If spirit can live in a piece of cloth, fabric artist Peggie Hartwell has spent her life stitching miracles.
A Quilter's Spirit: An African-American Quilt Tradition, now on display at Asheville's YMI Cultural Center, showcases the work of this remarkable master quilter -- an artist who, through her rich choice of color and deft composition, has created an exquisitely articulate body of work in praise of family.
Hartwell spent her early childhood on a farm in Springfield, S.C. Her tale-bearing grandfather is the strong central figure in "The Storyteller," a vivid and moving re-creation that depicts the wordsmith in straw hat and overalls against a cobalt night sky, stories darting from the tips of his fingers like fireflies.
He appears again in "Southern Soil/African Skies," as the strong handle under an expansive flowered umbrella -- providing stability and assurance for the family gathered around him.
For Hartwell, memory is a sensory experience, released by the fabric she chooses. And the creative experience is total: "I try to imagine myself standing at my grandfather's side in a field of corn," she says. "Imagine if you could smell the color of yellow, the brown of the earth, the green of leaves."
At age 7, Hartwell's life shifted radically. The family moved north to Brooklyn -- a rude world away from her beloved Southern farm.
"When we moved here," recalls Hartwell from her NYC apartment, "I couldn't believe it. I remember the long train ride, but most of all I remember the window in that first apartment. It was on the second floor: We had never had a second floor." In her quilt "The Window," the artist records forever the teeming view through that slice of glass.
Hartwell's way with a needle was influenced by what she learned as a child, watching the women of her family quilt and sew -- albeit for practical purposes. Interestingly, Hartwell was more attracted to the delicate challenge of pen-and-ink work as a girl. Today, she likens quilting's exactness of line to the deliberate strokes of her first medium.
In high school, the artist found herself moving in the dance world, studying both jazz and "modern primitive" genres. After graduation, she toured with a dance company in Europe. A scheduled six-month stint somehow grew into an eight-year odyssey, with stays in Germany, Italy and even the Middle East -- where the company performed for the Shah of Iran. Hartwell says she fell in love with Persian design there, and her fluid piece "The Dancer" seconds that emotion.
Her heart remains in that world: "I dance with my fabric," she proclaims. "I feel movement when I work. ... I feel kinship with the color."
Family bonds and the kinship of women are compelling motifs in much of Hartwell's work. In "Ode to Harriet Powers," she honors her artistic predecessor. Born a slave in the mid-1800s, Powers was celebrated for her quilts on religious themes. The grim heritage of slavery is more powerfully illustrated in "The Journey." Stylized figures -- linked by a heavy, clearly defined chain -- move forward in a never-ending path toward freedom. Here, strong color and the stark contrast of the figures against the blank solidity of the earthy red background tell the tale.
In a way, Hartwell's medium is incidental: At heart, the quilter is really a storyteller. The touching "Storm in the Hall" depicts the artist's grandparents sheltering little ones with song during a scary South Carolina summer thundershower, while "The Homegoing" is a tribute to Hartwell's late mother. This purposeful figure -- her body composed of the hearts and faces of her children -- raises her arms in joyful anticipation of heaven. The eternal connection of mother and child is her legacy.
Peggie Hartwell is a member of the Women of Color Quilter's Network and the National Quilting Association. Her work has been exhibited widely in the United States and can be found in the permanent collections of the American Craft Museum and the National Afro Museum of Culture. Hartwell has been the featured artist on PBS's Reading Rainbow, hosted by LeVar Burton. Her exhibit at the YMI Cultural Center (39 S. Market St.) runs through Friday, May 5. The artist will appear at a closing reception on that date, running 5-8 p.m. For details, call 252-4614.