by Laura Hutson
At Vanderbilt's StudioVU lecture last week, artist Sanford Biggers spoke about the quilt drawings he's been making in the past year. He's an extremely prolific artist, but this series struck me as his most layered and thought-provoking. I transcribed what he said about the quilts below, and included some of the best examples of those quilts after the jump. Be sure to watch the above video piece he made with his band Moon Medicine — it incorporates the stories of the quilts in a way that words alone cannot.
Sanford Biggers: I have a master's degree in painting, but I've mostly not been painting for the majority of my career — until lately. It all started because I did a project in Philadelphia that I was exploring different stops and locations along the Underground Railroad. And as I did that, through my research I started to hear a lot about quilts reportedly being used in the Underground Railroad as signposts. People would fold the quilt a certain way, or show a certain pattern or a certain color, and that would indicate that the safe house was in fact safe, or that they were under surveillance and people should keep moving, or they should travel a few more miles and they can turn — they were like maps, almost. So I took that idea and started to collect antique quilts — 1700s and 1800s, nothing past 1900 — and start to paint directly onto the existing quilt.
I use a variety of materials on these. Some of them are hand-drawn with graphite, others are hand-painted with different kinds of fabric-treated acrylic paints, sometimes spray paint. I introduce different kinds of fabrics — a lot of the motifs come from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, old album covers, architectural manuals.
So the idea is that, if these quilts indeed have a coded language, that I come in as an intervener hundreds of years after the quilts have been made as the next part of the collaboration and fabrication of the quilt, and I am adding another layer of coded meaning.