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Mississippi quilters shun 'artists' label.

"The fabric pretty much tells you what it wants to be," quilter Janice Mitchell said as she explains how she works. She lays out pieces of cloth and then waits for the material to "speak to her."

"From these pieces, I can see that red and yellow are going to have to give life to the rest of the fabric," she said.

Mitchell, 39, is one of the 20 women who make up the Tutwiler Quilters, organized in 1988. It is a program of the local Catholic-run education center. The group gained national attention in 1990 when members appeared on the CBS news program "60 Minutes." Now their work is in a special showing at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden, Colo.

The exhibit, "Improvisation: An African-American Tradition," runs through March 25. It features 20 pieces including quilts, wall hangings and table runners.

"People are thrilled with it," said Paula Pahl, the museum's executive director. "And they have been very supportive of the organization as well. The quilts we have on display are all for sale and a lot of people are very eager to purchase them and support the Tutwiler Quilters and what they are doing."

The exhibit emphasizes African-American designs in the quilts, which Pahl said is passed down from generation to generation. "They are not traditional and not contemporary art quilts; it is sort of a blending of the two," she said.

But mention being an artist to Mitchell, who started quilting in 1998, and she hesitates. "It overwhelms me to think of myself that way," said Mitchell. "I just sew pieces of fabric together. But I keep hearing people say it's art. They are so nice to say it."

Pahl said Mitchell's response is typical. "Most quilters do not call themselves artists.... They [quilters] don't think of it formally as art," she said.

The Colorado exhibit is not the first one for the Tutwiler Quilters. They had an exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles in California and their quilts are sold in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

Mitchell said getting their work out to people is important. "I can't keep my work. It has to go to a home in order to be really appreciated. I want someone to love it when they get it home."

It is also important to stay humble, she said. A quilter can "not get bigheaded, feeling all super-starry. If you do, I think you will begin to not care about it, to not like it, just be in it for the money."


Catholic News Service

Tutwiler, Miss.
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Title Annotation:NATION
Author:Taylor, Fabvienen
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 17, 2006
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