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The Art of the Quilt

Sylvia Sherertz

Contents of Curriculum Unit 95.04.04:

To Guide Entry

The making of a quilt brings together beauty and practicality, as well as history, community and culture. Throughout history people have pursued the desire to create by putting together pieces of cloth for the purpose of bringing color and beauty into their lives as well as keeping their bodies warm.. The process of making a quilt traditionally involves skill, time, and patience on the part of an individual and the coming together of a community of people who share in the construction while sharing each others’ stories.

A curriculum unit on “The Art of the Quilt” designed for 4th grade elementary art class has broad potential for teaching many things: history—how quilts as blankets and mattresses came to be developed into pieces of art; math—in the putting together of geometrically fitting patterns; culture—the use of symbols in quilt designs, commemorating significant events in the life of a family or community; organizational structures of art—elements of art and principles of design and how they effect the overall beauty of a quilt; community—how quilts were traditionally put together by a whole group of people helping each other.

Quilts have been made from the beginning of time and in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes in most every culture. Quilted fabric has been found in the archeological findings in the ancient societies of Egypt, India and Mesopotamia. The type of quilts that this curriculum unit will focus upon can trace their origins to two areas of the world: 1. the quilted undergarments worn by returning crusaders to Europe where the concept was then turned into blankets used for warmth and decoration; 2. West African fabric designs which uses many different symbols which found their way into quilts made by African Americans.

A quilt brings together of many aspects of the makers’ life: scraps of new fabric saved from the making of clothes; good cloth taken from otherwise worn garments; symbols of good times and bad times. Some quilts record an event, portray a story or can be seen as realistic portrayals of important events or patterns of design symbolic of nature or human identity. Some quilts can be seen as the autobiography of someone’s life.

The children I teach at Lincoln Bassett Community School in New Haven are primarily of African American heritage. The focus this curriculum unit will take is to look at quilts made by persons of that heritage. In our review of the history and background behind the design of quilts, we will also study the appliquéed banners, flags and symbolically designed fabric made in West Africa, whose designs found their way into patchwork and story quilts made by people of African American heritage in this country.

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The “Art of the Quilt” has been developed in the United States to a very fine level. Patchwork is an art form that is truly American, and symbolizes the virtues of thrift, ingenuity and industry which built this country. African Americans have been very much a part of the development of the art of the quilt in this country. All creators of quilts bring to their art: technical skills in needle craft necessary for putting together visual and textural idea; cultural influences which determine what the subject of their quilt design will be; practical realities for making an object which will keep their bodies warm on cold nights; and the desire to create beauty. The quilt making tradition has long been strong in the African American community.

While there are many directions in which I could take this unit, I have chosen to focus on quilts made by African Americans to inspire my children to discover the power of culture and the joy of creating a work of art which has practical, understandable use.

I believe that all art work is the coming together of imagination, creativity, craftsmanship and understanding of design. I also believe that art can and should be the medium through which children can become motivated to learn what they need to know. By teaching a deep understanding of why quilts were made, for what purpose, who made them, how they made them and what this art form has become, I hope to give to my students an understanding of the elements of art and principles of design which are the basic tools of any art curriculum. These tools are necessary for creating any work of art. In addition to these basic tools, my students will also learn history, geography, some math and the social skills necessary to work cooperatively to complete a major project. I hope to give them the opportunity to create something useful to them at the same time as giving them an understanding of the need for art in their lives.

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The Unit will be divided into the following sections with an art activity connected to each section:

I—History of Quilt making

The students will learn why fabric was first sewn in layers and how it was used. This technique which was first for purely practical purposes developed into making items of beauty, giving the makers opportunity to develop skills, use their imaginations creatively and share something with their family and/or community. As the art of the quilt developed, patchwork and appliqué became two distinctive types of quilts made in many different cultures.

II—The African Connection

In West Africa fabric design in a variety of techniques has been developed. Appliqué has been worked for generations into flags and banners which use symbols of status and power to communicate, events or stories. In this section students will identify, compare and make 3 different fabric design types which will become a basis for looking at the quilts created by African Americans.

