Here’s something that happened while we were photographing those African-American quilts back in 1979.
My companion was Worth Long, an experienced African-American folklorist who had been sent to Tucson by the National Endowment for the Arts to teach me what he could about how to locate African-American folk artists.
We were in a town in Pinal County and were explaining to a quilt-maker and her husband, a minister, what we were doing and why. We were looking for quilts — not to buy and resell them, but to document them as an exciting form of traditional African-American folk art. We’d like to photograph as many quilts as possible. The photographs would go into the University of Arizona Archives. We hoped to find enough material for a potential exhibition, showing the work of the ladies here in Pinal County.
As we heard ourselves say all this it sounded a little thin, even to us. Here were two strangers — men in their 40s, one black, one white, driving a University of Arizona car, on a self-proclaimed mission of benevolent public service. What were we really up to? Where was the catch in all this? Giving no indication that these thoughts might be going through his head, our new preacher friend told us the following story:
That was all; the subject was changed soon after. But the message came across loud and clear: “I don’t know what you fellows are up to in my community, but it had better be what you say it is.” A bit indirect, of course, but there are many different ways to convey a meaning, just as there are different ways to piece a quilt. And they all add beauty to the tapestry of American culture.