Dindga McCannon helped pioneer art quilting, an innovative, improvisational approach to a traditional medium.
The precise planning and geometric symmetry that are hallmarks of most quilts prompted in our imagination are rarely found in the work of Dindga McCannon.
Dindga McCannon: As a traditional quilter, I would fail miserably. I call what I do art quilting, because it allows me to take all the different fields that I’ve dealt in and put it into one form of expression.
While traditional quilts use only textiles, no material is off limits to McCannon.
McCannon: Tie-dying, using recycled materials like metal, paper. I was fascinated with rust for a while there.
McCannon: Yeah, because things, like you find rusty items on the street. You can take a piece of fabric and soak it in vinegar and you get an image of the rusty pattern. So I’m always looking for rusty washers. I find all kinds of stuff. I’m always exploring “What if, and why don’t I try this combination with that combination.” It’s just fun and it’s exciting to just try to make all of this stuff fit together.
Over the course of her more than 50 year career, Dindga McCannon has become an expert in making it all fit together. Growing up, she was trained not in art but in domestic skills.
McCannon: The cooking, the cleaning, the sewing, and all that. It was mandatory as a woman, a young woman. That’s what you had to learn. But then around the time that I was 16, I had this great inspiration that I was going to be an artist. And of course nobody had ever heard of that in my family because it simply wasn’t a career option. And so from then on, my life path took like this and like that and like this instead of a straight line.
McCannon first applied these domestic skills to sewing dashikis, traditional African garments for men. Eventually, this practice evolved into wearable art and then art quilts. As the member of two collectives at the heart of the black arts movement, McCannon’s endeavors were designed to reflect black pride and identity.
McCannon: Because at that time, if somebody were to ask you “Oh, where’s the black arts?” Most of the time, the answer would be “There are no black arts, there’s really no history.” Which is not true. And of course, not only do we have all the artists that came before me, but we made it our business to produce an art form that celebrated us.
Today, Dindga McCannon’s work maintains a keen eye on building a legacy, both collective and personal.
McCannon: When my mother passed, I became the eldest in the family and all the papers and the bills and all that stuff, that passed down to me. Stayed in a box for 10 years. One day, an artist named Laura Gaston decided to have an art show for Harlem Sewn Up. The theme was do something dealing with Harlem. So I said “Oh, I’ve got all of this stuff that’s historical.” As you know, Harlem also, like may other neighborhoods, is changing. So I wanted to do a piece of work that showed that we have history here. I’m a third generation Harlemite. So I took all of these letters, picture of my mothers’ friends, insurance bills. I thought that if I don’t actually use the actual letters, what’s gonna happen to them? Probably get thrown away when I’m gone. So therefore I decided to use them. The way that we live in today’s world, everything’s on the computer. These things are tactile. They can be felt, they can be touched. And they’re like living history.
AJC: What are the conversations, if any, that you have with a lot of these traditional southern quilters?
McCannon: My conversation basically is that there’s room for all of us. I love people who do traditional quilting because to me, it’s another art form. Particularly men and women who take all those little teeny pieces and actually sew them up into something beautiful. That’s fantastic. But I can’t do that. If I know what something is going to look like before I finish it, I won’t even start it. Because it kills the fun for me. The whole fun in my world is coming up with a very vague idea of something I want to say, laying out a piece of fabric, and then beginning to compile things to go on it. I have no idea what it’s gonna look like, but I have to have confidence that it’s gonna come out alright. Whether it be next week, next year, or whenever I finish it. But that’s how I work. Like jazz, improvisation.
This improvisational approach also creates room for serendipity. After leaving one piece featuring women and music partially finished for months, inspiration struck.
McCannon: And so I took the piece out and I laid it on the table and then I started adding things. I said “Oh, I like this, it’s time now.”
AJC: What’s the feeling of rightness? How do you know it’s right?
McCannon: You don’t until you set everything down and then like for example, this piece, the major figure is a woman with a baton. And then around it I had put originally paper names of women who were composers. And then as I look at it, I said “Oh, I’ve got beads.” And “Oh, rhinestones.” The materials are beginning to say “Use me, use me! You know you want me, I’m in that box over there. Been sitting there too long, come get me.” And I’ll go get the box and start to play around with things and it all kind of works out. I just find it interesting that in the history, particularly of America, how a lot of art forms, the doors have been closed to women. But also throughout that history, there are women who are always kicking the door. “Open up, I can do this, I can do this!” And I love these women because I feel that because they existed and because they fought to do whatever art form it was, it made it possible for me in the 60s to say “I want to be an artist” and not be put in a nuthouse.
AJC: Was there a plan and have you achieved what you set out to achieve?
McCannon: My plan was just to exist as an artist, so I’ve succeeded in that. There’s about 20 million things I haven’t done yet.
AJC: You’ll stop doing this when you can no longer do it?
McCannon: I’ll stop doing this when I drop dead. And I hope to drop dead in the studio, busy.