Yvonne Wells: The Stories We Tell
An online exhibition in collaboration with Jessica Lynne
October 28, 2021 - February 12, 2021
The Stories We Tell, showcases a selection of narrative quilts by Alabama-based artist Yvonne Wells.
An inheritor of the legacies of enslaved female quilters from the rural Alabama community known as Gee’s Bend, Wells embraces a contemporary visual vernacular in her art, and has attracted attention for a style that uniquely melds traditional geometric abstraction with bold figuration. Her quilts in this exhibition depict religious subject matter, empowered female figures, and imagery related to American history and politics.
Jessica Lynne is a writer and art critic. She is a founding editor of ARTS.BLACK, an online journal of art criticism from Black perspectives. Her writing has been featured in publications such as Artforum, Art in America, The Believer, Frieze, The Nation, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2020 Research and Development award from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and 2020 Arts Writer Grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about faith, art, and the U.S. South.
Below, Lynne and Wells discuss the inspiration and process of creating the quilts in this exhibition.
Jessica Lynne: I thought I might start at the beginning and ask quite frankly, why do you quilt? What do you find beautiful about this art form and craft that has led you to continue to do so for more than four decades?
Yvonne Wells: Why do I quilt? I quilt solely for myself, my satisfaction, and being able to show the work to the world, or the United States. Quilting is a sedative. And it's personal. I quilt because I like to. I quilt only to satisfy myself no matter what the world asks me to do. If I can't satisfy Yvonne, then I won't make it. And this is my way.
JL: I was going to ask if you remember what it was like to make your first quilt, some of the feelings that you had at that moment, and what you think about that first quilt now.
YW: You know that first quilt, it’s in—oh gosh, I'm an old lady now—it’s at the museum in Lincoln, Nebraska [International Quilt Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska]. What do I think about it? I think it was the most beautiful thing that I have ever created.
I started because I needed to have something to warm my legs. We had just added on a part to our house, and there was no fireplace. And it didn't keep my legs warm, so I needed something to cover them. So I made a small coverlet out of strips of fabric that I found around the house. I didn't buy anything because that's not the way I do it. Most of my work, I find in the streets or pick up off the ground, or somebody gives to me, or I make it myself. That is who I am. However, I do buy lots of fabric.
JL: Thank you. I have some specific questions about some of the work that you will show with the gallery, but broadly—in your work as an educator and your work as an artist—I'm curious if there has been any overlap in how you approach the world as an educator versus how you approach the world as an artist.
YW: Well, you know as an educator, I did make some quilts that I thought would be good to take to the classroom to show the kids. That's one of the reasons why I wanted to make many quilts, and another reason is I didn't make these quilts for sale. I made them just to show and teach with them. If somebody bought one that's okay, but I never wanted to sell any of this. But things change. As an educator, you always want something out there to the public that is going to be vital for the students to learn from and try to pass things on.
JL: Oh, absolutely. In thinking about the public nature of what it means to be an educator and the public nature of what it means to be an artist, what strikes me so much about your work is how it relates to this national conversation that we're having about American history and citizenship in the classroom right now. Something that you address so well in your quilts are ideas of patriotism and citizenship, and maybe the conflicts that those ideas bring up for different people. I'm thinking especially about Black people. In a work like Miss Liberty Up Close and Personal (1995), the figure in that quilt is fragmented and disjointed. For me, it's almost as if there's a rupture in how the idea of Lady Liberty is perceived versus the reality of how liberty actually functions.
YW: Well, I'll tell you what. I made six of those—Miss Liberty Up Close and Personal. I think the one that you're talking about is the last one I made, where she [the Statue Of Liberty] is fractured, and at the time I made this quilt, it was very personal to me that so many things were being unsettled, things were broken. I was seeing things that don't seem to fit you, but fit others. So, she exposed it out of disbelief and anger, and that's why you see her all torn, fragmented in pieces.
