Printer Friendly

Faith Ringgold: artist-storyteller.

Faith Ringgold: artist/storyteller

Looking carefully

Throughout the timetables of history, artists have communicated their ideas, thoughts and feelings to us using a variety of media--from painting in caves to performance art and beyond. Because artists speak through their art, they must give careful consideration to the medium that will best deliver their message.

The "story quilt" has become Faith Ringgold's medium for expression. The narrative quilt fulfills her desire to tell an extended story by combining her richly painted images with written monologues. She says, "In making quilts I am able to communicate ideas I would not be able to communicate in any other way. They are a platform for mixing art and ideas so that neither suffers." The many themes and stories of her quilts stem from her childhood memories and experiences of growing up in Harlem. They teach about African-American life, culture and history, and speak of family, age, loyalty and American life--past and present.

The Church Picnic Story Quilt (centerspread) depicts a humorous and lively scene of a church picnic in the early 1900s. The church members, in their best Sunday clothes, sit upon brightly colored quilts with their well-prepared lunches spread before them, but their attention is focused on the couple standing in the center. Why do you think the picnickers' attention is drawn to these two central figures? What relationships might there be between the other church members attending the picnic? What event might they be celebrating? From reading these assembled images, what story do you think is being told?

Faith Ringgold does not limit our interpretation of the story to the images alone, but rather extends her story through a written monologue which appears above and below the painted scene. Using traditionally African-American dialect, the narrator describes the day's events and happenings at the picnic. Which picnicker do you think might be telling the story? Note the following passage and look for the characters and scenes being discussed.

"The Reverend and Miss Molly sure `nuff in love at the picnic. The way he took her in his arms, and she look up at him so tender. They in love chile. The Reverend Ma and the Ole Reverend, his two boys, and those ole sisters of his all of `em with they mouth gapped open like they see a ghost. And Reverend and Miss Molly just keepa studyin each other ain payin no `ttention to nobody. Lord I tell you. What this world coming to?"

Faith Ringgold successfully combines painted images and narrative text using the quilt as her medium to communicate a story about the intricate relationships in African-American family life.

Traditions in quilting

Quilts were first created for a practical, utilitarian reason--to keep families warm and comfortable. In early America, quilts were made out of salvaged remnants of cloth, so as not to waste precious material. As time went on, quiltmaking became a unique creative outlet for women. The designs they developed reflected their environment, as well as the religious and political concerns of the times. The primary function of these quilts, however, remained as bedcovers.

Quiltmaking has been traditionally the domain of women. Its techniques and skills have been passed down through generations of mothers and daughters. A young woman's first quilt is usually made from long strips of fabric stitched together across the width of a bed. More complex quilts involve stitching a pattern or design. These designs often are framed with a border made of long, narrow strips of cloth or small pieces stitched into squares and sewn together.

Ringgold uses these traditional borders in her quilts, but instead of framing a design, her borders frame a painting on canvas. Why might she have chosen not to frame her painting in wood or metal? Ringgold seems to want to anchor her visual as well as written stories in a background "story" of tradition and heritage. Thus, her "story quilts" have layers of meaning. In The Church Picnic, as in her other works, the story she tells is one of her African-American heritage--what is it like to be a member of the Freedom Baptist Church in 1909? Although her means of storytelling may be unique, Ringgold's contemporary quilt is steeped in tradition. In her hands, the quilt changes from a functional object to an art form, from a bedcover to a wall hanging.

Key concepts . Artist choose carefully the media that will best communicate their ideas, thoughts and feelings. . The quilt can be an effective medium in which to tell a story, record the past and express the present. . Quilt-making is regarded as a traditionally feminine art form that is passed from generation to generation.


Faith Ringgold was born in the 1930s in Harlem, a predominantly African-American neighborhood in New York City. Her childhood memories and experiences would provide a constant source of inspiration for her work. Ringgold graduated from City College of New York with a degree in fine art, after which she began teaching art in the New York City public schools, a position she held for 18 years.

Ringgold's interest in sewing dates back to her childhood. This influence is reflected in her early cloth paintings and soft sculpture works. It was not until 1980 that Ringgold created her first quilt, Echoes of Harlem, a collaborative project she completed with her mother, Willie Posey, who as a child herself, made quilts along with her mother. This family legacy of collaborative works continues with Ringgold and her daughter, Michele Wallace.

