If you stand in front of an artwork by Tina Williams Brewer for a while, you may begin to hear voices.
They may be coming from inside you.
They may be floating gently through the room.
Stories are omnipresent, but the sounds of daily life command attention, and who has time to pause and listen?
Brewer does, and they contribute to the magic of her works as she stitches, inch by inch, a tangible whole made of imagination but equally of memory, the culmination of her own experiences but also the accrued joys and sorrows of humankind.
These voices wait, with patience and urgency, for a receptive ear, a channel for that which they have to share, to teach.
We commonly interpret such sounds as wind rushing along the crest of a majestic mountain; or the reverberating notes of an organ filling a great cathedral.
But Brewer has learned that there is more to it. Another side to the sounds that exist. Occasionally one resonates with her, she reflects on it, and then she selects a thread, a fabric, or a color that complements it.
These components will add their voices to the mix, because fiber, like the past, isn’t static. It too begins as a living thing.
The linen from a flax plant, the bolls of cotton in a field, the lustrous filaments of the industrious silkworm – all have a story of their own before they become the garment of a European sheepherder, an African chief, an Asian princess.
Who knows what tales the strips of cloth that wrap ancient Egyptian mummies could tell if we could listen in? Which anecdotes hide within the markings of mud cloth from a Mali village in the 19th century?
Possibly none. Or perhaps they are innate rather than articulated, ignored because they fall within the sensory rather than the intellectual realm.
But at least for some, fiber is a presence in itself.
Often, people keep clothing that belonged to a deceased loved one; a shirt, sweater, socks, or shoes. How many find comfort in looking at it? By touching it? How many occasionally wear it to spark a smile or ward off a lonely moment of the soul?
The question is, how do we quantify the higher comfort factor of an heirloom quilt versus a newly manufactured quilt picked up in a department store?
Looking at one of her works from across a room, one may presume it to be an abstract painting. The inclusion of blocks and strokes of color, pattern, and implied movement is almost painterly. They can be as big as 7 feet and as large as 52 inches.
She composes the compositions with layers and add-ons such as beads, cowrie shells, or bright buttons in the form of finely bound French knots.
Brewer refers to her works as “story quilts.” Acknowledging the receptivity to and contributions of voices from various sources in the narratives she constructs.
She is a creator and curator, deconstructing, adapting, contemporizing, and historicizing the term “quilt.”
The fabrics she selects from are old and new; inherited, donated, found, and purchased from near and abroad. Sometimes their origin or intent is evident. Others pulse enigmatically, speaking across the layers, behind the transparencies she veils portions of a piece with.
Symbols are also very significant for Brewer, and she’s spent years creating a visual vocabulary. Many of these forms are specific to the African-American component of her heritage, an exploration of which continues as a flowing yet persistent undercurrent to her oeuvre.
Such are the somber figures of “The Harvest” packed horizontally against one another. Much like they were within slave ships transversing the Atlantic. The image is still harrowing decades after she created the piece in 1980. The ancestral figures occasionally recur in later works.
Other pieces by Brewer, while inspired by ancestral voices, also invite universal interpretation, as do the joyful dancing figures of “From The Drums Came All That Jazz” of 1994.
In 2021 Brewer initiated the “Oar Up, Oar Down Series: Living Waters.” It references a lifelong theme of cleansing and renewal, but she’d updated its meaning to be about choices:
“…whether you are going to put your oar into the water and deliberately choose a path or take your oar out of the water and submit to the passive but faithful spirit of the water.”
As is typical of Brewer’s approach, these quilts are, formally, conversations among the diversity of processes and materials. These, in particular, gain aquatic shimmer through silk-georgette, sequins, mother of pearl, and iridescent tulle and threads. They combine silkscreen and digital prints with shibori and Santeria vintage cotton fabric to transcend time and create their own space.
It’s not the first time she’s contemplated choices. A caption to the 2002 “Formation” quilt cautions to be aware of communicated lessons or risks the loss at “crossroads – the point where doors open or close, where persons have to make decisions that may forever affect their lives.”
Such portals in areas of study like indigenous cultures or astrophysics have gained currency in recent decades, but Brewer has been ahead of the trend.
She had the conviction to take leaps of faith through those portals, while ignoring the self-styled sophisticates who tried to dismiss her findings.
It’s evident in her resultant radiant artworks that each time Brewer has approached such crossroads, she has made the correct decision about which way to turn. Then about how to present the wisdom that speaks to her with ageless timeliness.
If a work by Brewer tugs at you in a captivating way that is unfamiliar, stop. Listen. Invite it home with you. The magic and secrets will unfold before your eyes each time.
— By Mary Thomas