JL: Absolutely. And she, Lady Liberty, as well as the American flag, they come up so often in many of your quilts. I'm also thinking about the quilt Man Without a Country (1995), where a figure who resembles George Washington—but he’s brown—and the title, suggests some disjointedness, or fracturing, with how we understand certain ideals versus how they're enacted. I'm wondering if you see works like Miss Liberty or Man Without a Country as political critiques that, as an educator, you might come into a classroom and try to grapple with young people about these big ideals. Do you think that is something you're wanting to do as an artist?
YW: My goal is to always create a story behind what I do. Sure, it may not be one that you can see immediately, but creatively, down the line, you will walk out of the room and say, “Oh, this is what this means.” In Man Without a Country, he is “brown”, but Black comes in all kinds of shades.
YW: Let me say this also—I am not a professional with anything other than my quilts and what they say. Some things may look wrong, but to me it's right. I had no instructions, no informative teaching, so I made it myself. Nobody showed me anything. So, whatever I do is right.
JL: I think that conversation about someone being “formally trained” versus someone who is self-taught often misses a lot of the real work It makes me think that these conversations about being self-taught or not end up moot because your work is doing something really profound. It's so easy to think about self-taught as less-than, rather than something just as profound and important.
YW: Oh yeah. You know, I have told people, “Rembrandt is who I'm trying to get next to.” I have had many people come to me and say, “Yvonne, you need to go to school and learn how to make quilts.” I say, “I don't need to go to school.” That was thirty-five, thirty-six years ago. And here I am, where I am now. I have been criticized for doing my work, but it didn't deter me from continuing. Had that been the case, I would have stopped many years ago, but I didn't because it was self-satisfying and I was not going to let anybody deter me. And because I wasn't selling them, I could make them at home and make as many quilts as I wanted to.
JL: Absolutely on your own terms.
YW: Yes, ma’am.
JL: Are there people that you learn from? Whether they're dead or alive, or from Alabama or not, who do you learn from and who do you feel like you're taking inspiration from when you think about your art?
YW: [pauses] I think the world in itself is where I take my inspiration from. I have no specific person that I look to. I know that there are great artists out there who people say that my work does not compare to, but because of me and the way I see my stuff, I feel that I can compare my work to anyone. And I know that if I don't praise myself, nobody else will.
JL: I hear you, Ms. Wells. I'm curious—who are some of the artists that people name when they're thinking about your work?
YW: Romare Bearden. Carolyn Mazloomi, who gave my name to Fort Gansevoort. There are others whom I can’t recall now because—I’ll tell you this—I'm an old lady, and I forget.
JL: Thank you for telling me. Romare Bearden, I have a deep appreciation for him, but again, I think that sometimes the comparison game can create such an unfair dynamic, because every artist is coming to their work with very different ideas and approaches, and questions. It could be so easy to just relegate an artist based on who someone thinks they make like, rather than actually paying attention to that individual artist’s own ethos and approach.
YW: That’s true, and besides that, I use different materials. People think it sounds insane; they call me crazy, naïve, primitive, unlearnt. All of those things I have been called and more, but I continue to move forward. I want people or my students who see me to say that I never stopped.
JL: How do you know when you’ve got it right when you're working on a quilt? When is that moment?
YW: When it’s right. Let me tell you—and this might sound crazy—but there's a feeling when you are quilting a piece of art and it speaks to you. It speaks to me when I'm feeling it—it doesn't speak to me when I'm making it—but when I am sitting down, quilting it, and putting its last stitches in, it begins to speak. Not verbally, but internally it starts to tell me how it should be.
JL: The other side of that is, are there ever moments when you finish a quilt and it’s not what you wanted it to be? How do you deal with surprise? How do you deal with an unexpected moment that you hadn't thought was going to be there at the end?
