Quilt Alliance | Interview
Evelyn Salinger (ES): Today, we are interviewing Donnette Cooper, 20002.012, during a Daughters of Dorcas meeting in northeast Washington, D.C. This is March 22, 2005. The interviewer is Evelyn Salinger. Hi, Donnette. How are you?
Donnette Cooper (DC): Good, thank you.
ES: So nice of you to come. You made a special trip today to be interviewed.
DC: You’re welcome.
ES: Let’s talk about this brown wall hanging that you brought, first. Will you describe what you are doing here?
DC: That brown quilt, I’ve called Sankofa. And it’s basically a–well the center panel consists of Adinkra symbols. Adinkra symbols were symbols used in Ghana. It was made into fabric and the symbols had different meanings. And I’ve called this quilt Sankofa, because the center square has a Sankofa bird. And Sankofa is a symbol for ‘learning from your past, going back and fetching it, using your past to inform your future.’ And those were made from stamps. Stamps made from a gourd. I purchased the stamps in Ghana and I used fabric paint to stamp on the textile. And basically, the fabric going around that center block is arranged in a log cabin pattern, but a very random pattern. And the quilt is bordered by mud cloth which was made primarily in Mali, West Africa. And it’s still a traditional fabric, there. And there are cowrie shells on the border. And cowrie shells are symbols of wealth. In fact, they have been used as currency in West Africa.
ES: These are printed or painted on–the symbols that go along the border?
DC: It’s a dye process that uses mud, which I guess is why it’s called mud cloth. But mud is part of the medium of doing the painting. It’s really chemicals in the earth. I’ve actually seen the process being done.
ES: These you did not paint on?
DC: No. I purchased the mud cloth.
ES: It’s stunning, with all the different browns and occasional bright spots–orange, all different shapes and sizes in the design. Very nice. The backing you have?
DC: It’s also an African fabric. And it has a repeat of umbrellas. I really didn’t make any conscious choice of using that fabric. It’s just fabric that I had. But the umbrellas are also used a lot in African culture for important dignitaries or royalty. You’ll see a lot of scenes where an umbrella is being carried over the head of a chief. Recently, I was in Ethiopia and I saw that same tradition at a funeral procession. And the umbrellas were used to carry over the body of the deceased.
ES: Really. I would think people would use it against the sun or the rain, but it’s also this other–
DC: Right. These are very elaborate umbrellas, but it’s used obviously for the sun and rain and in tropical countries, it’s probably used more frequently for the sun than for the rain.
ES: And for whom did you make this?
DC: I did not make it for a particular purpose. It was in a touring exhibition—’Spirits of the Cloth.’ And it started at the American Craft Museum in New York and went to several other locations including the Mint Museum and also the Renwick [Museum.], the Smithsonian, here in D.C.
ES: Great. The date on it–
DC: It was ’98.
ES: Lovely. We have facing us, another beautiful wall hanging. Would you describe this one?
DC: Yes. I called it Mask and Stripes. And I did it actually for the Daughters of Dorcas’ Quilt Show last year. Another of my–kind of–collection habit is to collect fabrics with masks, with other symbolism. I am particularly attracted to African fabric because, as I discussed with the Adinkra symbols, so much of African fabric encoded spiritual and cultural messages, quite apart from the artistic expression of the individual. The masks in the center squares of some of these blocks were purchased, commercial fabric I think is actually made in Japan. They are not African, but they represent different cultures. Cultures with masks make it as a tradition. And in African-American culture, African culture and Caribbean culture, the mask is a means of maybe hiding the person or being used to project a different image as in masquerading or for religious ceremony, for Carnival, for other events. And there’s a famous poem from an African-American writer, ‘We wear the masks.’ In African- American tradition, so many times in dealing with certain adversities from slavery and other events, people had to kind of mask their emotions and who they were and they were one persona in certain settings and something else otherwise. I am attracted to the symbolism. And this is also partially a log cabin design. The masks are the center blocks and I have used other fabrics going around. And most of those fabrics are hand-dyed fabric that I’ve collected. A lot of it is from Ghana and Nigeria. Also I wear a lot of African fabric and my sister does as well. And a lot of these fabrics are scraps left over from clothes we had made. The stripe part of the quilt is another kind of random pattern in the sense that all the stripes or all the pieces are not the same width or the same length, et cetera. I am attracted to these kinds of things that don’t pin me down to particular dimensions. It’s kind of random, but the center stripe continues a kind of red–a kind of box, a diamond of predominantly red fabric and then other fabrics, complement and going around.
ES: Here it looks more like X’s.
DC: It depends how you look at the box. Yes. And around the border is indigo fabric.
ES: With the shells on it. At least they look like shells.
