National “Stitching Time” quilt exhibition comes to Augusta Savage Gallery

“Stitching Time” exhibit at the Augusta Savage Gallery illustrates incarceration through quilted art


Daily Collegian (2022)

By Jeffrey Pham, Collegian Correspondent

This story has been updated as of January 6, 2023.

Walking into the Augusta Savage Gallery at the New Africa House, you’re greeted by a small, cozy room with softly lit white walls. The feeling of comfort would be further amplified by the colorful quilts that adorned the walls with splashes of color.

The quilts are part of a nationally touring exhibit called “Stitching Time: The Social Justice Collaboration Quilts Project(SJCQP). The project helps prisons across the U.S. to raise money for inmates who require hospice care. The event was organized in partnership with The Clemente Course in the Humanities, Mass Humanities and Martin Luther King Jr. Family Center.

SJCQP started as a shared interest between pen-pals and later co-founders Kenya Baleech Alkebu and Maureen Kelleher. Alkebu has been incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for 43 years and uses quilting as an escape from his confinement and to express himself. Kelleher is an activist specializing in prisoners and prisoners’ rights who works as a private investigator while also having an art career.

The quilts were created by Alkebu, Kelleher and other artists. Two quilts at the exhibition were also made and provided by Louisiana State Penitentiary hospice volunteers and inmates from the Norton Correctional Facility in Norton, Kansas.

Some quilts at the exhibit represented Black figures such as Harriet Tubman, Barack Obama and James Baldwin. Others portrayed more abstract and symbolic concepts such as nooses hanging on bare tree branches, contrasted by images of the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life. Quotes such as “I can’t breathe,” the last words of Eric Garner who was killed after being put in a chokehold by a New York City Police officer, could also be found stitched on the quilts.

This year marks the second year that students from Bard College’s Clemente Course presented 100-word responses that “quickly and responsively” addressed their emotional and artistic connection to the quilts.

The presenters put their work through all the stages of writing: revision, editing, copy editing and proofing before presenting it at the Augusta Savage Gallery on the last night of the “Stitching Time” exhibition.

Each presenter had a unique take on the different quilts that they selected, but all presentations were united by the common theme of injustice, both past and present. Messages of resilience, a commitment to love and freedom and hope for a better future could be heard in the presentations, as well as in the stitching on the quilts.

“Maureen Kelleher… contacted me two years ago and asked if I was interested [in SJQCP] and I knew immediately that I was,” said Alexia Cota, the associate director of the Augusta Savage Gallery and curator of the SJQCP exhibits. Cota was responsible for selecting 14 of the roughly 50 quilts for the exhibition and oversees the readings and panels that take place in the gallery.

“There is a lot of importance with this exhibition,” Cota said. “Mainly… it’s to tell stories of Black history, to tell stories of people who are at Angola and other correctional institutions.” Honor was an important theme in the quilts that were presented – honor for victims like Eric Garner and those without a voice.

“To have a visceral reminder that people on the inside are human beings,” was why the SJCQP was being presented at the Augusta Savage Gallery, Cota said. “They have things to say, they have things to express and to do that honors them when you’re not talking about why they’re on the inside. It shows the tremendous amount of beauty that can be created in harsh, horrible conditions like Angola.”

Anna-Claire Simpson is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts and one of the instructors of critical thinking and writing at the Clemente Course. Simpson attended the event, as her students presented at the exhibition.

“The Clemente Course in the Humanities, in Springfield, provides a year-long humanities education,” Simpson said. The Clemente Course teaches everything from English literature, art history, U.S. history and philosophy to low-income residents. The program provides as many materials as possible to remove obstacles from those seeking higher education, free of tuition charge.

“The quilters, many of them, are all inside, in prison. Communicating and collaborating is made complicated by the structures of prison… In terms of my students and their work, the idea was that they were entering into a conversation with the artworks,” Simpson said. “Their written artworks are part of a continuing conversation.”

Simpson also explained that the students of the course were able to get their writing to the quilters through Maureen Kelleher, creating a conversation between artists that break through the barriers established by the prison system. Simpson explained that some inmates are cut off and isolated from the public, while others were treated inhumanely such as being forced into solitary confinement for decades at a time.

“I think art is a powerful instrument in that way,” Simpson said, after explaining how art and projects such as the SJCQP can disrupt the established order of prisons.

Christo Owens, one of the students at Clemente, was a presenter at the exhibition. “I took a look at the quilt, it resonated with me when I first saw it, I wrote some resounding words about ‘I ain’t got nothing left,’” Owens said.

“There have been things that have been taken from me – my mom, my grandma – and it was hard for me to let go of it. What would I replace it with?” Owens said, as she explained her choice of which quilt she wanted to present. “My grandma helped me remember [that] I got breath. I’ve still got life where those men in those graves, they ain’t got nothing, they’re no longer here.”

“I’ve still got hope, I’ve still got a smile,” Owens said. She recounted her struggles from a life-threatening accident but maintained her cheerful and hopeful demeanor. “I hope it can go further than just a bachelor’s program. Being handicapped, I hope that the program can help me go further,” Owens said when asked about the SJCQP.

“You can stand before just that one quilt all day long, and each panel will give you a story,” Owens said about the quilts and her connection to them. “Hopefully, they can get a quilt-making project here,” Owens said, referring to the creation of a quilt-making project here at UMass in the future.

Raritan Community College in New Jersey will hold another exhibition in June and August of 2023 and there are plans for a similar event at UMass in 2025. Readings from this year and the 2021 event can be found on the UMass Fine Arts Center website.

Jeffrey Pham can be reached at [email protected]