YW: I will tell you this, when I first started making quilts, I would always make three of them. The first one never said everything I wanted to say. There wasn't anything wrong with it. It just didn't say everything at that time, so I made another one and it still didn't say everything I wanted it to say at that time. So I made the third one. And it said everything that I wanted it to. I don't have any pieces that are wrong. Because that's the way I did it, so they’re right.
JL: I understand that completely. There’s a quilt, Signs in the Sky. I really love and feel drawn to it for many reasons. When I'm looking at this work, I think about religious iconography and I think about my own relationship to faith and the stories that I would hear about something forthcoming, like God coming back, even. I'm curious to know how much faith functions in your practice. With work like Signs in the Sky, you're using color in such interesting ways. It feels so ominous at moments; there are rupture-like forms and yellow on the quilt, and there are these purple hands that are reaching down. There's so much kineticism happening there, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about that work and the way religion shows up in your art practice.
YW: There is nothing that I make that does not have a religious tone. Every quilt has a religious tone, whether it is out front, or in the shadows. On each quilt—and it didn't come until a year or two after I started making the stories—there's a triangle that stands for God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost. And in Signs in the Sky, there are many things that I think are religious. The color purple always—well 98% of the time—means Christ or God or something religious. These are the hands of God holding the cracked Liberty Bell, and these people down here are walking. They're walking through faith hoping they can get to (not the promised land) but north where they can have a better life than what they are experiencing now, and as they walk, I'm sure they were singing. I'm almost sure they were singing because a lot of times that is our energy to keep us moving. When they looked up, they saw these funny-looking colors and spots and all this kind of junk.
In the quilt, people look up in the sky and see these signs, and that’s a good sign for them, that they were headed in the right direction, headed north so that they would have a better life. On the right-hand side, there's a crocheted piece with a face on it. It’s a spirit. It’s a haint, but we call it a spirit. They use that to help them. It’s crocheted coal, but it's a sign that shows the right direction. There are four ladies with babies on their backs who follow.
JL: I love this because there’s almost a timeliness to it. You’re talking about—correct me if I’m wrong— Black folks moving north in search of better livelihoods.
YW: Yes! For sure.
JL: I think in so many ways that the idea of Black people searching for an elsewhere, a place to be safe and whole where the babies can grow up without harm, is an ongoing desire.
YW: It truly is, and you notice that the women down there—fear has changed them. But hopefully, they can get to where they're going. Maybe it’ll take a long time, but they’ll get there.
JL: In your work, how do you make decisions about whether or not you're going to use figuration, or forms more abstracted like in Signs in the Sky? They aren't like the figure in The Cross I Bear (2006), for example, referencing a person in the world. How do you decide which approach makes the most sense for the story you're trying to tell?
YW: It depends on what is going on in my head. My head sees, my heart feels, my hands create. That’s three H’s: head, heart, and hands. When I cut this piece out, I didn’t intend for it to be like this, but it looked right. It looked like they were looking at me, so I guess that's how they come about. Maybe underneath their gown, they carry some clothing or something personal. Trying to get to where they're going and have something when they arrive, right?
JL: I love that, “trying to get where they’re going and have something when they arrive.” That feels like a timeless way to think about Black people making their way in this country. It actually leads me to this next question that I have, which is generally about storytelling. You know, I grew up in Virginia. My paternal family is in Georgia, and my paternal grandfather actually grew up in Prattville, Alabama.
YW: Okay, well, that's not too far from me.
JL: Yes, not too far! When I think about Black southern folks—if there's one thing we know how to do is tell a story— through music, through art, it could be on the front porch...
YW: You know why that is? We couldn't read or write, so we had to improvise and our improvisation brought us to where we are now.
JL: I think you're right, Mrs. Wells. I wonder who were the storytellers in your life? Who were you listening to growing up, telling stories?