DC: It’s a process of dying where it’s a thread tied, where it’s probably picked up and the thread is knotted around it. Sometimes it is created by putting little seeds or corn grains or something and then tying around it.
ES: And then at the bottom, you did put a few little beads.
DC: Embellishments, some beads and cowrie shells. I tend to have cowrie shells on most of my quilts.
ES: Does this go to anybody or are you going to keep this yourself?
DC: No, that’s a problem, you know, trying to keep things–[laughs.] making things and then falling in love with them and not giving them up. Although my sister mentioned recently that she doesn’t know how she doesn’t have one of my quilts, although that is not true. So, I’m flirting with the idea of maybe giving her this one. [laughs.]
ES: The back on it reminds me of fabric that comes from a–
DC: Indonesia or Australia with the dots.
DC: Aboriginal. It’s like Malaysia or somewhere like that. That’s another of my hobbies, just collecting fabric which is very common to quilters.
ES: Oh, yes.
DC: We have too much fabric. [laughs.]
ES: Very nice. Did you put a date on this one?
DC: Two thousand four.
ES: Since we’re talking about fabrics, I want to know–it must be in your job that you travel around all these countries and pick up fabrics? How do you get around?
DC: No, it’s not related to my job at all. It’s just a hobby. I like to travel. So, it’s easy to marry the collecting while you’re traveling. Sometimes I actually make the fabric. When I was in high school in our art class, I was exposed to batik and tie-dying. And I kept up with it on and off. Also, when I went to college, I did psychology and education and was a teacher for a couple of years, or working with children in other settings, and was able to use the tie and dye work in making T-shirts with children and other kinds of artistic activities. And so I collect the fabric, I like to wear the fabric. I keep scraps of the fabric, dress designers will save me scraps so it’s a combination of things. But I like to travel and I like to travel primarily in Africa and the Caribbean. And so when I’m traveling, that’s one of the things I always look out for, is fabric.
ES: Very good. You certainly come up with unusual things that way, for the rest of us here. Would you tell us where you came from? And where did you go to school?
DC: I’m from Jamaica. I was born in Kingston. I went to elementary school and high school in Jamaica. And then I went to college in Massachusetts. Graduated from Clark University. Then went to law school here in D.C., Howard University. And did some other law school studies later at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
ES: And your job now is related to law?
DC: Yeah. I’m Assistant Attorney General for the District of Columbia. And I work in commercial law. Unrelated to quilting. [laughs.]
ES: Actually that’s better, because you have relief from it.
DC: Yes, that must have been the motivation–of doing a lot of contracts and closing documents and that sort of thing and the flip side maybe is the other half of the brain that I’m using for the quilting.
ES: Your artistic half. Definitely. You definitely are. What is your earliest contact with quilting?–because I wouldn’t expect that in Jamaica that you would worry about quilts very much.
DC: In Jamaica, we didn’t do a lot of quilting, but we use a lot of the quilt block designs for bed coverings. And a lot of them would be just two layers. The top layer, the back layer and we wouldn’t have the batting. But we had a lot of designs and since I started quilting, I recognize it more and more. Things that I hadn’t noticed before, I notice on trips going back to Jamaica. So we do have a patchwork tradition and an embroidery tradition. My first exposure to sewing was with my grandmother. She used to sew. She was a dressmaker. As she got older and had difficulty threading the needle, that was my job. So that was my first exposure with her on a Singer foot pedal machine. And I would thread both the machine needle and her hand sewing needles. And my mother also sewed a little. And then when I was in elementary school, sewing was still part of the school curriculum. We would do things like hand towels and those kinds of things and basic embroidery. And later in high school, I did art and did batik and tie-dye, so over time a lot of those things came together in my quilts. Another major influence is that my father was a professional tailor. So I spent a lot of time watching him sew, and as he called it, ‘Building a suit.’ ‘Cause it was more than making a suit. It was really a construction process with the layers of batting and stiffening and interfacing. He wasn’t using commercial, like iron-on interfacing. These were things that you sewed together and you built up till the suit is complete. And he studied both in Jamaica and in England, and worked in England for awhile tailoring and came back and had his own establishment in Jamaica.
ES: Very nice. As you put all these things together and you started to make quilts, did you have any other lessons along the way? Or did you just find your own way of doing it?
