right now?

CM: [laughs.] Currently I'm writing three books, two of which are behind schedule. Actually one is two years behind schedule so I'm writing these three books, I'm curating two new exhibitions, I'm in the process of organizing those exhibitions now so the next year and a half is pretty full for me with the books and the exhibitions. I started my own publishing company three years ago and initially I started out wanting this company just to publish the books for the Network, for the Network exhibitions, however it is not panning out like that, we are starting to do more books for other folks so that is keeping me pretty busy too. All the publications are quilt related though so that is a good thing. I find myself doing everything but making quilts and that kind of makes me sad but maybe when I finish all of my projects I can come back around full circle to where I started and that's making quilts.

KM: How do you balance your time?

CM: [laughs.] That is a good question. How do I balance time? There is no balance. [both laugh.] There is no balance. I wish I could find a balance. You just do what you have to do and if things fall short you just try and catch up with it the next day. A nice happy balance and a happy medium for me would be the inclusion of making more quilts and having time to actually sit down and sew but it is not like that, so all I can do right now is just curate shows and write books and then there is a lot of traveling in between that. Those two events, these two jobs just kind of consume my life right now so there is nothing else. I don't find that there is any balance in life. I often say there is no such thing as a "super woman" and there isn't. I feel I can't do it all, but I try and do the best that I can with the jobs that I do and balancing family in between all this other, all the other things.

KM: What does your family think of your quiltmaking and your involvement in quilts?

CM: [laughs.] I have three sons and they are all grown and they appreciate my quilts and my husband appreciates my quilts. They've always appreciated my quilts. I'm sure all of them wish that I had more time for them because I travel so much, as well as being involved with the books and the exhibitions, so I'm sure they wish I had more time for them. I can't say that they are selfish like that because that is not selfish, that is just human nature as the nature of family. They do recognize the importance of quiltmaking in my life and they appreciate my quilts so I'm lucky in that aspect, they appreciate my quilts and cherish them and recognize them as art works, important art works.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

CM: My legacy and so forth with quiltmaking will be the founding of the Women of Color Quilters Network and finding a recording the contributions of African American quiltmakers to American quiltmaking, especially for the contemporary African American quiltmaker. It's important for me that I do everything that I can to record their works, to exhibit their works so that they have a place in quilt history.

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

CM: Not really. I probably will think of a hundred things when we hang up. [laughs.]

KM: Isn't that human nature.

CM: I can't think of anything right now.

KM: Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make a distinction?

CM: I don't make a distinction. I've never really made a distinction. To me there is the big brew-ha-ha between the definition of art and quilts and craft and quilts that doesn't enter into my realm because I think everything we create if it is a feast to the eyes, it's art. I don't make a separation. I've always looked at quilters as artists because they are creating. I don't care whether it's traditional or art quilts or contemporary quilts or improvisational quilts, everybody, every artist that's made those quilts, they are artists, they are creating art. There is no difference between those words. It's just a play on words. We are all artists and that's how I see it and that's how I've seen it since day one.

KM: I think this is a great way to conclude. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me, and we are going to conclude our interview at 9:49.



“Carolyn Mazloomi,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,