Susan Thompson’s complex and colorful quilts

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In late April, textile artist Susan Thompson sits in front of her industrial Singer sewing machine. The balance wheel whirs as she runs a piece of beige fabric through.

“This machine is around 40 years old,” Thompson says. “Sometimes I want to sew through really, really thick piles of stuff and this can plow right through it.”

The piece of fabric that she’s sewing will eventually become a part of a larger piece or quilt, though Thompson has no idea how she’ll use it yet. She has boxes of fabric at her studio space at the African American Master Artists in Residency Program at Northeastern University, where she’s been for around 20 years. Some fabric she finds, some is gifted to her. But for 78-year-old Thompson, all fabric has one thing: possibility.

“You can do so much with manipulating fabric,” she says. “I can fold it, I can twist it, I can dye it, I can paint it, I can sew it. I can do a lot with textiles and that’s what I do, all of those things.”

Thompson’s quilts are now up as part of her exhibit “Go Down to the River and Talk to ‘JAH’” at the Boston Public Library’s Hyde Park branch, on view through June 29.

Artist Susan Thompson standing in the Hyde Park branch of the Boston Public Library where her exhibit of quilts, “Go Down to the River and Talk to ‘JAH’,” are on display. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The exhibit is organized in collaboration with Artists at Large, a nonprofit that’s been connecting audiences with working artists for the past 22 years. Co-founder and artist Thomas C. Seggers Jr. has known Thompson for over two decades. He says that Thompson’s work is pertinent, especially considering the times we live in.

“You can’t look at her work without wanting to look into it, find out what the full story behind it is, as well as what you’re taking away from it,” he says. “She’s able to utilize her talents to give a fuller story.”

The exhibit is comprised of five quilts, two fabric masks and one quilted book. “‘Go Down to the River and Talk To Jah’ was a Jamaican gospel song that I heard a long time ago,” Thompson says. “The picture in my head of going down to the river and praying and communing with God, it was just a very powerful image for me.”

Also in the exhibit are what she calls “ancestor quilts,” or pieces that venerate the ancestors.

“Everyone I used to know as a child, they’re now ancestors, so they’re very important to me,” she says. “They were part of us and we are here because of them. So it is important that you remember or even do something in remembrance.”

Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, Thompson, who identifies as African American, was exposed to the power of fabric when she watched her grandmother and her friends quilt in the living room. “All the fabric she used was very familiar,” says Thompson. “She put in clothing that we actually wore. It was part of us.”

A quilt by Susan Thompson on display at the Hyde Park branch of the Boston Public Library. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A quilt by Susan Thompson on display at the Hyde Park branch of the Boston Public Library. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Though she grew up watching her grandmother sew, Thompson didn’t seriously consider quilting until she was in her 30s and married with young children. Her kids would participate in school plays and Thompson helped make their costumes. The result was a lot of leftover fabric.

“It popped into my mind to make pictures from fabric and that’s what I did,” she says. “I first started making little wall hangings. I didn’t see them as important but it was a way to use up the fabric and it led to something else.”

Eventually, Thompson’s mentor, Allan Rohan Crite, encouraged her to take a deeper dive into what would become her artistic practice. “I would say, ‘Everybody else, they’ve already finished art school. They’re already doing what they do in their career,'” Thompson recalls. “And he would say, ‘Well, Grandma Moses didn’t start until she was in her 70s. So it’s never too late.'”

Quilting has a long history in the Black community — enslaved people would create quilts using scrap or repurposed fabric and passed the practice down from generation to generation.

Over the decades, Thompson has utilized assemblage to tell stories, both new and old. For her, fabric is a powerful conductor of memory and meaning. Some of her quilts feature cultural symbols, like the Andinkra character Sankofa, which means “to go back and get it,” to retrieve history and culture. Others contain photos of her ancestors and are a visual way to keep their memories alive.

Indigo also plays a significant role in her practice and is used to stain fabrics a rich, distinctive blue. “That’s a power color for me,” says Thompson. “Our ancestors grew that indigo in Louisiana.”

“When the Ancestors Cried,” by Susan Thompson on display at the Hyde Park branch of the Boston Public Library. Indigo dye is used to create varying shades of blue. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
“When the Ancestors Cried,” by Susan Thompson on display at the Hyde Park branch of the Boston Public Library. Indigo dye is used to create varying shades of blue. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A popular plant in West Africa, enslaved people brought their knowledge of indigo to the Americas. Thompson’s use of the dye gestures toward the history of indigo as a cash crop — at one point, it made up 25% of exports from the American colonies. The climate and soil of Louisiana made it an ideal location for the plant to grow and it was often cultivated by enslaved people.

Thompson often uses indigo in her ancestor quilts, forging a link between the ancestors she knows and the ones she doesn’t.

“It’s an opportunity,” Thompson says of her artwork. “To be connected to my ancestors through my cloth, through my work and through me.”

It’s a particularly important aspect of her work. Thompson points out that she can only trace her lineage back a few generations. “Some people can go back 15 or 20 generations,” she says. “Well, that was all lost to us.”

As a descendant of people who were enslaved, finding archival evidence of ancestors can be difficult, if records exist at all.

For Thompson, her quilts are a way for her to reach back and interact with the complicated past of her ancestry. “I feel that we lost a great deal: our language, our religion,” she says. “And I think that’s why I really [quilt]. It’s trying to reclaim something that was lost.”

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