Jo-Ann Morgan during ArtPrize 2022, at Cornerstone Church, Heritage Hill, Grand Rapids, MI
Jo-Ann Morgan Fiber Art
Visual artist Jo-Ann Morgan is Professor Emeritus of African American Studies and Art History at Western Illinois University, and author of The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture (Routledge, 2019). Her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture won the Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2008.
Since 2020, Morgan has been a full-time fiber artist, creating stitched fabric wall hangings on themes related to social justice and gun violence. Among her awards are a Cultural Commentary/Social Change Grant from Fiber Art Now (summer/fall 2021), a Not Real Art Award from Culver City [California] Arts Foundation (2022), a Weyerhaeuser Juror Award at the 2021 Great Northern Art Explosion, Grayling, MI, and several honorable mentions. Her work has been in over twenty juried shows. Solo exhibitions include Dalton Gallery, Arts Council of York County, Rockhill, SC (February 2022), Park Circle Gallery, North Charleston, SC (November 2022), Maude Kerns Art Center, Eugene, OR (February 2023), and Rehoboth Art League, Rehoboth, DE (September 2023).
My most recent machine-quilted, wall hangings address the tragedy of gun violence. I see these stitched fabric pictures as similar to the spontaneous memorials that communities erect after an untimely death. I became aware of this impulse after the death of Trayvon Martin when scores of people created portraits of the young man. And again, after the death of Michael Brown, a tower of flowers and other items was raised on the street in Ferguson, Missouri, at the spot where he was shot by police. At the time of these deaths, I was a university professor with a dual appointment in African American Studies and Art History. Sharing images of these tribute artworks and memorials with my classes became a means of broadening the community of compassion.
During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd inspired commemorations, part of a national movement we know as Black Lives Matter. Coincidentally, three days after Taylor’s death on March 13, 2020, I bought a sewing machine. The lockdown was just beginning and quilting seemed a perfect choice for making art during trying times. I created a female figure as a focal point and named her Nuestra Dama de la Corona (Lady Corona). Lady Corona wears a crown, gloves, and mask. She is meant to be a comforting presence, not unlike a deity or favorite doll, to offer respite and hope. I use a quilting and applique’ technique to create pictures meant to be displayed as wall-hangings in sizes ranging from 33” to 54” in either direction. My first successful piece was a memorial to Taylor. The figure in "Memorial for Breonna Taylor" is at once Lady Corona and Breonna Taylor. The quilted construction is personalized by a flight of birds like those on a tattoo Taylor had over her right shoulder, accompanied by the words "Sometimes you've gotta fall before you can fly."
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 revealed how deeply friends and wider communities are impacted by police violence. For my Floyd memorial I made a portrait of his daughter Gianna titled "Daddy Changed the World," words she famously said to presidential candidate Joe Biden. “Witness for the Prosecution” showcases Courtney Ross, long-time girlfriend of George Floyd, who tearfully recalled her relationship with him in testimony at the Derek Chauvin murder trial. More memorials followed. "Elegy for Elijah" is dedicated to Elijah McClain, who died in police custody. Self-taught on the violin, McClain played it for kittens in a pet store to ease their loneliness. “Ahmaud Arbery Memorial Run” envisions a way to celebrate the life of Ahmaud Arbery who was murdered while jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. “An Empty Barber Chair in Monroe, Louisiana” remembers Ronald Greene, a forty-nine-year-old barber from Monroe, Louisiana, beaten to death during a traffic stop by State Police, who later claimed he died as a result of a traffic accident.
I am currently producing a series that brings attention to the mass shooting of children at Robb Elementary School in of Uvalde, TX. These quilted memorials are individualized portraits but they are also meant to be universal. They celebrate the short lives of the ten-year-old victims and are meant to evoke our collective outrage.
Because I consider artmaking to be a form of activism, I welcome the opportunity to engage with people of all ages and backgrounds. I enjoy giving gallery talks about my work. And, as a scholar of African American culture and history, I can also offer more formal talks on a variety of related topics.
For a review by Chloe Hogan in the Charleston City Paper see:
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(Below) Jo-Ann Morgan during Embracing Our Differences 2022, Bayfront Park, Sarasota, FL