Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin

Susan Goldman Rubin is the author of The Quilts of Gee's Bend, a new book for kids that explores the history of the quilts made by a group of women in Gee's Bend, Alabama. Her many other books include Brown v. Board of Education and Roy's House. She lives in Malibu, California.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of writing about these quilts?

A: Back in 2004 I was offered an assignment to do a book, Art Against the Odds, From Slave Quilts to Prison Paintings. My editor was wonderful, and gave me free rein…

[One chapter focused on] women’s quilts. A lot of the information I put in went into this new book. I was moved by the way black women who were so poor and had to work so hard came up with these quilt designs, both to keep their family warm and also as an expression of art and of their feelings…

It was in my mind, always, to devote a whole book to quilts and the women who made them, and their history, which dates back to slavery.

I had a two-book contract with Abrams, and I read in The New York Times that these quilts were being gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit was postponed until next year. It gave me the idea that it would be a good subject. [It involves] civil rights, art, and poverty. I did a proposal, and my editor loved it…

Q: The images in the book of the various quilts are really beautiful—how did you select the ones to include?

A: That was very hard. I wanted to show the variety, and cover different themes…there were so many choices to be made. I participated in laying out the book. I wanted the text to be near the images. I love the way that they’re printed full size. You get the idea of how big these pieces are.

I have no talent for sewing. I can’t imagine how these pieces were put together. There’s one that’s quilted from her husband’s old clothes. It’s so beautiful, a loving way to remember somebody who’s dear to you.

Some seem like patterns that would have given directions on the Underground Railroad—go this way, don’t go that way. The hard part was limiting the choices and getting the variety. There’s a wonderful quote on page 19, “Ought not two quilts ever be the same.”

Q: What surprised you as you worked on the book?

A: This amazed me—my goal was to call attention to this incredible art that the women didn’t realize was art. Then I found out that Dr. Martin Luther King was part of this story, and that enriches the whole thing. He stopped in Camden [near Gee's Bend] and some of the women followed him to Selma. I thought that was an incredible story.

One of the books I’m doing is on voting rights. I’ve been reading a book that tells all about the significance of Camden. Dr. Martin Luther King took so many of these women, and men, with him to march for voting rights.

They took the ferry, and in retaliation, whites shut down the ferry. It opened again many years later. Camden is 80 percent black, and not one black person had ever made it to register to vote, there were so many restrictions. I know I’ll be writing more about it.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

A: First, a great pleasure in viewing this art, the amazement and awe and inspiration that it was possible to make art out of practically nothing.

I hope they’ll have an enriched appreciation of what civil rights is all about, and that the black community in Gee’s Bend survived and produced an amazing body of artwork and put themselves on the map.

It is awe-inspiring. So many of us face lesser obstacles. I want to call attention to their achievements and dedication and the love they express. I feel it’s a privilege to be writing about them.

We had to get permission for each piece of art to be shown. I’ve donated a portion of the proceeds of the book to the makers of the quilts and their heirs. That’s why I wanted to include vintage photos, so people could see how impoverished this community was.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve just turned in the first draft of a biography of Paul Robeson, the great black singer, actor, activist. He was the only black student in the Rutgers class of 1919.

He was harassed during the McCarthy era—he was black, he spoke out, he was sympathetic to the Soviet Union because he saw no discrimination there. It’s important to pay tribute to his art and his singing. He embodies “black is beautiful” before the slogan.

When I was a teenager, his passport was taken away and he had a seven-year fight to get it back. I was asked by a fellow art student to hear Paul Robeson speak…I signed a petition urging the State Department to return his passport so he could continue traveling internationally. The book will come out in 2018.

On a lighter note, I’m working on a book about Coco Chanel. What a contrast! And there’s a book I’ve already done, a biography of Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.When I interviewed her, she discussed projects that were most important to her, and her dedication to the environment…what we can do to protect the planet.

Q: Anything else we should know about the quilt book?

A: I hope kids will read it and discuss it and come away with a real sense of beauty, that it can appear in the most unlikely places. Everyone is capable of making something that’s beautiful and unique.

[The book includes] directions to make a simple quilt square. I’m hoping kids will give it a whirl. I think it’s important to try making art…especially at a time when art budgets are being cut…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Susan Goldman Rubin, please click here.

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