When the call came, West Chester fiber artist Carolyn Mazloomi was shocked. She thought it was a telemarketer. Instead, she learned she's a 2021 Unites States Artists Fellow. The fellowship comes with a $50,000 award.
Though Mazloomi's work isn't often found in Cincinnati, she's had exhibits around the world. She makes art quilts that address social justice issues affecting people of color, especially women.
"I'm inspired by issues that adversely affect primarily African American people - especially right now the timbre of the times are bad here in the United States insofar as race relations," she explains.
Mazloomi identifies herself as a woman born in the Jim Crow, segregated South who lived through the Civil Rights era. She grew up to become an aerospace engineer but says it feels as though the clock has been turned back.
"Our experiences with racism and issues of police brutality are really at the forefront now and very much out in the open," she says. "That concerns me so those themes are prevalent in much of my artwork. I like to make pieces to make people stop and think and maybe change their attitude about some certain thing. For me, the artwork is about education."
Mazloomi is the author of 15 books on African American quilt-making, has curated more than 40 exhibits, and founded the Women of Color Quilters Network (WCQN) in 1985. Her work has been displayed in some of the most prestigious galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian, New York's American Folk Art Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Art and Design. She's in the Quilters Hall of Fame and was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2014, the USA's highest award for traditional arts.
She has a passion for African American quilts and their value in recording history and telling stories, and preserving that pastime.
"Quilts are very important in our culture," she says. "The quilts are like historic documents that not only reflect African American culture but also issues that surround our living here in the United States, our community and what's happening with our families."
Tackling Important Issues In Needle And Thread
Mazloomi recently curated We Are the Story, a series of seven of exhibits across Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. The New York Times reports some 500 quilters submitted more than 400 quilts for consideration. The exhibits contemplate "symbols of liberation, resistance and empowerment" that detail "the breadth of experiences and struggles that comprise Black history in an honest and critical way."
Mazloomi tells WVXU she was floored by the number of entries she received after putting out the call, especially the number of entries from outside the United States. The common theme she heard was that the stories of African Americans dealing with racism were the same as others around the world.
"It personified ... how much George Floyd's murder resonated throughout the world, not just here in America," she explains. "Racism is a huge problem and it's a very difficult topic to talk about, but I like to think of these quilts that address this issue as a soft landing; it's a soft place to fall; it's a soft place to talk about hard, difficult subjects."
The exhibition is slated to come to Cincinnati this summer, she says. The details are still in the works.