Black and white cloth. Gloves, glasses, and patrol guard belts. Children’s earnest faces. On October 17–20, 2013, the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side displayed the Nia Quilt Guild’s unique project, “A Quilter’s View of the Arts.” The event was sponsored by YMWAHA (Young Men and Women’s African Heritage Association) and the concept was for the quiltmakers to respond to challenges representing five distinct art disciplines: painting, dance, spoken word, music, and photography. The Charles “Teenie” Harris portrait (below) of a 1949 school patrol guard, on a street with outstretched arms protecting just under a dozen children, was chosen to represent the photographic arts.
With clever flair, seven quilters captured their personal interpretation of the photo image, sewn in black, gray, and white cloth, mimicking the black and white photography Mr. Harris is best known for. On some of the works, strips of straight lines depicted the crossing guards belt and street patterns, while on others patterned swirls imitated the children’s posture and energy. One quilt even had small gloves and glasses echoing the guard’s attire. I was quite impressed with them all, but was especially drawn to the quilt of the children’s images copied onto cloth and placed in the silhouette of Teenie’s famous Speed Graphic camera, with which the photo was undoubtedly taken. As quilt artist Joyce Broadus gave me a tour of the quilts, she mentioned that using black and white cloth had been particularly challenging to the seamstresses accustomed to using more color and pattern, but that they eventually found it exciting to bring life to the static palette. I chuckled aloud, however, when informed that one quilter, who didn’t like the lack of color, sewed the back of her piece with bright red circles to depict the vitality of children, and aptly titled her creation, “Don’t Make Me Do Black and White Again!”
Photography illustrated through needle and thread is a refreshing appreciation of the Harris collection. Known for being a very down-to-earth gentleman, Teenie certainly would be thrilled that his work was characterized in such unique fashion, and in support of programs benefiting a popular subject of his lens—youngsters of color. Bravo for an exceptional exhibition!