Smithsonian affiliated Polk Museum of Art (PMoA) at Florida Southern College welcomes a new exhibit. Quilts made by fiber artist Lauren Austin are currently on display through March 12, 2023.
Austin, a former civil rights attorney turned fulltime artist, was invited to take part in an on-going series in which PMoA has partnered with the FSC Black Student Union (BSU) to exhibit Harlem Renaissance style art. Austin has established herself as a respected artist with her large-scale figurative quilts that deal with concepts of memory and history. The exhibition, Lauren Austin: Life in Quilts, showcases Austin’s storytelling ability. She was the featured exhibitor and keynote speaker at a Nov. 12 event.
“One of the great things about an academic and community museum is our ability to collaborate with the College and the community, and I think that the Harlem Renaissance event, our second offering of it in collaboration with the Black Student Union, exemplifies precisely the type of broadly engaging event college museums should be hosting,” said Dr. H. Alexander Rich, Executive Director of the Polk Museum of Art and the George & Dorothy Forsythe Endowed Chair in Art History & Museum Studies. “We love giving BSU the opportunity to use the space in the museum, as our venue seems perfect for exploring and examining art and culture of the past and present. Having this event also coincide with our Life in Quilts exhibition, featuring the magnificent work of Lauren Austin, is also an accident of perfect timing. Having Lauren here to present her work as part of the celebration of Black culture over time, looking back at the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, is absolutely an ideal exploration of what we always aspire to do in a museum like ours, and we hope for many, many more of these types of collaborations in the future.”
Florida Southern BSU president, Raven Harrison ’23, shared Dr. Rich’s enthusiasm.
“When I was doing research on the Harlem Renaissance, I thought it would be so amazing to have a modern Harlem Renaissance,” Harrison said. “This is the perfect time to do it. I brought it forward to our E-board and they agreed, saying, ‘Yes! Let’s do this! We want to highlight Black artists before it’s too late, because a lot of Black artists don’t get the recognition they deserve.’”
Harrison organized and hosted the Nov. 12 event. Black Student Union historian Samantha Dehring ’23 gave a presentation on the history of the Harlem Renaissance. The presentation was followed by the reading of a poem by Jordan Parrish ’25, before Natalie Williams ’26 treated guests to a moving rendition of Andra Day’s song, “Rise Up”. Florida Southern BSU secretary Devin Rollins ’24 shared an original short film. The artwork of Assistant Communications Professor Dr. Vickie VanHurley, Ph.D; Morgan Shelton ’23; Rachel Williams ’24; Ali Rodriguez ’25; Jaden Knowles ’25; and Raven Harrison ’23 was on display.
The very soft-spoken Austin thanked the FSC BSU for the invitation to share her art. Her impactful words were delivered graciously as she advised the audience that Black artists must be prepared to work in the dark because it is unlikely that their work will ever be seen. She then invited guests to join her in the museum lobby where she shared her motivation for her quilts. Each quilt was strategically displayed to allow Austin to take guests on a journey through her creative process. The gallery talk was facilitated by the adept curation of each piece.
Pain for Pain and Our Vision of His Transition were hung in direct juxtaposition. The viewing experience was heightened by Austin’s evocative descriptions of how she was inspired to create these two pieces due to her experience caring for her dying uncle. She explained that Our Vision of His Transition was how she would have preferred for her uncle’s passing to have happened, while Pain for Pain reflected the harsh reality of his transition as a disregarded Black man.
Our Vision of His Transition includes elements such as a resurrection fern, white thread, and beads that glow in the dark to create the feeling of being underneath the night sky. Austin purposely reimagined her uncle in an outdoor setting, underneath a tree, because of his love for nature. In contrast, Pain for Pain is stitched on a stark white background. Austin pointed out the almost invisible spider webs that had been stitched into the quilt because spider webs were on the walls of her uncle's poorly maintained hospital room. She chose not to include the blood that was never cleaned off the floor.
The artist shared the deep meaning of her Yemanja and Her Osprey quilt. Yemanja is the Yoruba goddess who is associated with the moon, water, and feminine mysteries. As the “Mother of All,” she is believed to aide with self-love, fertility, emotional wounds, trauma, and healing. Austin explained that Africans who endured the middle passage would have possibly believed themselves to be under the watchful eyes of Yemanja. According to Austin, the captured Africans would have either wanted Yemanja to aide them in drowning themselves to prevent their continued bondage, or they would have wanted her to gird them for what was to come.
The artist’s subject matter touches on the everyday drama, joy, and sadness of the Black experience. Three decades of artistic interpretation of birding, the identification and observation of wild birds in their natural habitat, and Black culture brought to life by hand-threading, machine-threading, and beadwork quilts comprise the exhibit.
Austin pointed out that the beading on her quilts is always sewn on, never glued. She detests glue because it damages fabric. Her quilting materials are as carefully chosen as her themes.
Quilt making in Black culture began as early as the 17th century, with enslaved women using scraps of fabric from slave owners’ households to fabricate quilts. The quilts began as utilitarian objects used solely to stay warm. As Black quiltmakers improved their skills and craftsmanship, they began to use their quilts not only for their functionality, but as a means of artistic expression and as a vehicle for storytelling.
When asked what inspired her love for the art of quilting Austin said, “I had always been around people who quilted. My mother and my grandmother had a sewing group that met on Tuesday evenings, and people would bring their knitting and crocheting, whatever they had. There were a couple of women in the group who did quilting. They were also the best gossipers. So, I would sit under their quilt frame and listen to things I had no idea of what they were really talking about. They saw me under there and said if you’re going to be here, you have to work. So, they gave me a needle and thread and I was doing stitching, and everybody thought that was great.”
Austin became more serious about quilt making when she bartered with a family friend, who she refers to as “E,” for a quilt that he was using to wrap a spare tire in exchange for a pink blanket that she took from her bed. The exchange led to a trip to the library to learn how to clean the quilt properly.
“We read Watkins book on Household Hints[sic], technical books, and histories of dry-cleaning books,” Austin wrote on her website’s blog page. “We asked people for advice. We talked about what we read, and I made lists of questions. I used the questions to ask people for advice. I made notes. I washed the quilt many times.”
Upon seeing the restored quilt, “E” took it back, justifying his actions by claiming his grandmother made it. Austin’s mother was upset by what happened and told her that “adults do mean things sometimes”.
The restoration of that quilt, and having it taken from her, sparked a more intense interest in quilt making for Austin.
“I remember saying, ‘It’s okay, mommy. I can make more,’” she wrote on her website. “I did make more. I kept making more.”
She went on to write that her mantra about art making came from the thrill of learning to do something new, sadness and betrayal, and trying to help her mother not be angry about that first quilt being taken away from her.
“I can make more,” Austin wrote. “I will always, as long as I possibly can. I will make more. Art is life.”
The Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, located at 800 East Palmetto Street, Lakeland, Fla. 33801, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays and Holidays. Admission is always free. Call 863-688-7743 for more information.