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Photograph: WEAVING A TALE: Artist Hazel Blackman quilts scenes from African-American history. Photo Credit: Drew Fellman.

Quilter weaves fabric into stories

By Debbie Yuan, Staff Reporter

In her bedroom-turned art studio, Hazel Blackman works with a tiny needle, piecing together stories from colorful, multipatterned patches of fabric. Sometimes she works in silence, other times to the soothing sounds of classical music.

Her finished products are quilts that often capture motion and rhythm. One resonates with the earthy beat of drums and footsteps inside the Jamaica Dance Theater; another depicts an African woman whose long, flowing gown seems to rustle as she strums an instrument.

"Storytelling Quilts," an exhibition at the Longwood Arts Gallery, is only a sampling of Blackman's handiwork depicting images of African and Caribbean figures who influenced the artist's life.

"I'm fairly new at this," said the modest and soft-spoken Blackman, who first became fascinated with quilts when visiting Alabama in the late 1950s. "You have quilters whose grandparents have done it."

Blackman, who is also a fashion designer and painter, has brought together the best of two worlds -- fabric and paint -- to express her romance with Africa and colors.

Betti-Sue Hertz, the director of the Longwood Arts Project, said she has known Blackman and her paintings for 10 years but only recently found out she also made quilts.

While Blackman is not new to the art world -- her oil paintings having been displayed in museums and churches in Greece, London and Jamaica -- this exhibit gave her a chance to show her quilts collectively for the first time, Hertz said.

The half dozen quilts displayed include "The Black Starliner." Measuring 72-by-84 inches, it is the largest panel in the exhibit and also the one most significant to the artist, who spent three months completing it.

The quilt portrays a ship of the Black Star Line, the shipping company Marcus Garvey founded in 1919 to help finance his back-to-Africa movement.

Blackwood's rendition is covered with black geometric stars. It floats in a sea of swirling waves underneath billowing blue-green clouds painted on the quilt. Painting the background is a distinct feature of Blackman's works.

"As an artist, I approach quilting in a creative way," said Blackman, a native of Kingston, Jamaica. "This piece is very dear to me because Garvey is a symbol of economic growth, and I have deep affection for his ideas."

Blackman only recently learned that her grandfather had bought stock in Garvey's line. As a young child, she lived a block away from the black rights activist's original headquarters in Jamaica.

The third of 11 children, Blackman, who moved to Williamsbridge from Jamaica 36 years ago often watched her mother sew clothes for the family.

"I wanted to be a designer for Broadway at first," she said. Later she studied at the Traphagen School of Fashion in Manhattan.

On a recent visit to the gallery, Priscilla Crowell, who works at Public School 62, marveled at the display.

"I love the colors and the way they're pieced together, she said. "I tell you she's brilliant," Crowell said of her neighbor.

"My creative juices are still flowing," she said.

The Bronx Beat, April 3, 1995