III—The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers

Harriet Powers made two quilts which are now housed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In this section students will learn the story these quilts tell and find the connections Mrs. Powers’ work has to African design in the colors shapes and subjects she uses to tell a story. Students will begin the construction of their own story quilt block.

IV—The Development of Quilt making in the African American Community

There are over a million quilts made by African Americans in the United States. The oldest of these were made by unidentified slaves. Sewing techniques were passed from parent to child in black and white communities of the 19th century, so that children grew up learning to sew, piece and appliqué from a very young age. Some quilts were made by the house servant or slave seamstress for the use of the masters’ family and some of the quilts were made for the use of the quilter, passed on through the quilter’s family. In this section we will study both the type of quilts made from the mid 19th Century to present, and the stories they tell. We will look at the roots of bold colors, asymmetrical designs and abstract designs—how they reflect social structures. We will also look at the connection between quilt making and other arts. Students will have the opportunity to make a crazy quilt.

V—Quilt Your Own Story

In this section, students will create a scene from their life story by building upon techniques learned to make one quilt square of their own design. The squares will be arranged together to tell the story of the entire class. A culminating event will be inviting family members to come in for an evening quilting bee to sew the entire quilt together.

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SECTION I—The History of Quilt making

Quilted fabric has been used from the beginning of time. Our ancestors discovered that the sewing together of layers of fabric provided a protection from wind and cold. In Asia quilted garments are still made and worn today as they have been for centuries. When the crusaders returned from the east they brought with them many things which became part of European life. Under their armor they wore the undergarments of quilted fabric which they had learned kept them protected from the elements. Extremely harsh winters in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries gave Europeans the impetus to develop the technique of quilt making for a very practical purpose, for survival from the cold.

The very first quilts were primitive, layers of cloth sewn together with a few strong running stitches. They resembled the pallets upon which most people slept. The word quilt actually comes from the Old French word cuilte, meaning mattress. These quilts were very thick and cumbersome. Their strength could have been improved by smaller, more evenly distributed stitches. But due to the thickness of the layers of fabric used and the size of the quilt this was very difficult to stitch. Embroidery was a needlework craft highly developed in Europe at the time, and a hoop frame was used to work the fine stitchery on fabric stretched over the frame. The quilting problem was solved by making a large hoop frame to hold the quilted fabric tight so that the needle could be pushed through and the quilt frame was born.

With this development, the ability to sew finer more decorative stitches gave rise to the creativity of the artist making the quilt. What at first was a very practical not attractive household item, became something which could show the skill of the seamstress in making designs using stitches to create patterns of lines, flowers, leaves. As these decorative techniques grew, these quilted items were seen more and more as items of beauty and worth. Seamstresses in France cut flowers and leaves out of contrasting colors of cloth and appliquéed them onto their fabric adding a whole new dimension to the craft. Spanish seamstresses were the first quilters to be asked to make ecclesiastical vestments. In Italy Trapunto was born, which is a quilting technique in which a cord is placed between two pieces of fabric with stitches made around it to form a raised design.

When the first settlers came to this country they brought with them quilts made with all of these techniques known to them and of course they also brought fabric to be used for all practical purposes in the New World. New fabric was hard to come by, so fabric for clothing and for quilts had to be used and reused saving as much as possible from worn clothing. Thus the patchwork quilt was born.

Scraps of fabric were cut into geometric patterns which fit together into larger squares of design. Many of these patterns have been passed through generations, created by the ingenuity of our ancestors and traded within communities as the country grew. Names for particular patterns sometimes changed as they moved from one part of the country to another, reflecting the environment within which it was named. ( i.e. a pattern called the pine tree pattern in Connecticut might be named bear’s path in Ohio)

Section I—Art Activity

1. Students will identify 5 different quilt patterns
2. Students will select one quilt pattern to make into a quilt square.
3. Students will create a quilt square by cutting and fitting wallpaper samples into a pattern


Illustrations of traditional patterned quilts

Quilt patterns and templates

Wallpaper books


construction paper



The students will be shown a variety of different quilts in slides and books, identifying the different names of patterns. They will also see the templates used for cutting the fabric and some of the tools used in the past and in the present for cutting. They will be shown traditional quilts made using the same pattern with different fabric selection demonstrating how the same pattern changes using different pieces of cloth, thus getting an introduction to the changes possible through the selection of fabric color, design and texture.

