Friday, January 8, 2010
Artist Member Ruby Ballard-Harris presents African-American Quilters: A Hidden Gem
The folk tradition of African-American quilting is largely unknown. Some researchers trace its lineage all the way back to African tribes whose brightly colored cloths were used to welcome guests or identify someone as an important person in society. Making a noticeable resurrection during the era of slavery in the United States, when slaves met to quilt for fellowship and for practical use and most brilliantly, to post directions along the Underground Railroad. However, the story of the how African-American quilts came to be shown and celebrated at the Art Center follows the path of one woman, Ruby Ballard-Harris, exhibition curator, Fabrics Designer, and Art Center Instructor.
Like many African-American quilters, quilting was a tradition in Ruby’s household. “My mother was an avid seamstress, quilter, knitter, crocheter, everything and I was right there. So, I knew early in life what I wanted to do.” Ruby channeled her energy into fabrics and design at an early age, making clothes for her siblings and even designing and sewing her 5th grade teacher’s wedding dress.
Ruby received a Bachelor’s Degree in Home Economics and Fashion Design but, growing up in an era when women were more commonly taking the roles of wife, mother, secretary, nurse, or teacher, her mother discouraged her from pursuing a career in fabrics and design. “I was kind of discouraged by my mother because she said I needed to be able to take care of myself.” So Ruby became a teacher. “Teaching was an easy field to get into, especially in the black community.” She taught everything from kindergarten to home economics, which happened to be her favorite, and went on to get a Master’s Degree in Social Work at Purdue. Ruby explains her reasoning for getting an MSW as being, “Because all my teaching jobs were in an area where kids needed help or there was a need for me to be the village, the mother, the father, the social worker – you know, just everything. Because for me it was a way for me to not do what I naturally wanted to, to get away from design.”
But Ruby would never get away from design. She has translated her lifelong passion for fabrics into a viable career, instructing Sewing at the Art Center since 1992 and designing custom African-inspired jackets and coats. “Anybody can be do European design, classical things, just regular clothes, but I have a love for African fabric. And once I found ethnic fabrics, I found my niche by doing jackets.” African fabrics have a very recognizable design, characterized by bright colors and intricate patterns. Ruby’s designs, called Ruby’s Raps, are unique and instantly recognizable, featuring beautiful buttons and a very tailored, finished look.
Ruby has participated in many exhibitions and shows as an artist, but the African-American quilting exhibit will be the first show she’s ever curated, “I just knew that the Art Center needed to be involved in something for Black History Month. I knew I quilted and there are a number of black quilters around and that would make a great presentation.” The African-American Woman Quilters: A Hidden Gem exhibition will showcase five African-American women's quilts, including quilts by Ruby.
According to Ruby, the average quilt takes 2-4 months to make. African-American quilts are often done freehand and improvised, rarely keeping a set pattern, which is one of the characteristics that make African-American quilts so engaging and interesting to look at. Patterns and shapes are typically large and asymmetric, with bright and often contrasting colors. Quilts often tell a story and can narrate family and cultural history.
About Ruby Ballard-Harris
When Ruby isn’t designing, she is doing what comes most natural to her, teaching. She has been instructing sewing classes at the Art Center since 1992 and has instructed at Shortridge and Tech High Schools.