Few craft media may be more deeply rooted in the traditions of the past than the making of quilts.
But while many Southern women from earlier times might recognize the contemporary needlework of Mississippi artist Gwendolyn A. Magee as something akin to the home-made bed coverings of their day, it's probably safe to say they'd quickly see a stark and harrowing difference.
Instead of focusing on domestic utility and creature comfort, Magee gives this mainstay of rural Southern culture a modern twist, mining the medium's unexpected potential to mark a period when the lives of many black people were bloodied by persistent racial injustice.
Trying to give faces to the thousands of people who were hung, mutilated and burned alive by American lynch mobs between 1850 and 1940, Magee gathered and reproduced their names in a list so gruesome and long that a big 70-by-85-inch quilt was still too small to contain them.
Then she stitched over this epic roll of the forgotten dead with a simple yet eloquent silhouette of a wide-branched hanging tree from which dangles a solitary lifeless figure.
"It's a tough image — a very sobering image — and as soon as you realize what you're looking at it has a lot of shock value," says curator Gayle Paul of the Portsmouth Cultural Arts Center, where Magee's "Blood of the Slaughtered" hangs in an exhibit showcasing innovation in traditional crafts.
"The closer you look at it, the more you see the dates — and the more you realize that a lot of this didn't happen that long ago."
Made up of works by 30 artists from across the South, "Tradition/Innovation: American Masterpieces of Southern Craft & Traditional Art" was curated by South Arts, a nonprofit regional arts organization based in Atlanta.
The sprawling and often eye-catching collection of quilts, baskets, pottery, a Mardi Gras costume and other works is supplemented by six additional talents from across the Old Dominion, filling out the roster with such media as wood carving, embroidery, musical instruments and even the lost millinery art of hat making.
Many of these objects showcase the vision of artists pushing the envelope, including North Carolina blacksmith Elizabeth Brim, whose forged and fabricated steel "Catch Apron with Flowers" demonstrates how a feminine hand and eye can radically transform what had previously been a masculine medium.
Portsmouth fiber artist Monee Marie Bengston works some unexpected magic, too, blending a wry sense of humor inspired by Dr. Seuss with a mastery of age-old embroidery techniques to produce little masterpieces of contemporary needlework.
Her comic portrait of "Sponge Bob Round Can" incorporates meticulous craftsmanship, an art-historical bow to Pop Art icon Andy Warhol and a lively sense of fun, while her circus-like scenes of aerial balance and derring-do — such "It's the Fall that Kills You" — boast an existential edge that slices just a little more deeply than the zany images found in the famous books of the children's author and cartoonist.
Magee's quilt, of course, is much darker still, exploring its brutal subject with a solemn but unflinching feel for the tragic fates of thousands of blacks whose unbelievable numbers have still not been fully counted.
Employing the simple but riveting power of a roll call, she lists the names of the killed and the places and dates of their deaths state by state, underscoring the jaw-dropping volume of lynchings and murders that took place in such Deep South realms as Alabama, Mississippi and — especially — Georgia, which needed an added 6-foot-tall panel to hold all its entries.
Interspersed throughout this horrific photo-transferred inventory are more than a dozen period newspaper, magazine and book accounts describing in wincing detail not just the murderous acts themselves but also the outrageously wanton crowds that gathered to watch these mostly public executions.
As grueling as this dark registrar of wrongful deaths may be, however, there's also something reverential and caring about Magee's beautifully pieced gray-black silhouette of the hanging tree and its victim.
It's almost as if — like the quilt makers of the past after all — she stitched her work together in way designed to not just mourn and remember but also offer the souls of the lost some comfort.
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Want to go?
"Tradition/Innovation: American Masterpieces of Southern Craft & Traditional Art"
Where: Portsmouth Cultural Arts Center, corner of High and Court streets in the 1846 Courthouse, Olde Towne Portsmouth
When: Tuesday-Sunday through April 28
Online: Go to dailypress.com/newcrafts to see a gallery of photos from the show.