Art Activity

Each student will choose a particular pattern to use for their quilt square and then will select 3 different wallpaper designs to use in their square. Sharing the templates they will cut and fit their square together.


Students will place their finished squares on the floor, arranging them together as if in a quilt. They will be asked to identify the pattern names they used and what was used by other classmates. They will analyze what color and pattern changes do to the overall design.

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SECTION II—The African Connection

In the countries of Ghana, Nigeria and Benin cloth design is a major part of the culture. Clothing people wear is bold, bright and flowing designed with bright colors printed, dyed, appliquéed and woven. Many of the designs used are symbolic showing who the wearer is, what their status is and what symbols are powerful to them. Art, in these countries is an integral part of the community and the artist holds a place of very high respect, adding beauty and power to every aspect of the life of the village. Art is not a separate discipline but is integral to the people’s responsibility to perpetuate the beauty and power of life.

In this section students will study and make 3 different designs, from 3 different West African countries in order to learn different techniques for decorating cloth. They will also gain an understanding of the meaning and use of symbols in creating works of art.

Adinkra cloth is made in Ghana. The design is formed by carving a calabash into a stamp, which is used to print a symbol onto cloth. the symbols are bold, clearly defined and simple. Adinkra means “good-bye,” it is the name of the dye used to print these symbols which were originally printed onto cloth to be used by mourners as they left a funeral.

Adire Eleko cloth is made in Nigeria by the Yoruba people. It is a fabric with intricate white designs that stand out against blue indigo dye. It is made by painting on a paste, traditionally made from cassava starch, which resists the dye when dipped into so that when the paste is removed the design stands out in white. The designs are a combination of geometric lines and shapes abstracted from nature.

The Fante group of the Akan people who live in Ghana near Benin make appliquéed banners and flags for traditional military associations called Asafo.. These flags and banners feature colorful animal and human figures appliquéed usually on both sides so that each side is identical. Asafo flags and banners were being used by these traditional associations long before the first Europeans arrived in Africa. The associations are open to all segments of society and a typical Fante town will have numerous associations. In elaborate performances the associations come together where members display their unique company colors, costumes, banners and flags designed to tell stories of the history of each association as well as show symbols of power important to them. They use symbols of sun and moon and stars and show influences of different religions within their society.

Section II—Art Activity


1. Students will make Adinkra cloth

2. Students will make Adire Eleko cloth

3. Students will make an appliqué flag in the style of the Asafo of the Akan


Muslin (enough for each student to have 3 equal rectangles—8”x11” is a good size)

Styrofoam plates

black acrylic or fabric paint

fabric dye




needles (many)

embroidery floss

fabric in varying solids

squeeze bottles


Each of these styles will be introduced through pictures and slides showing the actual cloth. Students will locate the countries and areas that each of these styles of fabric design come from on a map. We will discuss the symbols and what they mean, as well as how, when and where the cloth is worn/used.

Art Activity:

Adinkra—Before beginning this project, positive and negative space must be introduced since the students will be creating their own stamp by pressing out the negative space in a square of Styrofoam. Students will then sketch the symbol they would like to make into a print. The next step is to draw this symbol in pen onto a Styrofoam plate, impressing the negative space of the design into the plastic. In the printmaking process they will use black acrylic on muslin. First they will make lines around the outside of their fabric. They will print their symbol within these lines by printing the straight edge of cardboard. Once the acrylic is thoroughly dried the fabric will be dyed..

Adire Eleko—After reviewing the geometric patterns and abstracted natural forms used by the Yoruba in this type of fabric design, students will sketch on paper their own designs to be put onto their cloth. Using a mixture of flour, alum and water made into a paste which is put into a squeeze bottle, they will squeeze the design onto their cloth, After these have dried thoroughly for a few days, they are dyed blue. The paste is scraped off the cloth revealing the design in white.