YW: My mama. Yeah, my mama—there were nine of us in the family, seven girls, and two boys. My mother was a school teacher, and my father was a minister. And they didn't do too much storytelling, but they would talk to us about things that were happening and what to do and not to do. And I'm from the age where I couldn’t do very much here in the south or in the United States because I’m Black and I came up during those ages where she would say, “You don't do this. You don't walk on this side of the street, ‘cause that’s not your side of the street.” That kind of stuff. They were storytellers verbally, but there were other people in the community, and then the church and schools, that I would look at and try to simulate. I liked them; I wanted to be like the principal, I wanted to be the man—the lady—who was the fastest in the world. I wanted to run as fast as my coach—I could beat him. But those are the people who were telling stories to me indirectly. There's nothing better than a story that is told indirectly to you.
JL: Absolutely, you never forget those stories. They live with you.
YW: Never, never.
JL: That is so well said. There's something about Black artists in the south who just hold on to that.. There's always wisdom there that I feel is unmatched when I think about what it means to be a Black person from the south.
YW: Oh, yes, I've been in this town for all of my life.
JL: Did you ever want to leave as an artist, you know? Did you ever think that there would be a time when you wouldn't be there?
YW: [immediately] No. No, I've always said I was home. My husband was a military guy, and I went with him and stayed maybe a year. Then I had to come home because I couldn't go with him overseas or travel the United States. So, we had two babies right quick, and I told him he can go and I'll come home and build the house and raise the kids. And that's what we did.
JL: Where was he stationed, Mrs. Wells, at the time?
YW: He was in Virginia and California. Then he went off to Vietnam and stayed for two tours. But he came back after seventeen years in the Marines and twenty-some-odd years in the National Guard. That’s what he was all about, but he died about a year ago and I'm here alone now. That's part of life.
JL: I'm so sorry to hear that.
YW: Oh, I miss him truly.
JL: I can imagine.
YW: But he was so inspirational. When I asked my kids and husband what he thought of the quilts, he said “Yvonne, this is your doing. You do whatever you want.” My family is marvelous to me.
JL: That's beautiful. I mean, you should always support the people you love, and you are making such fantastic and marvelous works, so I know that it was much easier for them to have told you to keep going.
YW: Sometimes I loved it so much you would think that it would get in my way of living other than doing quilts. But the more I had to do, the more I did. I'm a community person, I’m a volunteer, but it’s never stopped me from quilting. It felt good.
JL: There is a quilt that I really love—The Mother II, from 1994, with the figure in the red dress holding the young child. Do you find that this figure is perhaps reflective of your own relationship to motherhood, or perhaps motherhood as you've experienced it?
YW: Well, yes, but I don't think this is a self-portrait of any kind. These should be the kind of symbols that every mother experiences when she's holding her baby in her arms lovingly. She's smiling at her. There are so many labels put on us as mothers. The apron she is wearing, do you see that? It has all types of labels on it. There's no certain reason why, but I found some clothes and I took all the labels out of the back of the neck and made them into the apron.
I don't know how many there are, but that's how I got that many labels. And the blue-brown chandeliers that are inside the house. Nursing or taking care of babies. There's a window at the top of it with a little sun and that meant that she could come up to the window and look outside. At the bottom down there, there are blocks for kids to stack or play with. This is all about being a mother, and for that reason, it could be anybody. It does not have to be that she's a Black lady just because she had black hair. We have all kinds of hair now!
JL: I'm looking at another quilt now, Stars Fell on Alabama, from 2011. Quilting and working as an artist is something that feels good to you, but when you're working with a history that is unpleasant or dark or history that is connected to sorrow or tribulations, how do you keep it feeling good to you? When I think about this work, I think so much about the history of a state like Alabama, but also the history of Black people in the south. There's beauty. There's so much beauty there, but there's also a real pain in that story, too.
YW: Sure there is. Well, I tell everybody that I never intended to hurt anybody's feelings, or cause anyone to be ashamed, or make them want to cry. But I wanted to tell the story my way and these things here, I didn't create them, they were already here. The bridges, the water, the falcon. The Edmund Pettus Bridge was crossed and people were attacked. Then there's this child on top of the swing, dropping all of these stars on Alabama. It is the hope that the stars will bring out better ways of life. You would see that at that time there were four races, four colors: red, yellow, black, and white.
