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Faith Ringgold's famous ‘story quilts’ come to the Crocker

Tar Beach #2, by Faith Ringgold
Tar Beach #2, by Faith Ringgold Courtesy of the artist

Artist, activist and author Faith Ringgold works in many media – painting, drawing, prints, sculpture, masks and Tankas (painted fabrics inspired by Tibetan textiles) – but she is best known for her vibrant “story quilts” that deal with family life, jazz music, relationships, race and slavery in America.

One of her most famous narrative quilts ”Tar Beach #2” and illustrations from the award-winning children’s book it inspired are included in a 40-year survey of her work at the Crocker Art Museum.

The quilt and illustrations focus on her childhood in Harlem in the 1930s when her family would have picnics and sleep out under the stars on the tar paper roof of their building.

In these magical scenes, her child-selves float in the night sky over brightly lighted high-rises and the George Washington Bridge while her family dines on luscious fruit and stretches out in soft bedding on their private beach.

“I grew up in Harlem during the Great Depression,” Ringgold has said. “This did not mean I was poor and oppressed.”

Her childhood, surrounded by a loving family, was happy.

Her father, a gifted story-teller, and her mother, a successful fashion designer, made sure their children experienced all the rich cultural happenings of the Harlem Renaissance.

Among their neighbors were future legends such as pianist and composer Duke Ellington and poet Langston Hughes. Faith’s childhood friend, Sonny Rollins, who would become an influential jazz musician, visited often and played his saxophone in impromptu performances.

“Jazz Stories: Momma Can Sing, Papa Can Blow#1: Somebody Broke My Heart,” an acrylic painting on canvas with a pieced fabric border, conveys the joy and energy of Harlem’s jazz age, as does “Groovin High,” a silkscreen print that reflects Ringgold’s memories of the famous Savoy Ballroom, a luxury dance hall where there was no racial segregation.

The print’s label quotes legendary Lindy Hop dancer and choreographer Frankie Manning: “One night somebody came over and said ‘Hey, Clark Gable just walked in the house.’ Somebody else said ‘Oh yeah. Can he dance?’ All they wanted to know when you came into the Savoy was ‘Do you dance’.”

In the 1950s, Ringgold received a bachelor’s degree in fine art and education and a master’s degree in art from City College of New York.

She once said she got a good education there in all kinds of art, except African art and African American art, a circumstance she rectified through her travels.

Her art came to a turning point in 1962, when a gallery director looking at her still lifes and landscapes said, “You can’t do that.”

She was hurt, but soon realized, “What the person meant was that in the 1960s when all hell was breaking loose all over, you couldn’t do paintings of flowers and leaves. You had to tell your own story.”

In response, she did her first series of political paintings, addressing the issue of race in America, a theme she has continued to explore.

Her color etching, “We Came to America,” depicts an African American version of the Statue of Liberty holding a child.

She stands in front of an ocean filled with desperate people who have escaped from a slave ship on the horizon.

“Feminist Series #18: Mr. Black Man Watch Your Step,” an acrylic on canvas framed in cloth that addresses sexism in the black community, reflects her concern with women’s issues and her role as co-founder of the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee which protested the shamefully small number of women artists included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Annual shows.

The exhibition then and now is regarded as a stepping stone to success in the American art world, but only eight women artists out of a total of 151 artists were included in the 1969 Whitney Annual.

The Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee demanded that 50 percent of the artists in future shows be women, but met with only partial success as the next exhibition increased the number of women to only 20 percent.

“Faith Ringgold has long been an important voice about the discrimination felt by many artists of color, women and other minorities,” Crocker Director Lial Jones noted in a statement about the show.

Ringgold made her first story quilts in the 1980s after she had been unsuccessful in finding a publisher for her autobiography.

Undaunted, she began combining images and texts to tell her stories on quilts so people could read her stories on the wall.

As exhibition curator Kristina Gilmore points out, “There is warmth, charm, and straightforward honesty in Ringgold’s art. It draws us in and disarms us, then reveals powerful messages, that are often painful, but ultimately joyful. It’s inspirational.”

Inspirational too is “Hope Springing High,” a concurrent show of recently acquired and promised gifts of works by prominent African American artists.

Taking it’s title from Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” the show offers a brief history of African American art from Hale Woodruff’s bold Depression-era linocut print of a starving mule and a ramshackle barn to Kahinde Wiley’s “Portrait of Simon George, II,” 2007, an oil painting of a young African American man holding a tulip. It is, like many of Wiley’s works, inspired by Old Master paintings, in this case from the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, perhaps Rembrandt’s “Woman with a Pink.”

Wiley, who did the recent painting of President Barack Obama in front of a wall of leaves and flowers, pays homage to his Nigerian father in the lettering on his subject’s Los Angeles Dodger’s jacket and Denver Nugget’s jersey, whose overlapping lettering spells out Nigeria.

The show is composed of 31 mostly small works by 23 artists, among them Romare Bearden’s jazzy watercolor “Sax Player,” Elizabeth Catlett’s small bronze “Walking Woman,” Akinsanya Kambon’s quirky ceramic “Equestrian John Randall Buffalo Soldier,” Claude Lawrence’s Basquiat-like painting “Strap Hangers,” Faith Ringgold’s charming silkscreen “The Sunflower’s Quilting Bee at Arles,” Bettye Saar’s elegant mixed media collage “Woman with Two Parrots,” and Mickaline Thomas’ glitzy portrait of her mother “Ain’t I a Woman (Sandra).”

Crocker Exhibits

What: Faith Ringgold: An American Artist and Hopes Springing High: Gifts of Art by African American Artists

Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street.

When: “Ringgold” through May 13; “Hopes” through July 15.

Cost: $10-$5, Free for children 6 and under and museum members. Every Third Sunday of the Month is “Pay What You Wish Monday.”

Info: 916-808-7000, www.crockerart.org

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