In 1983, Ringgold completed her first story quilt, Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemina?, in which she both illustrated and wrote a spectacular tale of Aunt Jemina portrayed as a successful business woman. This quilt hung at the entrance to her twenty year retrospective exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1984. From this point forward, the story quilt became the focus of Ringgold's celebrated work.

Other well-known quilts include The Purple Quilt, the only story quilt which is not based on Ringgold's own story; and an autobiographical quilt entitled, Change: Faith Ringgold's Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Story Quilt.

Faith Ringgold currently resides in San Diego, where she is a full professor at the University of California; and in New York, where her Harlem apartment also serves as her studio. She has won numerous awards and honorary degrees. Her work is exhibited nationwide and appears in many publications. Faith Ringgold is one of the major African-American artists working today.

Suggested activities


Invite the students to study the images carefully as they read or listen to the story of The Church Picnic Story Quilt. Have them relate and compare this particular picnic scene to picnics they have attended. Questions for comparison: How are these picnickers dressed? What did you wear to your picnic? What foods and supplies have they packed in their baskets? What did you bring along in your basket? Describe the games and activities the children might be playing. What games did you play with your friends? What occasion might these people be celebrating? What special event did you celebrate at your picnic?

Designing a quilt can be a rewarding classroom project for both individual and group participation. As a group activity, have the students choose a subject or theme for their quilt, such as "A Day at Summer Camp." Each student can select one camp activity to illustrate--a swimming race, singing around a campfire, etc. Students can draw and paint, or use fabric and paper cut-outs to illustrate their activity on squares of paper or cloth. The illustrated squares can be assembled together to create a classroom quilt. Students may want to write about their experiences and add them to their squares to create a classroom story quilt.

Most quilts are based on combinations of geometric design. Discuss and demonstrate how geometric shapes may be combined, repeated, inverted. Ask each child to create a 9" x 9" (23 cm x 23 cm) cut paper design based on geometric shapes. Consideration should be given to color selection. Join the individual pieces together into a room banner quilt. Consider extending the result into a fabric quilt.


Have the students research the history of the American quilt, exploring the basic craft of quilting, its historical and regional significance, its tradition as a feminine skill, the quilt as a means of personal expression, and comparing standard quilting designs with the newly developed patterns we see today.

The art of storytelling can be expressed from a single point of view or from many points of view. Have the students compose a group story incorporating their many viewpoints. Distribute strips of paper approximately 8" x 2" (20 cm x 5 cm), reading from top to bottom: A (character), B (place), C (time), D (event) and E (motivation). Beginning with the letter A, have five groups of students select a character, then fold down the name and pass the paper strip to the next group. Do the same with the rest of the elements. From the results of this exercise, have each group compose a brief story. The stories can be developed and illustrated into a group story quilt.

Faith Ringgold's quilts are explorations and expressions of her personal history. In what other ways can one record a personal history? (photographs, videotapes, diaries, etc.) Assign the students to keep written diaries of their daily activities for one week. Have students illustrate each day's events in a quilt square. They might want to vary the size and shape of each quilt square for emphasis. The diary writings can be added to the squares. Each student's completed story quilt will be a brief illustrated record of their personal history.

PHOTO : Faith Ringgold, The Purple Quilt, 1986. Tie-dyed and printed fabric, acrylic on canvas, 72" x 91" (183 cm x 231 cm). Courtesy Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, New York.

PHOTO : Faith Ringgold, Church Picnic Story Quilt, 1988. Tie-dyed, printed and sewn fabrics, acrylic on cotton canvas, 74 1/2" x 75 1/2" (189 cm x 192 cm). Courtesy Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, New York.

PHOTO : Faith Ringgold. Photograph: C. Love. Courtesy Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, New york.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Davis Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Looking-Learning; the 'story quilt', includes tear out art print and lesson
Author:Bray, Pamela
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1989
Previous Article:Will the gifted blossom?
Next Article:Sumi-e painting.

Related Articles
American folk art in the classroom.
Crazy quilting.
One idea leads to another.
Quilts and tangrams: linking literature and geometry.
Animal poetry quilts.
Art History with Hand Puppets.
Tell Me A Story.
Fabric Printing Adinkra Style.
The pictorial quilts of Harriet Powers.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters