Quilts as Autobiography, Abstraction, and Protest
“We stitch together quilts of meaning to keep us warm and safe, with whatever patches of beauty and utility we have on hand.” ~Anne Lamott
Written by Betty Brown
Lavialle Campbell paints with fabric. The preposition is crucial there: Most painters work on fabric (using oil or acrylic paint on cotton canvas), but this artist uses fabric itself to compose her colors and forms, creating quilts of rare beauty and profound inspiration.
Campbell studied in several of the prominent art programs in California. Attending Otis College of Art and Design, Santa Monica College, and UCLA, she explored ceramics, glasswork, printmaking, and sculpture with renowned local artists like Lisa Adams, Laddie John Dill, George Herms, Debra Sussman, and Roland Young. She was experimenting with diverse media, alone and in combination, when in 1988 she went through a cancer experience. The Cancer Quilt (48″ x 66″) emerged from her time grappling with the disease. The artist spent two weeks cutting fabric strips from recycled old clothes. Then, remembering that her mother and other forebears sewed, she picked up her needles and thread, cranked up her home sewing machine, and got to work on a red and black abstraction that would change the course of her career. The Cancer Quilt uses the traditional quilting design known as “Log Cabin,” a series of concentric squares repeated across the textile. (I can’t write “concentric squares” without thinking of Joseph Albers’ Homage to the Square series. And I am reminded that Albers’ oil on canvas paintings were considered iconic images of modernist abstraction, while the Gee’s Bend quilters of Alabama, who began working together at the same time Albers began painting his squares, were considered mere “crafters.” This has to do with the old high art/low art binary…but that’s another story.)
Campbell easily mastered traditional quilting and almost immediately began to push the boundaries of the format. Her Red Concentrate is a relatively small quilt at 24″ x 24″. Although still based on the Log Cabin design, Campbell’s composition is divided into quadrants, with three of them filled by red, blue, and green “logs,” while the fourth (in the lower right) remains monochromatically crimson. Red Concentrate won a first prize ribbon at the first QuiltCon in 2013. Sponsored by the Modern Quilt Guild, QuiltCon is an annual exhibition of hundreds of modern quilts produced by quilters from all over the planet.
Campbell’s first prize was in the “Improvisation” category. Canadian quilter Cheryl Arkison asserts that what is called “Improv quilting” involves “taking a traditional pattern [like Log Cabin] and making it without measuring pieces or worrying about perfect points. This often makes in wonky.” (Campbell’s Red Concentrate doesn’t look “wonky” to me, but I can certainly tell that it’s looser than the earlier Cancer Quilt.) Today, Campbell calls herself an “Improvisational” quilter. (Many of the Gee’s Bend women produce improvisational quilts as well.)
Campbell’s early Cancer Quilt was created in response to intense feelings about a personal crisis. The artist speaks about art saving her life, aware that every time she has faced a personal crisis, she has created something to help her to deal with the emotional turmoil. One of her crisis-based works refers back to her childhood. At age 7, she had been caught in a house fire that burned large parts of her body. Years later, her Self Portrait 0-Seven recalled that trauma in a mixed media piece that incorporates satin, cotton, bandages, and flannel (like the flannel pajamas she was wearing at the time). Charred wax paper imitates the texture of burned skin. The Self Portrait quilt also includes Xerox transfer prints of the young Campbell and her childhood home. I am reminded of Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed from 1955. His assemblage piece presents a pillow, sheets, and a quilt, all “frosted” with dripping Abstract Expressionist paint. (It should be noted that the quilt in Rauschenberg’s assemblage was done in the Log Cabin design.)
Campbell has also created quilts that address other people’s traumas. Her MLLove quilt echoes an abstract painting by her friend and fellow artist Marion Lane, with areas of solid color, stripes, and Lane’s signature zones of eye-like black and white discs floating in hot pink “blobs.” Campbell also honored Lane in a series of small fabric quilts that are paired with rectangles of glass that “quote” the fabric configurations exactly. (See Striped Composition in Fiber and Glass.) When Lane came down with the cancer that eventually took her life, Campbell created Quilt for Marion Lane as her dear friend lay dying.
One of Campbell’s most intriguing abstractions is Untitled Ash, a quilted homage to the pearly gray color produced by Robert Kaufman Kona Cotton. (Kona is supplier of heavy weight cotton fabrics in solid colors). The base of the quilt is ash, highlighted by black, dark gray, and both chartreuse and olive green. It is a take-off on the Log Cabin design, but the asymmetry is unusual, as are the strongly architectural spaces created by the light-dark contrasting fabrics.
Most recently, Campbell has been doing what she calls Social Justice quilts. (These recall Faith Ringgold’s image and text quilts from the 1970s and 80s.) Campbell’s Dae’Anna Quilt is a vertical rectangle of denim squares with a text insert: “Mom, please don’t keep cussing and screaming ’cause I don’t want you to get shooted…” The quotation refers to an incident from July 2016. In Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a 32-year-old African-American Philando Castile was pulled over and shot to death by a policeman. Also in the car were his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter Dae’Anna. Reynolds videotaped the incident, recording her daughter’s impassioned words. It was one of the pivotal events of police brutality towards African-Americans; the video was viewed millions of times and protested by several groups, including Black Lives Matter. Campbell’s quilt brings it all home to the viewer.
Today, she is working on yet another Social Justice Quilt. The new one looks at another incident of racial inequity. In 2018, Jeremiah Harvey, a 9-year-old African-American boy, was accused of touching a White woman’s body as he walked past her in a Brooklyn convenience store. She called the police on the child and wanted him arrested for assault. When police checked the store’s videos, it was clear that it had been Jeremiah’s backpack that had accidentally brushed against the woman. The child was traumatized, afraid that either he or his mother would be imprisoned. His mother fears he will be emotionally scarred for life.
Campbell continues to speak of her life, and the lives of others, in her brilliant sewn artworks.