In some ways, it takes a village for Pittsburgh fiber artist Tina Williams Brewer to create her story quilts. In other ways, it takes the sweep of human history and the spiritual forces of the universe.
A retrospective of her career, “Cultivation: The Journey of the Work,” is showing through April 24 at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.
The works are positioned mostly in the order of their creation — from 1989 to 2021.
“Cultivating awareness and the ability to access wisdom and resilience in the midst of chaos is the driving force behind my creative process,” Williams Brewer says in her artist statement. “My work is a celebration of the profound joy of gathering with loved ones and the strength of the spiritual connections.”
Williams Brewer’s work is inspired by African and African American spirituality, history and culture.
“She’s a real storyteller, so you see a lot of symbolism in the work, lots of different techniques, lots of different materials,”said Barbara Jones, The Westmoreland’s chief curator. “When you look at them, you can sort of read them.”
Williams Brewer creates the multi-layered works using hand-dyed fabrics from Nigeria and Morocco, along with vintage fabrics, Jamaican lace, mud cloth, netting, beads, embroidery stitches, metallic threads, jute, charms and photo transfers.
Shirley McMarlin | Tribune-Review
Detail from Tina Williams Brewer’s quilt, “New Pittsburgh Courier: It Happened: The Courier was There: Destiny,” 2009, domestic cotton, shibori, organza, photo transfers, handmade paper, hand and machine stitched.
A resident of Pittsburgh’s Homewood-Brushton area for about 50 years, the artist said her story is as layered as the quilts she produces.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur, a community activist, an educator with Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and an art creator,” she said.
With her late husband, John Brewer, she also owned and operated the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum, an event and music venue in Homewood.
Wednesday night stitching
The Ohio native, whose family has roots in West Virginia and Kentucky, said her great-great-grandmother was a quilter, but the craft was not passed down through the generations.
In the early 1980s, she said, “I was a stay-at-home-mom, and I needed a creative outlet. I started meeting with a group of women who got together on Wednesday nights, and I started dabbling in quilting. I call it a ‘stitch-and-bitch’ kind of thing. It was a decoy to get out of the house.
“I didn’t like the repetitive nature of the traditional patterns, but I picked up some techniques from these women that I tried to utilize in my work. I started working in a more creative way,” she said.
She actually began collecting fabric long before those quilting sessions, while working in the 1970s as an interior designer for Joseph Horne Co. in Pittsburgh.
“When they’d make the vignettes with the curtains and the upholstery, I couldn’t stand that they would throw the excess fabric out. When they would take down the displays or the fabric on the walls, they would just throw it out,” she said. “So I would roll it up and take it home. I would carry bags and bags of fabric home every night.”
She also collected remnants from the quilting group. There was just something about the materials that spoke to her.
“Fabric holds a kind of energy in itself that comes with the oral traditions, the carrying of energy from one generation to the next,” she said.
Shirley McMarlin | Tribune-Review
Tina Williams Brewer’s “Centered from Within,” 1993, Ghanaian batik wax print with gold, polka dot tulle, domestic voile, tie-dye cotton, African embroidery lace, reflective threads, hand and machine stitched.
Another experience she recalled from her time at Horne’s made her think about using her quilts to educate herself and others about African American culture and history.
“I was one of very few African Americans who were there,” she said. “(My coworkers) introduced me to some of the food and traditions of Europe. I learned very quickly that people are very proud of their culture, they’re very anchored in who they are because of their culture.
“That was what I was missing — why don’t we have a strong grip on our culture?”
As a whole, “‘Cultivation: Journey of the Work’ is intended to provide a reimagining of our authentic and inclusive history,” her artist statement says.
That quest is reflected in one of the featured works. “The Ladder,” from 1989, was inspired by a lithograph she saw depicting the way in which Africans were transported on slave ships, lying shoulder to shoulder in deplorable conditions with no room to move.
“I’d never seen that before and I was overwhelmed with it. I thought, ‘How could this be?’” she said. “That was the beginning of me thinking that there are a lot of things that I don’t know about me — not about everybody, but about me. It was a character-building concept for me, that we came from such misery, yet we’re so strong to be able to survive it.
“We are survivors, not these pitiful people who came over with nothing. Out of the oral tradition, which is in your head, we brought everything — great gifts of information and technology and arts and ingenuity,” she said. “It’s used and woven into the American story, but not with our names on it.
“The quilts needed to have an aesthetic draw to them, because the stories they tell are heavy,” she added.
Jones said that quilters will look at Williams Brewer’s work with an eye toward the use of patterns, the hand-stitching and the sewing, while artists will look at the composition and the layering.
“I’ve always loved her color sense. They’re like fabric paintings to me,” Jones said. “When you look at them from a distance, you see how the colors blend with the layers. She puts one layer over another and she actually mixes colors that way. They look like watercolor paintings to me.”
In 2009, Williams Brewer received the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award. She was the 2018 recipient of the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Artist of the Year.
Her work is in collections including those of The Westmoreland, The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg and the African American Museum in Dallas. She is represented by De Buck Gallery in New York City.
“The importance of showing her work here and now is that Tina is another woman artist who really has been under-recognized,” Jones said. “She’s been working in Pittsburgh for over 30 years and she’s participated in all sorts of exhibitions, but I think she’s not been able to put her life’s work together before now, so that’s how she’s structured this ‘Journey‘ of how she came to create these pieces.”
Williams Brewer will be present to speak with visitors during an Art After Hours event from 6-8 p.m. Feb. 25 at The Westmoreland. Fee is $12 in advance, or $15 at the door. To register, call 888-718-4253 or visit thewestmoreland.org.
Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley at 724-836-5750, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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