Corrections or additions?

This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the November 28, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Quilter’s Life Journey

I try to make my quilts so that they’ll last,"

says Mo Fleming. "I would hope that centuries down the line

they’ll

still be usable. And I do make them to be used and not just to hang

on a wall. You should be able to throw a lap quilt over your lap on

a cold evening."

Plainsboro resident Mo Fleming — also known as Janice Berg to

the Jewish community — is a folk artist whose work transcends

cultures. Not surprisingly, her work is intensely personal. "Sure,

every quilt tells a story. I’ve lived a varied life. I grew up poor

in Brooklyn, but have lived all over the country," she says.

"I

am an African-American woman married to a Jewish man with a daughter

who is half Puerto Rican and I live in the suburbs. I guess it’s only

natural that my work reflects my life."

In an interview that took place at the Jewish Center of Princeton,

Fleming spoke of the thoughts and emotions she puts into creating

her quilts, some of the stories behind them, as well as obstacles

she continues to face as a working artist. Her show, "Gilada

Africana:

An Exhibition of Lap Quilts and Wall Hangings by Mo Fleming,"

opened at the Jewish Center Gallery on November 16 where it remains

on display through January 2. The center hosts an artist’s reception,

open to the public, on Sunday, December 2, from 3 to 5 p.m.

Fleming chose to call the exhibit "Gilada Africana" because

the Hebrew name Gilada means "joy is forever," aptly

describing

the way she feels about her work. "Africana" is a term for

women of African descent.

Although Fleming makes her quilts and wall hangings by hand, she does

not consider herself a quilter in the usual sense. "I don’t really

work in traditional quilt patterns," she says. "I’m not a

fine artist. I just learned at my mother’s knee. I have absolutely

no formal training in what I do. No one could really teach me how

to do this, I just knew."

Still her work is richly varied and delicately realized, employing

a variety of fabrics, textures, and colors. "I love to work with

multi-media, so when I do a quilt I tend to throw in everything that’s

in the closet" she says. "I really love creating with fabrics.

Fabrics speak to me in the way wood and paint and stone speak to other

artists. I am so enchanted with textiles, it’s absolutely orgasmic

for me to touch an interesting textile, because I’m always thinking

of what I would want to do with it."

Her quilt titled "The Novels of Toni Morrison" is a case in

point. It features a fabric portrait of Morrison in the upper right

corner with separate multi-media panels devoted to each of the Nobel

Prize-winning author’s seven novels. "I initially did the portrait

of Toni Morrison without ever actually seeing a picture of her,"

says Fleming. "Unfortunately, I used a fabric that was too dark.

When I found pictures of her and realized her skin was light, I went

back with pink paint over the brown fabric to try to lighten her

up."

If every one of Fleming’s quilts tell a story, sometimes the quilts

become stories themselves. "The quilt had been finished for a

couple of months, and I’d hoped to get Ms. Morrison to sign the last

panel to complete it," says Fleming. After making a number of

phone calls to people at Princeton University where Morrison is a

professor, Fleming was finally able to reach Morrison’s assistant,

Rene Boatman. "I explained that the quilt was an homage to Ms.

Morrison’s work, but Ms. Boatman explained to me that it was Ms.

Morrison’s

policy not to sign anything other than her novels."

Fleming persisted, mailing photos of her quilts, and then following

up with another series of phone calls. Although she wasn’t wholly

successful, Fleming did eventually receive a letter from Boatman

reiterating

Morrison’s decision, but nonetheless expressing her best wishes and

fondness for Fleming’s quilts.

"But I still needed to finish the quilt, so I had a copy of the

letter photo-transferred to fabric and I put that on the quilt,"

says Fleming. "It isn’t Toni Morrison’s handwriting, but it is

her stationery. And it also tells the end of the story."

Other quilts in the exhibition give evidence of Fleming’s rich gift

for imaginative storytelling. While each quilt is visually evocative,

they are also often enriched with a dash or two of humor or poetry.

