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Welcome to the Long Island Diversity Back Story Tour, where you can hear stories about local traditions. Communities from all over the world make their homes here on Long Island, including a community of African American fiber artists in Hempstead. Many of these women are descendants of those who moved North during the “Great Migration” of the early twentieth century, when African Americans from the South moved to Northern cities in search of a better quality of life and freedom from Jim Crow discrimination. Visit the African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead to learn more about Black artists on the island. Listen now to hear fiber artist and activist Joan Hodges and her late mentor Ora Kirkland describe their work. Joan, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, is an accomplished fiber artist and designer. She has been making her own clothes since she was a child, and has used her skills professionally to create upholstered furniture, sails, clothing, and accessories such as handbags and shoes. Joan Hodges: I remember making pocket books, all kinds of pocket books. It was a factory where you just made the same thing, over and over again, and it drove me crazy. Setting zippers all day long drove me crazy. So they took me off that, and they gave me something else to do. Then they gave me something else to do, and they gave me this particular color: I remember it was called “eggplant.” And they must have had 25 thousand of this eggplant color, and it drove me crazy. I said “I can’t do this anymore, you’ve got to give me another color! You’ve got to give me something else to do. I can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again.” So I was the only one that knew how to put a whole pocket book together. Most people just did the zippers, or they did the binding, or they just did this, but I just couldn’t do the same thing over again. It wasn’t creative to me. I wanted to see how the whole thing came together. Once I found out how the whole thing came together, I showed them easier ways to do it. You know, “Why are you doing it this way? You could do it this way, it’s much easier.” “Oh, yeah, you know, you’re right!” I just had to have my mind being creative, and finding new ways to do things, and making it work, and making it work faster. But doing the same thing over again? Oh, it drove me crazy. Joan is also a lifetime activist. She attended the March on Washington in 1963, where she heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, and participated in sit-ins against apartment rental discrimination in Brooklyn. When her family moved to Lakeview, New York, in 1969, she worked to integrate the all-white Malverne schools and arrange busing for her children and other Black students in the community. Joan Hodges: They just made it difficult for us to have busing. So Lakeview got together, and they got their own busing. But even though they got their own busing, they still did not want us in the schools. And we’d picket the schools. And when we picket the schools, we asked Martin Luther King to come and help us, and he did. He marched down Woodfield Road, and he helped us integrate the Malverne school district. And that was back in ‘69 I think—‘68 or ’69, when we first moved in. And I was proud of that too, integrating the Lakeview school district. Joan’s activism is also a big part of her art. When she realized there were no Black dolls available on the market in the 1960s, she began making her own cloth dolls, complete with dreadlocks and Kente cloth dresses, so that her daughter could have toys that represented her. Joan Hodges: I started making dolls for my children because there were no Black dolls. There was nothing that looked like me or an image of me. And I wrote A&S at that time. I wrote them a letter and told them that they should be putting- There’s no image of me, they should be putting Black dolls in the stores, because the only thing I had were Indian dolls, Chinese dolls—all kinds of dolls, but nothing that represented me. And I did write them a letter, and they did respond to me, and I think months later they did have a Black doll. But in the meantime, I was making dolls for- I had a daughter. I was making dolls for my daughter. Joan Hodges: This is a griot doll. And the griot doll had- I made this doll because the griot doll had descended from Africa, because the griot was the person, the keeper of the history. They kept the history, and they passed it on. So I made this doll to represent the griot. And this griot doll could be- The griot could be a man, or woman, or whatever passes on the history from generation to generation. And I made this griot doll as an older woman with dreadlocks, and she was telling the story and passing the history on. I had fun making that doll, because I had fun picking out just the shade of brown. I wanted it to be just a really nice, chocolate shade of brown. And then the hair was interesting, because I was trying to find just the right kind of hair to make it look like dreadlocks. And I went through a lot of different techniques, and a lot of different fabrics, and I couldn’t find just the right thing. And then I found yarn, and I liked the yarn. But then I found, if I took a mop, an ordinary mop, and colored the hair, it was perfect. The mop was perfect. Gospel performance by the Elder Statesmen: Joan met Ora Kirkland in Hempstead. Their friendship opened up a new world of quilting techniques and a new sewing community for Joan. Joan Hodges: And then one day, I went to the beauty parlor, getting my hair done. And I met this woman, at the beauty parlor. She had on a shirt, that she had appliqued—for applique you cut pieces and you quilt them. And I say “Oh, that’s really nice!” And we started talking, and I was telling her about my quilting and what-not, and she said “Oh, I’d like to see it.” So we got together and had a luncheon date and she saw my quilting, and I shared some of the fabric with her, and she showed me pointers. You know, how to quilt the correct way. And I started taking some classes from her. And we became friends, we would go to shows together—quilt shows, you know. So she really introduced me to the quilting world. Until I met her I was pretty much self-taught. Before moving to New York in 1976, Ora grew up in Florida and North Carolina, where her mother and grandmother taught her to sew clothes and simple, utilitarian quilts. Ora Kirkland: Oh, I was sitting in my little rocking chair beside my mother, and she was sitting on the porch and sewing, and I’d sit in my little rocker beside her, and hurry her. She’d give me a needle, and I couldn’t thread it, and once it was threaded, if it wasn’t doubled, it was out soon. And she can’t finish her work, you know. So, I would sit there and fuss and fuss, and she’d give me a piece of white fabric, a scrap. And I remember she gave me once this piece of fabric, she drew a bird and gave me some blue embroidery thread, and I started to learn how to embroider that bird on there. Having learned the basics of quilting techniques as a child, Ora returned to quilting later in her life, after retiring from her career as a social worker. She was known for her applique work and quilts depicting portraits of Black musicians, like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, as well as Biblical and historical scenes. Although respectful of tradition, Ora, like her friend Joan, was never afraid to try bright colors or unusual fabrics. Ora Kirkland: You come up with something different. You know, I don’t mind the criticism I’m going to get for not following the rules. There’s a certain rebellious thrill I get out of breaking the rules. Because that’s where a lot of it is. A lot of people can’t think of- They want to do it with all that decorator stuff, like “Oh, I must have the very best quilt fabric,” and so forth, and so on. Whereas I’ll try it. And sometimes you come up with something, you know, like a new flower. That’s why I couldn’t stay with just doing traditional things or following all the rules. Joan loves to incorporate unusual materials and embellishments into her quilts as well, cultivating what she calls an “Afro-centric” aesthetic: Joan Hodges: I might take a piece or burlap, and do a collage, put a piece of silk on it, or put a piece of African fabric, and put a piece of trim: a cowrie shell, or a bead, or an interesting button, ‘cause I like buttons. You know, you can find some interesting buttons. Something that you wouldn’t ordinarily put on there. Ready for more stories? Continue on our Long Island Diversity journey. This program is curated by Georgia Ellie Dassler. The program is funded by the NY State Council on the Arts and the Robert Gardiner Foundation.
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