Q+Art: Artist Michael Booker Unravels the History of Coded Quilts
Artist Michael Booker grew up around quilts. His grandmother, a lifelong quilter, sewed her colorful creations by hand before passing them onto family members as gifts. It wasn’t until Booker left his home in Jackson, Mississippi, to pursue an MFA that he began to see his grandmother’s quilts as family heirlooms.
At college, Booker discovered the famous quilts of Gees Bend, Alabama, an isolated, African American community just southwest of Selma. Through the post-Civil War period and into the 20th century, the descendants of slaves crafted quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated shacks lacking running water and electricity. In Gees Bend the improvisational quilts carry a high degree of originality and cultural continuity, a result of the area’s remote locale and tight-knit community.
Everything changed for Booker when he came across the Gees Bend quilts. “Coming from a painting background, I started seeing a comparison of those Gee's Bend quilts to Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting,” he says in an interview for Create! Magazine. The quilters’ work, rich with tradition, gave Booker the confidence to pursue a different framework for his art. “There is a history of hidden signs and symbols in quilts that has been lost over time,” he continues, “and I wanted to contribute to keeping the communication messages and storytelling through quilts alive.”
The works in Booker’s Godspeed series (pictured below) take inspiration from the practice of using quilts as guideposts along the Underground Railroad. The quilts were embedded with coded messages that marked safe houses or alerted slaves on the run to surrounding danger. “The drawings in Godspeed document a journey of escapism for travelers in search of a better life,” Booker writes in his artist statement, likening the quilts to transformative “portals and gateways to help secure safe passage towards an ‘Afrotopia.’”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Michael Booker discusses the importance of financial literacy, dishing out royalties to artists, and making an “Artist Statement” playlist for the studio.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
MB: Some financial literacy books. It's easier to find books to help you with developing technical or conceptual ideas in your practices. It's not as easy to know about the benefits of becoming an LLC or doing your taxes as an artist. I'll take recommendations!
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
MB: At this point, with being in lockdown/quarantine for so long, I would just like to have dinner with my friends. But if I have to name-drop an artist, it may be Toyin Ojih Odutola.
What are you trying to express with your art?
MB: This question is probably the opportunity to point out what I want viewers to see when viewing my work, but i'd rather let them decide for themselves. I feel I communicate best in visual form rather than written.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
MB: At some point all artists have to deal with this in some way. There have been times that I have done it, but I'm in a position now that it would take a lot more consideration before choosing to do it again. It all depends on your current situation and the opportunities provided.
What person has most influenced your work?
MB: The quilters of Gee's Bend, AL.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
MB: Realizing that I didn't need to compare my work to the history and "mystique" of painting, back when I was primarily oil painting. I switched to drawing with pens and it changed my entire outlook on my work and how I view the romanticized notions of the hierarchy of different media in art.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
MB: Beware of early success.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
MB: It's totally situational. The only reason I went to get my MFA is because I had no idea what I wanted to do after I graduated from college. And I was able to get a fellowship that helped pay for grad school, gain experience teaching, and working in an arts institution. The initial reason MFAs even exist was to establish a standard for becoming an educator in art.
Depending on the school one attends, going to school for art can lead to making certain connections with galleries, curators, critics, organizers, etc., that may be more difficult to make on your own. But there are plenty of artists that have no formal training that have made their own path.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
MB: Royalties. In the art world, if I create a work I put all my heart and soul into and sell it for X amount, the person I sold it to can then hold on to it for a few years, put it in storage so now no one can see it, and then resell that same work for 10 times the initial price and make a profit. Meanwhile, the artist doesn't see a dime.
In other forms of entertainment, you can continue to get paid for your creation and its use by others for years down the line. People have to pay to sample your song or use it in a commercial. And the cast of Friends are still getting paid for their work on that show.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
MB: Historically significant with a dash of mild commercial success on the side.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
MB: For each body of work I make, I always create a playlist of songs that thematically match the work I'm working on. I like to think of it as my Artist Statement Playlist. Here's my current one:
"Sudden Death"—Quelle Chris
"Something Got a Hold"—Big K.R.I.T.
"I Need a Forest Fire"—James Blake and Bon Iver
"Hapi" and "Jupiter"—Spillage Village
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
MB: For a long time, when the quarantine first started, I didn't really make anything for months. I couldn't find the motivation. Now I'm back in the studio making work that deals with how to process the emotions that the quarantine, protests, and other events over the past year have provided.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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