For Arroyo Grande quilt artist Denise Sheridan, every stitch tells a story. Her hand-sewn, hand-quilted works of art are part personal narrative, part sociopolitical statement.
"For me, they're all intertwined. They're all connected," said Sheridan, whose subject matter ranges from her family's New Orleans roots to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Her latest quilt was inspired by her trip to apartheid-era South Africa as a 17-year-old college student.
"In the Fortress of the Enemy, You Inspired Us" will be displayed at the International Quilt Convention Africa in July in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of an exhibition honoring the life and legacy of late Southern African president and activist Nelson Mandela. "Conscience of the Human Spirit: The Life of Nelson Mandela" is being organized by Michigan State University Museum and the Women of Color Quilters Network.
Author, artist and quilt scholar Carolyn L. Mazloomi, who founded the network in 1985, said Sheridan's needle-and-thread narratives -- akin to traditional "story quilts" -- belong to a long, rich tradition in the African-American community. "We're a people with a lot of stories to tell," she explained, adding, "I'm always interested in what Denise has to say ..."
For Sheridan, who was born in Compton and raised in Los Angeles, sewing has always been a family affair. Her father, who once worked as a tailor, taught her tailoring techniques, while she learned embroidery and needlework from her mother, whose creations included curtains and clothing for the family's five daughters.
Sheridan's maternal grandmother, meanwhile, taught applique at the Sojourner Truth Home for Girls in Los Angeles. (The site is now occupied by the city's largest continuation high school, Central High School Tri-C.)
Despite that background, Sheridan didn't take up quilting until she was pregnant with her first child in 1979. She pieced together a baby quilt using fabric scraps from homemade maternity clothes.
Her interest in quilting as commentary came decades later, when she participated in the ReMEmember Quilt project in 2000. Cal Poly students, staff and faculty members and community members created quilt blocks in hopes of spreading awareness about violence against women -- and in memory of local college students Kristin Smart, who vanished in 1996, and Aundria Crawford and Rachel Newhouse, who were abducted, raped and murdered in the late 1990s.
"I started quilting to raise a different level of awareness of things I had come to value in my own life as a result of doing that quilt, and the response that people had to it," recalled Sheridan, then a Cal Poly administrator.
Sheridan, who studied psychology at UC Irvine and earned a master's degree in international communication from American University in Washington, D.C., next pursued a doctorate in cultural studies at Claremont Graduate University - focusing on African-American quilt history.
As a black quilter, "I felt a bit like a misfit toy in the quilting community that was largely outside of my own culture," she explained. "I realized there were some connectors that were missing for me."
Sheridan said her doctoral studies, completed in 2006, "gave me a vehicle to study African-American quilts, American American women, the whole diaspora of (African) peoples around the world ... from a historical perspective as well as a theoretical and artistic perspective."
What she found was a community struggling to claim its own cultural identity while battling scholarly stereotypes about African-American art. For instance, she explained, the academic world tended to place more value on quilts closely aligned with traditional African aesthetics, including the use of bold-patterned fabric in large, asymmetrical strips, as opposed to those that appeared to be copying European quilting traditions.
In her research, however, Sheridan found parallels between patterns thought to be European in origin -- such as the checkerboard, basket weave and Flying Geese - and precise, mathematical patterns found on gourds, funerary boxes and other artworks created by African ethnic groups.
"My argument is that there's been a lot of borrowing" between cultures, said Sheridan, now an Africana studies lecturer with Cal Poly's ethnic studies department. "I stepped out on the scene ... and said, 'Whoa, time out. Let's rethink this. Let's broaden our scope and not pigeonhole a whole community and the art they produce based on that narrow lens.'"
Sherdian's doctoral studies included two years as a research assistant for Mazloomi. "At that time, she had the makings of a being a wonderful quilt historian (and) she's morphed into exactly that," the West Chester, Ohio, quilt scholar said.
Mazloomi described Sheridan as an "absolutely brilliant" scholar and writer whose attention to detail and story is "so intense ... it's mind-boggling." "The storyline is deep and the execution is perfection," she said. "Her work is technically flawless."
Faith and family are dominant themes in Sheridan's work, which typically features scenes of faceless human figures bordered by bright ethnic prints. Both are evident in her jazz-inspired quilts, showcased in the traveling exhibition and book "Textural Rhythms: Constructing the Jazz Tradition."
"Second Line King" depicts the colorful pomp and circumstance of a New Orleans-style jazz funeral complete with dancing mourners, while "When the Praises Go Up the Shoes Fly Off" pays tribute to Christian saxophonist Angella Christie and her practice of playing barefoot. "When she really get into the music, she kicks her shoes off and everybody in the audience wants to kick their shoes off (too)," Sheridan explained.
In "Fruit of the Spirit," the image of a young man playing a saxophone is paired with embroidered portraits of jazz greats including Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and the names of virtues - joy, peace, kindness and the like.
Other pieces are more overtly political. "Would the Real Jemima Please Stand Up and Claim Her Inheritance?" tackles the thorny history of pancake mix icon Aunt Jemima - a stereotypical "mammy" character modeled after a former slave -- and her Biblical namesake Jemima, a stately daughter of Job whose name means "beautiful as the day."
"I have always been someone who liked to tell the stories that we would ordinarily not hear or learn about," explained Sheridan, whose Jemima quilt was displayed in 2004 as part of the "Threads of Faith" exhibition at the Gallery of the American Bible Society in New York City." "I've always lived in the margins, and I like to center the margins."
Social change also takes center stage in "From Kenya to Kansas the World Rejoices," which was displayed in Washington, D.C., in 2008, in the exhibition "Quilts for Obama: Celebrating the Inauguration of Our 44th President." Portraits of Obama and the First Family are paired with scenes of celebration around the globe.
Sheridan's latest quilt, "In the Fortress of the Enemy, You Inspired Us," is her most personal to date. (It's also the first time the artist, who often uses family members as models, has depicted herself in her work; her younger self sports cornrows, sunglasses and a homemade "Ms. Ebony" T-shirt.)
A tribute to South Africa's civil rights struggle, "In the Fortress of the Enemy" is based on Sheridan's experiences there in the spring of 1975. She and 500 other students, most of them American, visited approximately 15 African and Asian countries through the study abroad program World Campus Afloat, known today as Semester at Sea.
Sheridan was one of about a dozen black students who chose to go ashore at Johannesburg, despite calls to boycott the country to protest apartheid. "We were able to see things and go places where the white students and white professors were not able to (go)," she said, witnessing scenes of discrimination and defiance that stick with her to this day.
Sheridan remembers seeing "White Only" signs adorning taxies and stores. She traveled to a bantustan, or government-controlled black homeland, to visit a Bantu midwife who gave her a plastic lion as a present, and shared "black propaganda" - copies of Ebony, Essence and Jet magazines and albums by The Isley Brothers and Stevie Wonder - with eager South African students.
"We wanted to serve as sources of inspiration for them," explained Sheridan, who used flood-damaged photos as reference points in recreating her memories.
She's currently working on a quilt about African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche, who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his work negotiating the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Sheridan depicts Bunche and the delegates around a billiard table, where he reportedly conducted much of the negotiations.
"Is it making a political statement? Okay. Is it telling a story that otherwise most people may not know? Yeah," Sheridan said. At the same time, she added, "the feel of it... makes it warm and fuzzy. Would we consider that multitasking? I don't know."
"I'm just doing these quilts that will hopefully spark someone else to find their inspiration, to pick up their baton and carry it for their part of the journey," the artist said.