Akan Appliqué—After reviewing the types of symbols used by the Akan, students will sketch their appliqué design on paper. They will cut it out and use this as a pattern on colored cloth. This will be stitched onto a piece of muslin. Details can be added with other colored pieces of cloth added on and/or embroidered.

Each student will make their own individual square at each stage of this section. These could be framed individually or connected to others. For the sake of connecting these into a final project, muslin squares/rectangles should be cut into equally.


These three squares can be arranged into a class quilt. Or they could be exhibited individually.

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SECTION III—The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers

Harriet Powers was born as a slave on October 29, 1837. We know very little about her early life, but are certain that she like many young women of her time, learned to sew and quilt at a young age, with the techniques passed on to her by her mother and the women around her. She was the mother to 11 children and two story quilts which are now housed in museums because of their exquisite execution and the history they represent, the stories they tell.

Harriet Powers’ first quilt, her Bible quilt, is made of 299 appliquéed pieces of cloth depicting scenes from the Bible. Although very little is known about Mrs. Powers’ life, we learn of her through her autobiographical quilts. She was a very spiritual woman, and religion was very important to her. She was very skilled in making her people look as though they were in the midst of action. Their gestures come alive. Her animals are abstracted, symbolically representative, in a style very similar to the banner appliqués of the Fante group of the Akan people of West Africa.

In 1886 in Athens, Georgia, Harriet Powers exhibited her Bible quilt at the Cotton Fair, an important event for the citizens of Clarke County. At this fair Oneita Virginia Smith saw Harrier’s quilt for the first time. She was an art teacher at a local girls’ school and saw in Harrier’s quilt a work of art. She offered to buy it from her. But Harriet felt about this quilt as though it was her child and could not part with it at any price. But four years later she and her husband were in dire need of money and she remembered the woman who wanted to buy her quilt. She found her and sold it to her for five dollars. Jennie Smith told her she could visit her “child” any time and promised to save all her scraps of cloth so that she could make another quilt.

Harriet Power’s second story quilt came about because of Jennie Smith’s desire to exhibit her work of art at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1891, in the Colored Building. There, it was seen by the faculty wives from Atlanta University and they arranged to have Harriet make a quilt for the Reverend Charles Hall, chairman of the board of trustees of Atlanta University. Mrs. Powers second quilt incorporates both Biblical stories and depictions of folktales about actual events during her time. She knew of these events through oral history. As slaves, they were not allowed to read or write. The first public school for African Americans in her county didn’t open until 1886. So if folks wanted to remember something, they turned it into a story. Harrier’s quilt is a retelling of these stories.

We don’t know how much Harriet was paid for her second quilt. We do know that she was living alone at the time of completing it and managing her own affairs. She finished the quilt in 1898 and presented it to Reverend Hall. Four years later in 1902, Atlanta University held a conference called “The Negro Artisan.” We can imagine that it was Harrier’s beautiful quilt that inspired this event.

Section III—Art Activity


1. Students will make a collage which tells a story


construction paper



old cut-able magazines

paper scraps


Students will be shown various art works by Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Malvin Gray Johnson, Alma Woodsy Thomas, Charles Searles and others, which tell stories, some clear and some more abstracted. We will discuss the process of telling a story visually, what are the elements necessary, how can the artist get the message across. We will look at the collage techniques of Romare Bearden especially Quilting Time 1986. We will read and discuss Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach. We will also discuss how artists use symbols and colors to express ideas.

Art Activity:

Students will sketch in pencil their story on paper. Then they will cut out of paper images which will depict the shapes and figures of their story. Other possibilities are using words, photos, or magazine images to tell their story.


Students will exhibit their work and their classmates will read the stories told.

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SECTION IV—Development of Quilt making in the African American Community

When slaves were brought to this country, many of them came from West Africa, and although stripped of all earthly possession, inside their hearts they held the memories of the symbols, colors and sense of design of their motherland.

By necessity, they had to save every scrap of cloth they could, from the remnants of sewing done for their masters, to good cloth saved out from worn garments. As in every human being, in them was the desire to make something beautiful and useful for their every day life. Many slaves made quilts of very fine quality. The identity of the quilter for most of these quilts is unknown. We know they were made by slaves only by identifying the hairs that might have fallen into the cotton batting sandwiched between the top and bottom of the quilt.

