Under the Influence

Yesterday, a friend and I went to the New Museum to see the Faith Ringgold – American People show. Such an amazing, amazing exhibit. The show spans three floors of the museum, and as we were entering the second of the three, my friend said the most kind and impossibly-erroneous thing to me: “If you were a quilter and a painter, you would absolutely be Faith Ringgold!”

That is one of the craziest “if” statements ever made … and also a really beautiful thing to have someone say to me. When I burst out laughing, she doubled down. “You know it’s true. You tell stories the way she does, stories with pictures, stories in pieces.”

Again, crazy to think any work of mine would have any real thing in common with Ringgold’s … and again, a lovely, loving thing to say to me.

But what’s actually true is that there is a connection between Ringgold’s work and my storytelling with pictures, and I’m touched that my friend would have seen that through line. I mean, there are the obvious connections that I can think of now that I hadn’t considered in that moment … like my comics and the stories I write for my photographs. But then I realized there’s a deeper connection, one I didn’t see until I reflected on the show last night.

Thinking about Ringgold, and thinking specifically of Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, I remembered something my friend wouldn’t have known about but which absolutely draws a line between some of my storytelling and Faith Ringgold. I took a workshop many years ago about making paper quilts with students. The “quilts” were a kind of story quilt with images in some squares and text in others or images and texts in each square. I had forgotten about that workshop. I kept the quilt squares I made that day for years — I might still have them in my boxes of teaching materials.

The story I worked on that day was a nine-block quilt about my half-sister, about my sadness at knowing I have a half-sister somewhere in the world but have never met her. I’ve written that story a number of times since that workshop, but that was the start, that was the first time I put it on paper.

Making that story quilt reminded me of Duane Michals’ photo stories, which I’d discovered by chance in the Paris MOMA and fallen in love with. I spent some time making stories with my photographs after seeing Michals’ work. I enjoyed doing it, but it didn’t feel exactly right, not yet.

Years later, when I started taking pictures for IG, I immediately went back to stories. That was my whole reason for joining IG — to take pictures and make stories to post with them. And every time I’ve participated in the 24 Hour Project, that has been my way of doing the project, writing tiny stories for each of my photos. The pictures and stories I post now feel right, so much more what I had in mind than the stories I wrote back when I first discovered Duane Michals.

My museum friend — whose name on this blog is Grace — saw that connection, one I hadn’t even seen myself. I’d drawn the direct line between Duane Michals and my IG storytelling, but I’d forgotten about those paper quilts we’d made a lifetime ago at the Literacy Assistance Center, forgot about sitting with a room full of adult ed teachers, reading Tar Beach to each other and talking about how the story works in Ringgold’s book and how we could take a story from our own lives and distill it down to a handful of collage images and sentences. It’s a way of storytelling that settled into my head and heart, and it continues to bubble up and out all these years later.

I love Grace, but there is no world in which I would have grown up to be Faith Ringgold. Faith Ringgold needed to be Faith Ringgold, and the world needed her to be. But I like seeing the connection, seeing the way her work touched me and settled in me, so deeply I didn’t need to think about it, just needed to let it push me forward.


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8 thoughts on “Under the Influence

  1. Your talking about story quilts really grabbed my interest since my wife is a quilter. There are so many ways we can tell our stories whether through words, or pictures, or fabric. Each way is unique to the storyteller.

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    1. I had a friend who was a quilter, the more traditional kind. Yet, every quilt she made had a name and a story. If one said’the purple butterfly’ she would tell you a lovely tale of its creation and owner. She took a photo, wrots the story and had them in photo album-scrap book. When I first saw your 24Hour Project IG stories I was reminded of her. So I totally can see how Grace made the connection.

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      1. Thank you, my friend! I love thinking about your friend’s stories for her quilts. I think there’s something about the nature of how a quilt is made and the time it takes to create that lends itself to storytelling. I would imagine that most quilters are storytellers of one kind or another. ❤

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    1. Yes, I love that, too. I would never have let my mind wander in that direction — it’s much too grandiose and self-important to compare anything I do to Ringgold, after all — and I would have missed this excellent realization of connection.

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  2. Lainie Levin

    Wow. To be compared to the incomparable Faith Ringgold – it says everything, doesn’t it?

    It’s interesting that you mention a paper quilt. Somewhere, in one of the closets of my house, there sits a large brown art portfolio. And somewhere tucked between the papers there, is a paper quilt that I had completed for one of my own classes. You’ve inspired me to dig it out.

    Thank you for this beautiful slice.

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