Growing up in Texas in the '50s, Marion Coleman learned to sew on her grandmother's sewing machine—and gained experiences that would inform her work for years to come. "I draw from memories, translating them into cloth," she says. With the image of a man positioned as a guardian at the top of the piece, her award-winning quilt "Neighborhood Watch" evokes the "African-American man of my youth," she says, "who was a protective, stable figure." Another piece, titled "Ruby Bridges" in honor of the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South, fades from dark to light to signify the integration of the New Orleans school system—a story that resonates with Coleman, who graduated from a segregated school herself.
Before sewing a single stitch, Coleman lays out fabric and old photographs to create a rough blueprint. She sometimes manipulates images with Photoshop, tweaking colors or sizes before transferring the photos onto a variety of fabrics including silk, cotton, and taffeta. A free-motion quilter, meaning she constructs the quilt spontaneously without a pattern or a predrawn sketch, Coleman often finds herself using thread to embed barely perceptible words—love, beautiful, nurturing—in her work. "I try to engage the viewer to look closer, to see what she can find," she says.
Coleman, whose quilts are currently traveling the country with the International Quilt Festival, believes quilting is a reminder of the past—not just our nation's but our families' as well. "Most of us have an old dress from our mother or a blouse from an aunt," Coleman says. "Quilts preserve your history—they take those memories out of a box or a drawer and make them into something you can see and touch."