Quilt making is an art form which can be accomplished by an individual or by a group of people. In all traditional societies, the crafts used within the home or the community are passed from parent to child. From the lore surrounding quilt making we learn that parents passed the skills for quilt making on to their children at a very young age, with small children starting with small patches of fabric, learning to sew the very fine stitches needed for the beautiful quilts which have been passed on to us.

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born in 1818 and was taught the art of sewing by her mother who was a seamstress. She became the seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln, lived in the Whitehouse for 4 years and wrote the book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave, Four Years in the White House, which documents her friendship with the first lady. One of her quilts is housed by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Her story and others documented by Cuesta Benberry in her book, Always There: The African American Presence in American Quilts, will be told to the students in this section.

Many artists and writers represent the presence of quilts as a major force in their lives and their art and we will look at the following prints:

Romare Bearden:
____Quilting Time
____Patchwork Quilt 1969
____Patchwork Quilt 1970
____Maquette for Quilting Time (1985)
____Quilting Time 1981
____Quilting Time 1986
Dr. John Biggers:
____Four Sisters (1986)
____Patchwork Quilts and Shotguns
Paul Goodnight:
____Links and Lineage (1986)
____The Quiltmakers (1987)
Horace Pippin:
____The Domino Players (1943)
Tyrone Geter
____The Satimbe Society (1990)
____Malaiki (1991)
Varnette P. Honeywood:
____She Who Teaches, Learns
____I Do Thee Wed
____A Century of Empowerment
Faith Ringgold
____Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima:
____Tar Beach
I would also like to read to my students African American literary works inspired by quilt making, among which are the following: The Quilting (1980) by Paul Laurence Dunbar; The Quilt (1927) by Mary Effie Newsome; and from essays in Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1983) by Alice Walker.

Section IV—Art Activity


1. Students will define abstract design

2. Students will make a crazy quilt square


jazz music on tape

construction paper

scrap paper

wallpaper books


Students will be shown a variety of different crazy quilts in slides and books. Students will also be shown the art work of Horace Pippin and Romare Bearden. They will identify how art moved from realistic presentations to more abstracted understanding of ideas. They will also identify the affect of jazz on the work as an element in the work of Bearden. We will read I Live in Jazz looking at the collages by Romare Bearden which illustrate the poem by Ntozake Shange.

Art Activity:

Students will listen to jazz recordings with eyes closed, imagining colors shapes and designs in the music. They will be asked to visualize the music inside their heads.

They will then design an abstract crazy quilt square that reflects this visualization inspired by the music. Using scraps of wallpaper and construction paper leftover from previous projects, students will select 5 pieces of patterned paper and 3 pieces of solid paper to form an abstract design.


Students will place their finished project squares in a quilt shape on the floor for evaluation. We will define abstract. Students will be questioned about the similarities in their design, and if any patterns emerge from the whole.

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SECTION V—Quilt Your Own Story

“You can’t always change things. Sometimes you don’t have no control over the way things go. Hail ruins the crops or fire burns you out. And then you’re just given so much to work with in a life and you have to do the best you can with what you got. That’s what piecing is. The materials is passed on to you or is all you can afford to buy. . . that’s just what’s give to you. Your fate. But the way you put them together is your business.1

In all the cultures that we are studying as part of this curriculum unit, both men and women took part in the piecing and the quilting. Quilts were very much a part of the life and culture of the community, and gave to the individuals involved in making them the opportunity to create something of beauty, worth and warmth for their every day life.

In this culminating section of the unit, I hope that students can draw upon their understanding of the history of quilting, the techniques they have learned and the inspiration taken from artists they have met to create a story quilt of their own. Each of them will create an individual story. These stories will be built into the larger class story, and the culminating event will be a quilting bee to sew it all together.

Section V—Art Activity


1. Students will create a story quilt block






sawhorses and boards (to make frames for quilting bee)


Students will review the story quilts of Harriet Powers and look at contemporary story quilts, reading the stories they tell. We will brainstorm topics which could be used in our story. Then we will identify the visual images that could be used to tell those stories.

