Patricia Onakoya, 70, nodded. “I still have the quilts my mother made, and they’re very precious,” the semiretired teacher said. “She came from the South. So we’re first-generation Washingtonians. Because we didn’t want to disconnect from North Carolina and South Carolina, each summer we were sent home, we stayed there in the South, and then when school started, we came back.”
Mm-hmm, the other women murmured, they remembered that too.
“There was the aunties, the grandfather, the cousins, cooking and going to church and praying, all the culture of who you are,” Onakoya said. “Mama’s been gone since ’95, but I still have her quilts.”
The women are members of the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center, which meets each month for CreativiTEA, part of the Phillips Collection’s Creative Aging program. The group alternates between its center, the museum’s Phillips@THEARC location in Congress Heights, and the Phillips’s Dupont Circle facility.
At each meeting, they discuss and make art in response to works in its permanent collection. They had studied Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 “Migration Series,” which depicts African Americans leaving the South for the North in hopes of finding a better life; now they were learning about the quilts of Gee’s Bend, hand-sewn pieces created by women in the isolated African American hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Ala.
The Creative Aging program started in 2011 as a partnership with Iona Senior Services, a nonprofit in Northwest Washington. Every month, people from Iona with memory loss either visit the Phillips Collection or are visited by museum staff who bring reproductions of art and materials for participants to make their own pieces. The idea sprang from a similar program, Meet Me At MoMA, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 2018, the Phillips added two more organizations as partners in the program — Arts for the Aging (AFTA) and the Congress Heights group — bringing the number of participants to around 200 a year.
Some have memory loss; others, such as the Congress Heights group, do not. For those who do, interacting with art can have profound effects, said Donna Jonte, manager of art and wellness and family programs at the Phillips.
“We can see it in a facial expression or a smile on the face or a spontaneous reaction to a work of art,” she said. “Somebody who may not have used words, something will spark their memory and they’ll just start singing. Once somebody stood up out of a wheelchair and started to dance.”
The National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution also have programs connecting their museums with people who have dementia.
“All of the studies reinforce what we see — that maybe the most important thing is to celebrate the moment,” she said.
Every year, the Phillips exhibits a selection of pieces produced by participants. This year, one artwork featured burlap that a group from AFTA had covered with drawings based on their viewing of three different exhibitions; the work will be displayed at the museum’s gala in May.
The annual exhibit is hugely popular with members of Iona Senior Services, a nonprofit that helps older adults and family caregivers in the Washington area, said the program’s executive director Sally White. “The pride that people take in the art being there and the fact that their friends and family come to see it is wonderful,” she said, recalling one participant who stopped strangers in the street outside the museum to say, “My art is in that gallery!”
At Iona on Friday, Jonte and Avis Brock, special programs educator for the Phillips, led a discussion with two dozen participants and several several staff members and volunteers, focusing on a 1943 Horace Pippin painting of women sitting around a table playing dominoes.
“How many have ever played dominoes?” Brock asked the group.
About half raised their hand. Then they started riffing off the word: “Domino’s Pizza,” one man said. “Fats Domino. Also there was a song called ‘Falling Like Dominoes.’”
Mary Ellen Carew, an artist, editor and poet who lives in the District, noted that the black area in the middle of the painting could be a window, a painting or a curtain over a window. And she guessed it was somewhere cold.
“They are all inside and they’ve got the stove going and that’s why they’ve got the thing over the window,” she said.
Afterward, the group sat around the table and assembled strips of fabric into collages.
Sharon O’Connor, director of Iona’s Wellness and Arts Center, said the programs often result in people socializing more with each other. “You really don’t have to have a great memory to be able to look at art and talk about art and how it makes you feel,” she said. “It brings them a sense of self-esteem because they’re making something and doing something that they’re proud of.”
She recalled one spouse of a participant telling her, “I don’t know how you all do it, but you’ve made my husband feel important again.”
Earlier in the week, Brock held up a card depicting a quilt with strong contrast between blue and orange, two complementary colors, for the women in Congress Heights.
“Now we want to move into composition and shape. So today we’re going to be using paper — cut paper and collage. We’re not using a ruler; we’re like the women of Gee’s Bend, we’re getting intimate with it.”
As they sipped lemonade and fruit punch, the talk got intimate too. Smith talked about being a kid and bringing the wrong kind of napkins (sanitary rather than dinner) to the grown-ups and getting “whupped” for it.
Everyone laughed, and she beamed. “Now did you see what just happened? It’s not just the art stuff, it’s the conversation.”
The women cut, assembled and began to glue strips of colored construction paper into their own versions of quilts.
As Onakoya snipped purple and red paper into tiny geometric shapes she thought about the quilts she had at home and the provenance of each. “One piece is when my child was born. One piece is when my sister’s child was born. And even though they’ve had their better days, my goal is to pass them down.”
She could never imagine getting rid of the quilts, no matter how tattered they become. “They are where I am from, where my mother came from, and I can’t see erasing all that history because these things were used and the threads are coming apart.”
Evelyn Brown, 88, a retired nursing assistant, was joined by her daughter and caregiver, Paulette Thompson, 63. Brown recalled the skills of women in the old days. “My mother used to make my clothes, years ago. She would knit and crochet my clothes. I’ll never forget, I was about 5 and she knitted me a Shirley Temple suit and a sailor hat.”
Smith noted that there was a reason some African American women were so good at making clothes back then. “When I was living in Virginia, we couldn’t go and try clothes on,” she said, adding that Southern department stores barred black people from doing so. “When I came into D.C., I was so amazed that you could go into the store and actually try things on."
“Even hats, they’d say, ‘Oh no, you don’t want your greasy hair in there,’ or whatever, so we made our own. We were very creative people.”
At the end of the hour, Onakoya held up her piece: red and purple confetti around a central white spiral that sprang off the paper in three dimensions. “I thought about a circus, the ring circus, it’s always centered, and the people around it.”
At the end, the quilt squares of the participants were posted together on a wall, forming a vibrant collage, and the women lingered to share their own families’ migration stories.
Onakoya’s mother and father met in the District after moving from the South, and she recalled the strangeness of going down South to visit relatives in the Jim Crow era.
“It was very black and white,” she said. “Blacks eat here, whites eat here, and we had to go to the back of the bus.”
One day she went to the dry goods store with her grandfather in High Point, N.C. It was 1955 or 1956, around the time another black child from the North, Emmett Till, was murdered after a visit to a grocery store while visiting relatives in the South.
“When we went to pay for an item, I put the money in the hand of the proprietor and he called to my grandfather — 'Tom, you better teach this chap some manners,’” Onakoya said. “I didn’t know that I was supposed to put the money on the counter, not in his white hand. My grandfather apologized to this young white man, and it seems like we ran down that road. Within 24 hours we were shipped back here.”
That memory, and other stories she knew about the South, had colored her interpretation of the “Migration Series.”
“To me, I felt like they were running,” she said of the people Lawrence depicted. “To say it was opportunity, it wasn’t so much opportunity; they were trying not to die.”
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