DC: I knew how to sew. In college I also took clothing design and construction. So I used to make my clothes in college and less and less over the years, but I had basic sewing skills. And I used to make gifts for like especially baby births or something like that, but usually more commercial, kind of cheater patterns in fabric stores. I’ve always liked to give personal gifts especially to children. So I had ideas of things I would do and not just the commercial stuff. And while I was working at USAir, doing also commercial law, primarily leases, sometimes my mind would wander and I would think of things I could do. And I started it off doing–my first quilt I did was really a quite large quilt. But I thought of it in terms of small panels. Twelve panels. And so I could think of one panel to do [bells ringing.] and put it together. And that’s how I really started. I started by just watching TV shows and quilting. I did not have any formal training in quilting. Sometimes going to fabric stores and seeing a demonstration and just my own ideas, trying it and seeing how it worked. For example, the first quilt I did with mud cloth. I almost drove myself crazy working with it ’cause it’s a very stretchy fabric. And it’s not really a traditional quilting fabric because it’s not exactly–
ES: A loose weave–
DC: A loose weave and it’s done by small strips, strip weaving. And they’re not necessarily the same size and they–so it was hard working with them, taming them. But it’s trial and error, really.
DC: And then I joined the Daughters of Dorcas and got the exposure to more professional quilters and learned certain techniques that made the finish better, and that sort of thing.
ES: Uh-hum. That’s good. Do you remember when you joined the Daughters of Dorcas?
DC: It was early Nineties. But the first quilt I made was ’91. And that first quilt actually ended up in Carolyn Mazloomi’s book, “Spirits of the Cloth.” [1998.]
ES: Oh, I’ll have to look it up. [laughs.]
ES: It’s in the book, but where is it, is it in your house?
DC: Yes, I have it. Actually, that’s the quilt I made for my sister, for Christmas that year. And she was so impressed that she told me, ‘Oh, I don’t think–you can’t give away your first quilt. You’ll have to keep it.’ So I have it. And I did make her a replacement quilt.
ES: Good. Where does your sister live?
DC: She lives in Jamaica.
ES: I wondered. So she uses it as a wall hanging?
DC: The one I did, she has for a bed cover.
ES: That’s great. That must be an incentive for you to travel there to see your family.
DC: Oh, yes, because most of my family is actually in Jamaica. I have some family in New York, but the bulk is in Jamaica.
ES: And when did you come to Washington, D.C.?
DC: In 1983, when I came for law school.
ES: And then you just stayed.
DC: I stayed. [laughs.]
ES: You stayed and worked for Washington, D.C.?
DC: Yes. I went back to Jamaica once, when I was doing a law program there for about a year. And that also provided me with the opportunity to work with one of Jamaica’s artists, Dawn Scott. She’s a textile artist, among other things. And she does a lot of Batik and so my skills were greatly improved in my kind of basic, preliminary exposure to tie-dying and Batik in high school. She taught me a few other skills like Shibori and just more sophisticated ways to do Batik.
ES: Very good. Could you tell us, what are your most favorite aspects of quilting? Is it the designing, or the sewing or–
DC: I think it’s probably the designing. I sew because I want to see it completed. But I get most excited by the designing. And just working with the fabrics and seeing how certain fabrics that seem dissimilar go together.
ES: Very good. And so you pretty much follow your own design. For instance, if I asked you if you liked traditional or contemporary, you would take maybe a little of the traditional, but you change it around.
DC. Yes. For example, I use the Log Cabin design. So that’s a traditional design and I actually learned it in one day. I was in G Street Fabric in Maryland, and they were doing Border Baby quilts and asking people to just stop and sew a block right on the spot. And someone was doing the Log Cabin and I asked her to show me and I made a block for them and I went home and I started to make blocks. [laughs.] I thought this as a way to showcase some center designs, like a mask, a symbol, something like that.
ES: Good. Do you keep track of what you have made?
DC: Yes. I use a portfolio and try to take pictures of most things that I’ve made. And I make primarily quilts, but I’ve done textiles for home textile, curtains, shower curtains, and sheets, different things that I’ve dyed. I’ve done crib sheets as gifts for babies, to commemorate their birth or Christening, or some other important event like that. And quilts that I don’t have with me today are quilts that I’ve done as what I call, ‘A Rite of Passage Quilts,’–quilts commemorating a particular event. And I’ve done it primarily for births, but I’ve done it for significant birthdays, weddings, and such occasions. And I particularly like the ones I do where I incorporate the baby’s larger community or village, where I’ve invited parents and family members and friends to contribute a piece of fabric. Usually, at the time of the birth, or at the baby shower, and I put that together with certain statistics of the date of birth, time of birth, weight, and those kinds of things, sometimes with pictures on photo transfer on fabric and created a quilt that is not just my gift, but a gift of the community, and something that documents this event. And the first one I did like that was for Gabrielle. She’s about to turn nine next week.
