Inspiration #1 - Ruth Clement Bond
How Ruth Clement Bond inspired African American women to create their own spaces and expanded the capabilities of quilts
Something that I have become increasingly interested in focusing on throughout 2018 is investigating the origins of quilts and their transition from utilitarian objects into objects of political and ideological expression. I think it gets fairly easy for us to take for granted craft's ability to act in this way, as the union of craft and commentary is so prevalent these days, and often so well-received. However, this was not often the case. My interest lies in tracking this transition, which I plan on investigating through an individual lens each month. I think that in order to create vital work, we need to understand the first steps individuals took to enable artists and craftspeople to be taken seriously and to create work at all. My first stop on this investigation is Ruth Clement Bond.
A pretty invaluable discovery for me this past year was The Quilt Index. If you are not familiar, The Quilt Index is a joint project of the Alliance for American Quilts, Michigan State University, and the Michigan State University Museum, that catalogues quilts with images, information about the quilter, the materials of the quilt, where the quilt is housed, the type of quilt block used, etc. The Quilt Index currently has around 90,000 entries, and is searchable through a variety of parameters, my favorite being by State.
While looking through quilts made by Alabamians, I was struck by a graphic applique quilt, depicting a black figure holding a guitar. The bold, simplified shapes and bright colors reminded me of the paper cuts Henri Matisse made late in life.
Through my research, I would find out that this was part of a series of quilts called the TVA Quilts, designed by Ruth Clement Bond and stitched by women in Lauderdale County, AL. The quilt is meant to depict an African American man, attempting to decide between a life of indulgence and leisure, depicted on the right by the guitar and sensual, slightly abstracted profile of a woman's body, and a life of stable, government income, depicted by the white extended hand on the left. I had no idea of the importance of Ruth Clement Bond's impact or influence until I began to delve more into her history, her legacy and her process.
Ruth Clement Bond was an African American Quilter and Civic Leader, born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1904. She was the fourth of seven children born to George, a prominent bishop in the Louisville community, and Emma Williams, who became the first African American woman to be named American Mother of the Year. In an interview conducted as part of the Foreign Affairs Oral History Program, Ruth described the 20 room mansion she grew up in in Louisville, that was always full of visitors, as there was nowhere else for people of color to stay in the town. Bond attributes most of her success as a person to the values instilled in her by her dynamic parents, and their ability to communicate with anyone in the community.
Ruth Clement Bond went on to receive her BA and MA in English from Northwestern University, and was head of the English department at Kentucky State College. She married J. Max Bond in 1931, and moved to Los Angeles with him so that he could earn his doctorate in Sociology from USC. Ruth began her studies for her Ph.d, but after being unable to find suitable conditions for childcare, she withdrew from school to focus on her family.
In 1934, she relocated from Los Angeles to a segregated community in Lauderdale County, AL, with her husband, who was assigned to oversee African American men working to construct the Wheeler Dam, a New Deal initiative established in 1933. Ruth planned to resume her studies, but was unable to find a suitable university, and instead focused her efforts on community involvement. Many of the workers in the community had been sharecroppers, and many of the families were receiving their first steady supply of income. Ruth set out to show the women of the community what opportunities existed, and how to increase their quality of daily life through what she referred to as a home beautification project. As Ruth said, "they were buying pianos with cash, and they couldn't get them into their cottages! These country women were buying things they didn’t need, yet weren’t fixing up their houses."
The home beautification project began with Ruth receiving donated flour sacks and grain bags from the local cook, and teaching the women to dye and make curtains from them. She went on to teach weaving and rug making, and eventually settled on quilting. Ruth was not a quilter, but she designed the quilts by cutting shapes out of brown paper, choosing fabric colors, and then meeting with the women of the community to plan the quilts. Many of the women in the community were expert quilters, taught by family members, many of whom were enslaved people. The first quilt that was designed and made for what would become the TVA Quilt Series was the Black Power Quilt. The quilt depicts a raised black fist holding a lightning bolt, representing the power and value of the lives and efforts of black people to improve their own quality of life, and the lives of those in the surrounding region, through their work. Bond says the quilt represents "pushing up through the obstacles—through objections. We were coming up out of the depression, and we were going to live a better life through our efforts. The opposition wasn’t going to stop us.”
Ruth and the women meant the title "Black Power" as a pun -- a Black workforce was bringing electricity to rural America, and black labor was being truly valued for one of the first times in these individual's lives. When interns came from Fisk and Tennessee State to work under Max Bond, they took the phrase Black Power and interpreted the term more broadly, but the original definition that Ruth and the quilters envisioned seems intrinsically tied to the more widely accepted definition of Black Power in the 1960s. When asked if she and her community of women quilters originated the term Black Power, Ruth is coy and simply says, "Some people say so."
Ruth and her community went on to make eight designs total, with four of each design being made by different women. She viewed this home beautification effort as much more than surface level aesthetic improvements--Ruth intended to help these women take agency in constructing their surroundings. The quilts helped shift the role of craft and quilt-making into being viable avenues for political and personal expression, and laying a foundation for artists like Faith Ringgold and Judy Chicago to take the domestic into the sphere of activism.
While Ruth never quilted again after leaving Alabama, her life and activism never dwindled. Max Bond joined the Foreign Service in 1944, and she and her husband traveled abroad throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and although they were not in America for the bulk of the Civil Rights Movement, they remained vocal for the rights and well-being of marginalized groups. During that time Ruth taught at Universities in Haiti, Liberia and Malawi, taught English at the YWCA in Sierra Leone, taught Tunisian women and children basic sewing and garment construction, and acted as a French-English translator for craftspeople in Haiti. She was a founding member of the African American Women’s Association and the Foreign Service Women's Association.
Ruth Clement Bond died in 2005 at the age of 101, leaving behind a legacy that transformed black craft, women's craft and, in turn, American History. If you find Ruth Clement Bond of interest, I would highly recommend reading her interview here. The interview was conducted by Jewell Fenzi in 1992 as part of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Program. She has quite a bit of sass, and it is really a great read.
I plan on making this a monthly investigation, attempting to further understand the intersection of contemporary craft and political expression by exploring its origins. If you are interested, I hope you'll following along and subscribe to my newsletter here.
Thanks, and talk soon.