"The 50th Anniversary Kippot Quilt" is made entirely of a

colorful array of kippot — skullcaps — supplied by members

of the synagogue. Fleming donated this work to the Jewish Center for

its 50th anniversary in 2000.

"Imogene’s Faces" is a quilt inspired by Fleming’s mother,

Imogene Ferguson. The quilt depicts a series of faces that are

identical

in every way except for the hair. "My mother is totally into

hair,"

says Fleming. "All my life she has had as many wigs as she could

own. There were wigs stands all over our house."

"June Milk" is a quilt in which a grandmother is portrayed

simply enjoying an afternoon with her grandchildren. It is made up

of material Fleming got from her grandmother’s cache — vibrantly

colored fabrics of blues, pinks, and yellows, as well as a series

of small shells, buttons, and beads made out of natural jasper.

"I like to make smaller sized quilts," says Fleming. "It

forces me to throw a lot of energy into little things." "The

reason why this quilt is called `June Milk’ is because `June’ and

`Milk’ are the only two words that appear on the quilt."

Fleming was born in Greenville, South Carolina. and moved to Brooklyn

when she was four. Her parents separated when she was very young,

and Fleming did not meet her father until she was in her early 20s.

"I really don’t know very much about him, though I don’t think

he was a particularly artistic person," says Fleming.

"My mother has always been a tremendously artistic person,"

says Fleming. "When I was a child, she always sewed. Then she

took up crocheting, knitting, ceramics. Her stuff is just true

artistry.

I guess you could say that I’m truly my mother’s child."

When Fleming was still young, her mother married a man

who turned out to be an alcoholic and a domestic abuser. "Overall,

it was a fairly horrific childhood," says Fleming. "I have

a younger brother and sister and we all had to struggle with it. Even

though my mother left him when I was eight, the scars are still

there."

Fleming believes that these unhappy memories have had an opposite

affect on her work. "I try to do happy works," she explains.

"I want people to take comfort in the quilts. A quilt is a warm

and comforting thing."

Fleming met her husband in the early 1980s, and converted to Judaism

13 years ago. "Although my husband is Jewish, he came from a

secular

family, wholly uninterested in religion," she explains. "Even

today, he’s not particularly religious. Still, he always felt that

if we were to have children someday he would want them to be raised

Jewish. Given my husband’s background, I could see that I would have

to be the one to instill Judaism in any children we were to have.

So I decided to convert. But I think that I was always Jewish in some

way. It was just something that I needed to recognize at some

point."

Together Fleming and her husband run BCA Books, an African-American

bookselling business. "For several years we worked six days a

week at places like Crossroads Theater and Freedom Theater, running

book sites," she says. "When we left Crossroads, we continued

to sell through mail order because we had developed a national

customer

base. My husband is also part-owner of QBR, the black book review,

and he works for a courier service."

Although Fleming has only been making quilts since 1997, her future

as a quilt maker may be limited because of an automobile accident

last October. "My quilting life is numbered," she says.

"I’ve

only created 15 in the last four years, and if I can make five or

ten more I will be very lucky. My left arm is degenerating and it

is the process of the sewing that is wearing it down. It’s really

disheartening to finally discover what your art really is, and then

to know that you won’t be able to do it much longer."

After pausing a moment, Fleming sighs. "But I’ve got so much art

in me, I’ll figure out something to do. The next thing will probably

be toe-art," she laughs. "As long as my toes are strong I

may figure out a way to utilize them. I just love creating with

fabrics."

— Jack Florek

Mo Fleming, Princeton Jewish Center, 435 Nassau

Street, 609-921-0100. "Gilada Africana: An Exhibition of Lap

Quilts

and Wall Hangings." Gallery open Sunday through Friday, 9 a.m.

to 5 p.m., for the show that runs through January 2. Artist’s

reception

Sunday, December 2, 3 to 5 p.m.


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