Artist James S. Smoote Weaves New Take on an African American Tradition

Quilting as an art form is firmly rooted in the black community. Chicago textile artist, James S. Smoote II, has worked with fabrics turning them into celebrated works since he was a student at the School of the Art Institute. His talent actually goes back even further because the Mississippi transplant grew up with family creating art (though they probably did not know it at the time), at their quilting bees. He would return to Mississippi during the summer where he would hone his craft. Smoote is one of the several artists featured at the DuSable Museum’s exhibit, “Journey of Hope in America: Quilts Inspired by President Barack Obama.” The exhibition of 90 quilts from some of country’s best-known fiber artists; Adrienne Cruz, Peggie Hartwell, Sandra German, Sylvia Hernandez, Deborah Lacativ, Viola Burley Leak, Susan Shie,
Adrienne Yorinks and Smoote, are part of this one-of-kind event. –tony binns

When did you start quilting?
As a student at the School of Art Institute I was first a weaving major, and then I became a textile design major working with dye to produce imaginary, usually African-inspired, African American-inspired images on textiles with dye. I came to quilting by quilting portions of fabric that I did was usually three-yard lifts, so I would quilt portions of it and that eventually evolved into making quilts.

Talk about your work, particularly the Obama quilt.
My work is basically what I call “urban portrait quilts.” I do portraits primarily of blacks, sometimes well-known political figures — but sometimes not so well-known. They are usually done by drawing and painting and combining traditional quilting techniques.

What is it about the art form you enjoy the most?
I like the tactility of the fabric. Mostly in the art world you are told not to touch, but this form you can.

As a former public school art instructor any thoughts on how arts education has taken a back seat to other learning activities?
… I think art, music; physical education makes for a well-rounded student. In the last two decades there has been a shift toward reading and teaching “the test” so the other more creative and physical aspects of education have suffered.

Journey of Hope in America: Quilts Inspired by President Barack Obama runs through May 9, 2012, at the DuSable Museum, 740 East 56th Pl.

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