That's a circle with two white people. They've got frowns on their faces because they didn't want this to change. They were saying “No, we don't want stars on Alabama.” They’ve got the watermelon at the bottom of the swing set, which is another thing that was put against us—that we are watermelons because we didn't vote. There are three clocks, and each clock has a different time. To me, that means that it’s time to cut all of this kind of stuff out, and that it is hard to start fitting together in peace and in harmony.
JL: I don't think your work would conjure any tears. I think that in order to be able to get to a better place, a different place, a more equitable place, we have to come to terms with everything that's already happened. That's the only way you learn.
YW: That's true.
JL: I think that that's what you are compelling us to do right there. There's a starting point, but it doesn't have to be the final point. There are other possibilities, as are represented by the stars. There are so many possibilities, and I think that is the potency of your quilts. We have to be real about what's already come before us, but we don't have to stay there.
YW: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. That’s why I say, “Kids, don't let anything turn you around, just keep on walking.” If you’ve got plans, you can do it—with God’s help.
JL: I want to ask you a question about being an elder artist. I think you know this, there's usually a moment when the art world, so to speak, decides that a woman artist is deserving of attention and being celebrated. I feel like that happens so much with women and older artists. It always feels like the art world is catching up to something that's already been amazing and in progress. Having been an artist for so long, what do you make of this pattern?
YW: If you're producing work that is interesting to the public, then you will continue to move forward. I started off making quilts when I was forty-nine, and now I'm in my eighties. There was something that they saw in my work, as opposed to something that they may have heard. Sometimes the eyes are better than what you hear. The fact that I have had so many people wanting to see this stuff means that I started off doing something good at an old age and continue to keep making it good. I don't like to pat myself on the back, but sometimes I do.
JL: We're learning from you and I think you deserve to pat yourself on the back.
YW: I never talked about my work. I was ashamed of it when I started.
YW: Really! When I started, my stitches were not like the true quilters—they say “true quilters”. I knew I would be in a different category from the people who have had experience. Other times, I would use this stuff that's not used in quilting. I use dental floss. I used a fishing line to sew with, and everything I did was done by hand. However, I did experiment with the sewing machine. But it didn't have the right feel to it. I stopped that because when I'm doing it by hand, the needle sticks to my finger. I feel it, and it makes me feel good.
JL: So, you like that touch, that encounter.
YW: I need to feel it. It tells me something. If I stick my finger and there's a little bit of blood, that is it. I'm not crazy, but they say I am.
JL: You’re not crazy, Mrs. Wells, not at all. I think what you're saying makes so much sense. You need that contact. It’s a pulsating drive to know that you're in the work, that you're really in the making process.
YW: Oh yeah. I am. I'm always making quilts in my head. I just became the caregiver to my sister, and that has changed my life so much. I got it so bad this morning, I almost ran across the street back home to make the quilt.
JL: Is there something that you haven’t yet done as a quilter and an artist that you want to do? Whether that is a story that you want to tell or a way of using a material? What are you still dreaming about as an artist?
YW: You know, my dream is to be able to continue as I grow older. I can't produce as much as I wanted. I was making 20 quilts a year sometimes.
JL: Wow! I think the questions that you raise about history and religion and Americana, if you will, are really important. These types of conversations happen in cycles, and I haven't lived long enough yet, but I do know enough to know that they don't go away unless you confront them. That’s what happens in your work, so I appreciate that.
YW: My dream is to be able to continue to do this. It is powerful now and I hope it will be powerful in the years to come. I have no specific things that I want to do. Everything that I am feeling is what I want to do. I have to feel what I do. I have to hear what it's saying and then I have to make sure my hands can do it.