DC: And I did it before she was born and people gave me quilt scraps of fabric to incorporate in the quilt. For example: Her Godfather gave me the pocket of his shirt, I guess symbolizing that she will be in his pocket [laughs.] for life. And friends of the parents: One person gave me a scrap of fabric of the dress she wore to the parents’ wedding. So just a lot of interesting articles of significance to the village surrounding the child. So it’s more than what I could have come up with, because it’s my creativity but all of the other participants put in their creativity and the significance that they hold for certain fabrics together and creating something for Gabrielle.
ES: Very nice. Do you do this for relatives, friends or–
DC: I’ve done it for relatives and friends. I’ve also done it as commissions.
ES: That’s what I wondered, if you do commissions.
DC: The most recent one I did for–it was commissioned by a friend for her mother. And it allowed me to get involved in another cultural history. The mother is from India. And so I worked with fabrics that her daughter wanted me to incorporate and worked a lot there with silks, bead work, sequins, coins, a lot of cultural symbols of that cultural experience. And also did photo transfer of old pictures, family pictures right through to the woman’s grandchildren, their pictures.
ES: Very nice. How has quilting impacted your personal family, or personal life here?
DC: It takes a lot of my time. It’s something I like to do. The other day I was somewhere and they asked me to introduce myself and I said that I’m employed as an attorney, but I live as an artist. [laughs.]
DC: And that probably sums it up. So, I have a day job, but I have my calling which appears to be art and also education. I’ve not lost that aspect of my life. So I think even the quilting is a matter of educating people to cultural symbolism and history and documenting my personal culture and personal life story.
ES: That’s very fine. Have you entered shows? I know you mentioned the traveling one.
DC: Yes. I’ve been in several shows related to the quilt guilds I’m a member of, Daughters of Dorcas and Uhuru. But also other quilt shows and non-quilt shows.
ES: Such as–
DC: Such as, there was one that started at the Plymouth State University, ‘In the Fullness of Time,’ back in 2001. It was looking at Jamaican art. And I was the only textile artist in that show. It actually came here to Howard University in 2002. So I’ve done both quilt shows and other art shows that also have representation from quilts. Often times I’m the only quilter in those kinds of shows.
ES: Are there any other ones that stand out in your mind that you’d like to relate?
DC: I think it’s probably the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, back in 2000, where Daughters of Dorcas was involved in exhibiting on the Mall. And I was able to be there with my quilts and just speak to people as they came through about their interests and sharing my interests with them.
ES: Nice. Do you find that you have time for teaching other people the quilting?
DC: I’ve done teaching. Right now, kind of informally, there are a couple of people in my office who are motivated to quilt. And so I give technical assistance. And also in quilt groups, I have done teaching and also demonstrations. The Smithsonian also does demonstrations for like Juneteenth day or like their Folk Life Festival. I’ve participated in those events, too, where people can come and make even just a block and try their hands at the craft. We also did that at the Renwick, the Daughters of Dorcas, when the ‘Spirits of the Cloth’ was touring. You know, a lot of these exhibitions, also have that kind of component of teaching and then when the Gee’s Bend Quilts came to the Corcoran [Museum.], both Daughters of Dorcas and Uhuru went there and we demonstrated certain techniques and we also exhibited our quilts.
ES: Uh-huh. So you did go to those places and took your quilts as well.
ES: That’s great. Do you have advice to new quilters? What would you tell them to do?
DC: Well, I’d tell them to familiarize themselves with certain basic techniques, because the techniques will give them a foundation. But not necessary to limit themselves to just what has been done before. I think it is easier to teach technique than to teach the design aspect and so they should really quilt from the heart and the soul, you know, what speaks to them. They need the technique in order to put it together in a recognizable form, but not to be stifled by any rigid rules of construction.
ES: Do you have a preference of machine work versus hand at this point?
DC: I generally piece by machine. But the quilting is a combination of machine quilting and hand quilting and using objects like beads to quilt with. Beads and cowrie shells.
ES: Do you have any other stories about your experiences as a quilter, or as an artist that you could share with us?
DC: I think what I bring to quilting is the need to tell stories. I like to tell stories. And so I find with the quilts, like ‘The Rite of Passage Quilts,’ or even quilts like the ones I showed you today, tell stories, whether they are personal stories or larger cultural stories, they tell stories. And as someone from the African Diaspora, born in Jamaica, spent significant time in the United States, but clearly with African ancestry, it’s a way to connect to a past that in some respects we have lost, but in some respects we have kind of memories, even distant memories of what our culture was. And also, what we have made of the African culture in the new lands where we found ourselves. So, it’s an opportunity to tell personal stories, there’s also opportunity to put various aspects of my past and actual experiences together.
ES: Very nice. Well, without any more ado, I think we’ll just say, that’s it for today. And thank you very much.
DC: Thank you very much.
ES: Very inspiring. [laughs.]
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