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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

She bought a sewing machine when the pandemic began. Now quilts are her activism.

"Reunion" by Jo-Ann Morgan.
J. Reynolds
"Reunion" by Jo-Ann Morgan.

When Jo-Ann Morgan bought a sewing machine in early 2020, she didn’t plan on making giant works of art or big socio-political statements.

“It started with the pandemic,” she said. “The week that South Carolina, where I live, went into lockdown, I went out and bought a sewing machine because I needed something to do.”

Morgan watched online videos and started by making potholders and placemats. And as everything was shutting because of the coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter movement was growing.

“Breonna Taylor, she was killed just three days before I bought the sewing machine, and just within two months, George Floyd was killed,” Morgan said.

Morgan had just retired from her post as professor of African-American studies and art history, and making quilts became a way of processing the tragedies around her. Soon, she was cutting and stitching layers of fabric into big — sometimes life-sized — characters that grab viewers' attention from across a gallery.

"Pledge Allegiance—Memorial for John R. Lewis" by Jo-Ann Morgan
J. Reynolds
"Pledge Allegiance—Memorial for John R. Lewis" by Jo-Ann Morgan

When Morgan makes faces and hands in her studio, she’ll cut and stitch those multi-layer parts before attaching them to a quilt.

“First, I have two layers,” she said. “Let’s say it’s a hand. I stitch what's going to be the hand. The material that's going to show is the bottom layer. I cut out the shape of the hand around where the stitches are, flip it inside out so there's no unraveling stuff, and then I iron it flat.”

She always leaves an opening so she can use a chopstick inside the layers to make them perfect.

Morgan has made quilts paying tribute to victims of gun violence, major figures in the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements, and families separated by immigration. She’s also made portraits of all 19 students killed in the Uvalde school shooting.

Some of those quilts are now on display at the Rosewood Gallery in Kettering.

"Witness for the Prosecution" by Jo-Ann Morgan
J. Reynolds
"Witness for the Prosecution" by Jo-Ann Morgan

About a dozen local fabric artists recently gathered at the Rosewood Gallery to see Morgan’s exhibit.

Tracy McElfresh, a dressmaker and president of the Kettering Arts Council, examined one of Morgan’s quilts — a scene of a family embracing. There’s a fence in the background, flowers, and lots of butterflies, mid-migration.

“Look at those monarch butterflies,” McElfresh said. “Her use of the polka dot fabrics, the batik fabrics, the laces, the beautiful bright big flowers. People hugging and crying. It's just pleasing to the eye, but it can pull at your heartstrings.”

Cathy Jeffers, who has been making art quilts for decades, was examining the same piece at the gallery.

“I'm intrigued by her shapes,” Jeffers said, “because she's really got to plan the shapes in advance to get the elbow and how it bends and how he is grasping the child. It's just pretty amazing how she's planning that out.”

One thing that stood out to Jeffers was the way Morgan breaks many of the conventions of quilting. For example, she puts loops on the top of her quilts and hangs them from curtain rods.

A few feet away, seamstress Rebecca Sweeden says that rule breaking is inspiring.

“I like the fact that they are all made of soft shapes and not straight lines," Sweeden said. "In almost all of these quilts, there are little pieces that protrude past the edge of what we think of as the formal finish of the quilt.”

A group of Dayton fabric artists meet-up at the Rosewood Gallery for Jo-Ann Morgan's exhibit.
J. Reynolds
A group of Dayton fabric artists meet-up at the Rosewood Gallery for Jo-Ann Morgan's exhibit.

But Sweeden says the rule breaking in these quilts shouldn’t be mistaken for sloppiness.

“They're very precise,” she said. “Every stitch placement is intentional, but she's not using a ruler. She's cutting things out basically freehand, and then figuring out how to put them together. And I think each one is kind of like a puzzle.”

And the quilts are challenging art work in regard to both medium and message.

One is a portrait of an adorable girl holding a cat. She was killed in the Uvalde school shooting.

In another, a memorial quilt for John Lewis, a beautiful woman holds up a black power fist. In the background, there’s an American flag waving, but it’s waving upside down.

Virgil Sweeden, also in attendance, was struck by the juxtaposition of Morgan’s medium and her subject matter.

“The art is sometimes so playful in the way she's handled it here, but the subject is incredibly serious,” he said. “This is very bright and charming and attractive. But on the other hand, some of it's kind of sobering topics. Many of the subjects here are crying. So, these pretty things are expressing a lot of grief in some ways.”

Morgan, who spends about a month on each quilt, said her voice gets stronger with each one.

“I'm still realizing that in the work I do that I can say some fairly confrontational things, but in such a seductive medium,” she said.

Jo-Ann Morgan will be giving an artist talk Saturday, May 25, at the Rosewood Gallery in Kettering. It’s also the last chance to see her exhibit.

"Uzi, Uvalde, Texas" by Jo-Ann Morgan on display at the Rosewood Gallery in the Kettering.
J. Reynolds
"Uzi, Uvalde, Texas" by Jo-Ann Morgan.