Art Activity:

Students will collect cloth from which to design their story block. A homework assignment will be to find at least one piece of cloth from outside the classroom, from an old worn garment which has meaning to the child or her/his family, or cloth found.

Students will use a variety of different quilt/fabric design techniques to tell their story on their block of cloth.

Students will sew or appliqué, finishing their story quilt square.


When all the squares are complete, the arrangement must be determined by the whole class. The stories will be read and told by individual students and collectively we will decide how they fit together.

Culminating Event—The Quilting Bee

Students will be responsible for inviting family or community members in for an evening in which the blocks sewn together and backed will be quilted.

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1 page 37, Erica Wilson’s QUILTS OF AMERICA
Erica Wilson
Oxmoor House, Inc. Birmingham, 1979

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TEACHER BOOK LIST—The Art of the Quilt

Adler, Peter and Barnard Nicholas. Asafo: African Flags of the Fante London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1992. (The history and illustrations of appliqué designs in West Africa)

Benberry, Cuesta. Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts. Louisville, Kentucky : The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc., 1992. (Very well documented book on the history of African American Quilts as well as good stories about people who made quilts.)

Fry, Gladys-Marie, Ph.D. Stitched from the Soul. New York: Dutton Studio Books, Inc., 1990. (Good history of African American quilts)

Mashuta, Mary. Story Quilts: Telling Your Tale in Fabric. Lafayette, CT: C & T Publishing, Inc., 1992. (Very beautiful collection of contemporary story quilts with extensive directions for making them. Shows how far this art form has come.)

Montano, Judith. Crazy Quilt Odyssey. Lafayette, CA: C & T Publishing, Inc., 1991. ( A detailed guide to making a crazy quilt plus collection of antique and contemporary crazy quilts.)

Schuman, Jo Miles. Art from Many Hands . Worcester, MA: Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc., 1981. Great hands on guide to art activities. Chapter 2—Arts of West Africa has all instructions and recipes for Section III, 1. and 2.)

Tejada, Irene. Brown Bag Ideas from Many Cultures. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc., 1993. (Another good hand on guide to art activities. The Section on Ghanaian Adinkra Cloth has a good glossary of Adinkra symbols.)

Wilson, Erica. Erica Wilson’s Quilts of America. Birmingham: Isomer House, Inc., 1979. (Good history of quilts in the United States. It also has great quotes)

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Other Sources:

Exhibition Catalogue, The New Quilt 1: Dairy Barn Quilt National. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, Inc., 1991. (A collection from the biennial exhibition held in Athens, Ohio in which some of the most incredible contemporary artist/quilters exhibit.)

———. The new Quilt 2: Dairy Barn Quilt National. Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, Inc., 1993. (ibid)

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Hopkinson, Deborah. Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1993. (This story illustrates the role quilts played in the underground railroad)

Johnston, Tony and de Paola, Tomie. The Quilt Story. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Inc., 1985. (This tells the history of a quilt as it is passed from one family member to another.)

Lyon, Mary E., Stitching Stars: The Story Quilts of Harriet Powers. Charles Scribner’s Sons, Inc., 1993. (This book tells the story of Harriet Powers, a quilter who made two story quilts which are now housed by the Smithsonian and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.)

McDermott, Gerald. Anansi the Spider. New York: Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1992. (Beautifully illustrated Ghanaian story told using Adinkra symbols in the graphic design)

Ringgold, Faith. Aunt Harrier’s Underground Railroad in the Sky. New York: Crown Publisher Inc., 1992. (The story of Harriet Tubman beautifully illustrated by the artist)

———. Dinner at Aunt Connie’s House. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1993 (A story about famous African Americans who come to dinner. The illustrations are from the quilt)

———. Tar Beach. New York: Crown Publisher Inc., 1991. (An autobiographical story by Ms. Ringgold with reproductions of the Tar Beach quilt.)

Shange, Ntozake and Bearden, Romare. I Live in Music. New York: Welcome Enterprises, Inc., 1994. (Poem by Shange connected to the art of Romare Bearden which includes many of Bearden’s jazz inspired works of art.)

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