Opinion My ‘Spring’ quilt is a patchwork of history, memory and hope

"Spring" by Avis Collins Robinson, 2023. (Photographed by Steve Parke for The Washington Post)
3 min

Avis Collins Robinson is a visual artist best known for her paintings and abstract quilts that explore America’s deep-seated, often unacknowledged tensions over race, gender, oppression and history.

Abstraction in visual art is built from color, line, form and perspective. It also grows out of an artist’s lived experience. My experience as a Black woman in America is precious to me, because it is the sum of the lives and struggles of my ancestors — men and women who refused to be defeated, no matter how hard America tried. Sometimes this history is clearly legible, in jagged lines, sharp angles or dissonant colors. Sometimes it is subtle, like a whisper.

When I visualize springtime, I see reawakened lawns, tender new foliage and the sunlit sky. I grew up outside Washington, so my mind’s eye sees the white and pink explosion of cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin and the Washington Monument. But I also see the stabs of pain and injustice that the hopeful season has brought to this city. In my quilt called “Spring,” good overcomes evil (and love defies death).

I think of the Black men of my grandparents’ generation, whom President Woodrow Wilson attempted to “put in their place” by bringing strict segregation to Washington for the first time in decades; the Ku Klux Klan, happy with the changes, held huge rallies here in the 1920s.

I think of my best friend’s mother, Mrs. Lucille Foster, who told me of the time in the 1940s when she saw a pretty Easter dress in the window of Garfinckel’s department store, which African Americans were not allowed to enter; she had to give the money to her White employer, who went in and made the purchase. I think of how Black neighborhoods were left off the bus routes when the schools were finally desegregated in the 1960s. I think of how generations of officials turned a blind eye when Black families were consigned to substandard housing and robbed of the opportunity to build equity and accumulate wealth.

In creating this piece, I wanted to create an irregular, faceted, surprising space, made up of contrasting colors and textures — to lift it off a flat, two-dimensional plane.

This required changing the way I work. Usually, my technique is improvisational. I begin a quilt with an idea of what the final product will look like, but not with an inflexible plan. I let the fabric’s colors and textures tell me how they want to fit together. To produce the new effects I was after, I needed to find a way to plan the piece in detail without losing the feeling of spontaneity. First, I created a sketch of the design. The next step was to make a more fully realized painting, which I used to create a pattern. Then I chose fabrics for their color and texture. Some of my choices, such as silk velvet, are difficult to work with because they stretch and skew. I cut dozens of pieces, each uniquely sized and shaped, and stitched them together.

With this “Seasons” project for The Post, which will continue through the year with “Summer,” “Fall” and “Winter,” I hope to explore new directions while also honoring the centuries-old traditions of African American fabric art. Traditionally, Black quilters relied on found fabrics — used clothing and household linens; pieces of older, worn-out quilts — that held meaning for the artists that stretched beyond the utilitarian and the aesthetic. In “Spring,” I incorporate a piece of the nightgown that my mother, Annie Ruth Collins, wore when she stayed at our house in the months before her death.