The patches are geometric and chaotic: rectangles and triangles, L shapes backward and forward, and other hand-cut polygons of cotton and denim reminiscent of Tetris pieces. Most of them are in shades of blue, with a smattering of bright orange scraps and a few small white pieces in seemingly random places. Rows of tiny stitches, made by hand with vibrant colors, keep the three layers of fabric together.

The pieces make up a quilt that could top a cozy bed, but the words sewn onto it — “i miss hope” — take it to another level.

Chawne (pronounced “Shawn”) Kimber made this quilt, called “hope, half-empty,” during fall 2018. It’s one of her many works that express perspectives on social-justice themes.

Phrases such as “I can’t breathe,” “rise up” and “uppity negro” also adorn Kimber’s handiwork, occupying central positions on domestic objects traditionally associated with comfort. The quilts have been exhibited across the United States.

Quilt-making is often a solitary pursuit that Kimber uses to channel her emotions and energy — a form of therapy, she said. But once she shares her designs on social media and in exhibits, they become part of a greater dialogue about race, identity, gender and the human experience.

“It’s a quiet way, at first, during the making, to deal with issues. But then, out there in the world, my quilts sort of speak for me,” she said during an interview over Zoom from her home in Easton, Pa. “They are projecting my feelings, my responses, and are, in some ways,” she added with a laugh, “propaganda.”

By day, Kimber heads the math department at Lafayette College in Easton. She tries to keep her math and quilting worlds separate. Some of her quilts deliberately rebel against the patterns and orderly structures that dominate math. They are — like jazz music played with fabrics and stitches — improvisational.

But the thread of challenging systemic inequalities runs through both of Kimber’s endeavors.

In academia, she spearheads programs to make her math department a more welcoming environment for students of underrepresented backgrounds, and she researches best practices for inclusion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And through her quilts, that activism spills into art.

Take, for example, a quilt called “still not,” featuring a spectrum of blue denim tones interrupted by colorful squares and framed by bright clothing scraps. In the center, white letters spell out a poem: “i / i am / i am still / i am not still / i am still not free.” This quilt, finished in January 2019, is “a quiet scream,” she wrote on her blog, Completely Cauchy, a nod to mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy.

“Every time I sit down to write about this quilt, I am paralyzed with fear, slowed down by obstacles, and overflowing with rage borne from inhabiting this society as a person who is not a white man,” she wrote.

Kimber’s quilts are “fierce, and groundbreaking, and in your face,” as well as “unapologetic,” said Karen Cooper, executive director of the Modern Quilt Guild, a nonprofit organization that puts on an annual show called QuiltCon. Kimber’s work that was shown at QuiltCon “inspired other people to start thinking about messages in their quilts, and being more up front with those messages,” Cooper said.

The style of brightly colored, improvised quilts associated with Black communities in the American South has its roots in West Africa many centuries ago, said Maude Southwell Wahlman, author of the book “Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts.”

Ancestral to this tradition is the use of fabric strips, which men would weave on portable looms as early as the 11th century in West Africa, Wahlman said.

Kimber grew up with quilts made by her great-grandmother, who was known as Mamo in the family. Her father considered Mamo’s quilts his most prized possessions. He grew up in a small Appalachian foothills town in Alabama called Wedowee, where the women would get together and work on quilts the size of a room. As a child, Kimber’s father would help by pushing the needles up from underneath while listening to the gossip.

Mamo’s quilts used the same patchwork style as those associated with Gee’s Bend, an Alabama hamlet that has achieved prominence for colorful quilts made by Black women and their ancestors. Wedowee is closer to Georgia, nearly 200 miles northeast of Gee’s Bend, but Kimber recognizes a connection; her work is a “contemporary adaptation of their style,” she said.

Kimber had learned how to sew by making formal dresses and other clothes in high school, but she didn’t try quilting until 2005. Applying for tenure at Lafayette stressed her out; quilting seemed like a good way to relax while academic officials evaluated her case. She bought a sewing machine and the book “Quilting for Dummies,” and she started with traditional, ordered patterns. She would often begin sewing at 1 a.m., falling asleep at the table.

Once she was granted tenure, she stopped sewing for a couple of years. But when her father died in 2007 — “it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me,” she said — she remembered that quilting had given her respite before. She made quilts out of her father’s ties for each of her siblings. From then on, she subverted traditional quilting forms and made unconventional choices with words and color in her art.

When she started sharing her work with the world in 2010 on her blog — anonymously, at first — most of the commenters expressed excitement with her fresh take. But some readers accused her of ruining the craft world, saying things such as: “That couldn’t possibly be a quilt,” she recalled.

Such negativity doesn’t faze her as much now. “I can also be spiteful, and so it emboldened me to make more and to keep pushing the boundaries,” Kimber said.

One of Kimber’s quilts nestles the words “legit rape here” at its center. This one speaks to Davana Robedee, program director at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, N.Y., which has exhibited Kimber’s work.

“I like how she turned that item of comfort and safety and something you would use to be sheltered and feel warm, but, you know, it changes when you put that statement on it,” Robedee said.

Against the backdrop of persistent social injustices, Kimber’s quilts are both timely and timeless. One of her well-known quilts embeds the sentence “I can’t breathe” nine times, with the final word offset below the words “I can’t” in blue letters. Protesters chanted this refrain this year after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, unarmed Black Americans killed by police. But Kimber finished this quilt, “The One for Eric G,” in 2015 in response to the death of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by a New York City police officer in 2014.

Now, Kimber is slowing down on quilts intertwined with the Black Lives Matter movement. Creating them used to feel meditative and cathartic; now, they make her want to participate more directly in the cause. Her most recent quilts are “less about death,” she said in an email.

Kimber is making a series of quilts about what it means to live as a Black woman in America, which, she admits, does not seem so distant from previous themes. She’s a professor and a math department chair with a doctorate, and yet, she said, “it makes no difference to the world when I’m a Black woman walking down the street.”

At about 5 feet tall, Kimber creates quilts bigger than she is. She disappears behind the intricate, colorful material as she holds one up to her computer’s camera during our interview. The “hope, half-empty” quilt was a reflection on missing Barack Obama as president and a meditation on her general outlook approaching age 50, she said.

She knows that members of her father’s family were forced to pick cotton as enslaved people in Alabama. One of her quilts, which looks like a mosaic of tiny rectangles in many colors, showcases the words: “In essence, I am a sophisticated cotton picker.”

But aside from that dark side of cotton’s history, Kimber feels a deep affinity for cotton cloth. She feels a “full-body, sensory experience of working with cotton as a fabric,” she said.

“There’s this sound when you pull cotton thread through cotton that, just, is so crisp,” Kimber said. “I just love the sound of every stitch.”

Elizabeth Landau is a writer in D.C. specializing in science, technology and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlandau.

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