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Remembering acclaimed artist and quilter Faith Ringgold


This is FRESH AIR. The acclaimed artist Faith Ringgold portrayed themes of Black life and culture through her quilts, paintings, dolls and books for children. Ringgold died on Saturday at the age of 93. Her work was exhibited in many museums, and she was an advocate for other Black artists. Ringgold's work may be hard to describe, but it is glorious to look at. Her quilts stitched together fabrics with bold patterns and vibrant colors. One of the fabrics she used was canvas, which she painted and wrote stories on.

In the center of her quilt Tar Beach, there's a painting of a family enjoying a picnic on the roof of a Harlem building. The image came from her childhood, summer nights after sundown. Her family used to gather on the tar-covered roof of her apartment building. "Tar Beach" is also the title of her 1991 children's storybook, which features illustrated versions of her quilt paintings. Terry Gross spoke with Faith Ringgold after the book was published. They began their conversation with another childhood memory. Faith Ringgold's mother was a dressmaker, and she was surrounded by fabric when she was young.


FAITH RINGGOLD: I was brought up with little pieces of fabric. And I was always sewing and making things, you know, but then I would discard them because they didn't look - you know, I mean, we're trained to feel that everything's supposed to look like it's commercially produced. And so I didn't really like my little fabric pieces. I wish I had some of them now. And - but it wasn't until the '70s, when we women artists were trying to find out what women's art was, trying to identify who we were as women and what is our culture - had already been through the '60s, where I had done that as a Black person, going back to my African roots, using African art as my cultural stimulation, as my route to define myself as a Black person in art. And now I was doing it again as a woman. And those two experiences totally shaped my art.

TERRY GROSS: Did you know other Black artists or other women artists when you were getting started?

RINGGOLD: As a young student, no. I did not. I had to find these things for myself. I wasn't taught about any Black artists when I was in school. I never had a Black teacher in my life. But I - no, I didn't learn any of that in college. I had a problem trying to paint people with brown skin like mine. And I used to make them purple and orange...

GROSS: Is it hard to find...

RINGGOLD: ...And green.

GROSS: ...The right colors for the skin tone?

RINGGOLD: Yeah, especially when you're not being taught. You know, and my professors, they thought I was being exotic. They said to me, what are you trying to do? You know, why don't - you know, why don't you just go ahead and paint people? And I said, well, what do you mean? Which people? What are you talking about?

GROSS: (Laughter).

RINGGOLD: So, I mean, to them, you know, there was only one kind of people - white people. I mean, what, are you trying to make up something new here? And I - well, I had to find out for myself. And in the process, in trying to mix colors to represent the browns that I was interested in making, I came up with orange and green and purple and all kinds of things before I finally was able to teach myself how to create the hues of Black people.

GROSS: I want to ask you about one of your earlier quilts, and this one is a - is called "Who's Afraid of Aunt Jemima?" What was the significance of the Aunt Jemima image for you that led you to want to do a quilt on it?

RINGGOLD: Well, I was always quite turned off by people's hatred of Aunt Jemima because of her size and her color and the way they used to change her on the boxes. You know, the Aunt Jemima pancake box - if you look at the early ones when I was a kid, she was much darker. She had her - that cloth was tied in another way, and her nose was wider, her lips were fuller, and she was fatter. Now she's thinner, she's lighter, the nose is thinner. I mean, what is all of this?

And so I wanted to pay tribute to all of these Aunt Jemimas that we have in all of our families, these strong and very powerful women who sometimes don't pay attention to their weight because they're so busy nurturing and feeding the whole family, you know?

And it seems to be a kind of enigma among people that there is often this auntie or this sister in the family who negates her own life and existence to take care of and provide for other people. And that's what I associate with Aunt Jemima, a woman who cared and took care of people. I just couldn't understand why people would want to hate her.

GROSS: You did a story quilt about your own weight loss.

RINGGOLD: Yes, I did.

GROSS: You want to describe that quilt?

RINGGOLD: And I guess also I associated myself very strongly with Aunt Jemima because, you know, I was fat, too. And you get a lot of flak from people when you are, you know? They kind of care about you less. They feel like you can - you're big, so you can take it, and they lean on you heavy - heavily.

That quilt that I did about weight loss was a public commitment to lose the weight and a performance, also, which documents - the performance and the quilt documented all the decades of my life. I was born in 1930, so I did a whole collage of photographs of me in the 1930s and the '40s and the '50s and the '60s to see when it was I had gained the weight. In the '30s, I wasn't fat. In the '40s, I wasn't. In the '50s, I used to model for my mother. I was very slim. In the '60s, I got married the second time, and I began getting fat. The '70s - I gained even more weight, and the pictures show that. And in the '80s, I began even more.

And by '86, I had reached enormous proportions and really decided to lose it, and so I went on a liquid diet. And then I left that and went to WeightWatchers and lost the weight and changed my whole way of eating, stopped eating meat and dairy. It's a constant struggle, but I keep it public because that way, it's not just between me and the food.

GROSS: You grew up in Harlem, and you still have a studio there.

RINGGOLD: It's quite a lovely place to live. It has a - it's close to everywhere, you know? I mean, the transportation is great. The people are friendly. I feel at home. I'm not a minority there. I've lived there all my life. I live in a beautiful building. Everybody says hi to me coming in and going out. When I go away, they miss me. When I come back, they're glad to see me. It's wonderful, living in Harlem. Of course, you don't roam around late at night by yourself, but then you don't do that anywhere in New York.

GROSS: That's right.

RINGGOLD: You know?

GROSS: So what keeps you in Harlem? That sense of community?

RINGGOLD: Yeah. I like not being a minority. I like the idea that when I look around, I see a whole lot of people like me. I go in a store, nobody follows me around thinking I'm trying to steal something, you know? And that happens a lot, you know? It doesn't make any difference how you're dressed or who you are. You know, there is this stereotype that, you know, if it's Black, it must be doing something wrong. And so I like that. At home, at least I can relax and just be me.

GROSS: Well, Faith Ringgold, I thank you very much for talking with us.

RINGGOLD: Well, thank you for having me on. It's been real fun.

MOSLEY: Artist Faith Ringgold, speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Ringgold died last Saturday at the age of 93. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser joins us to talk about his latest look into our nation's food systems and how mergers and acquisitions have created food oligopolies that are inefficient, barely regulated and, in some instances, dangerous. I hope you can join us.


MOSLEY: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair.


MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. With Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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