RIP Gwendolyn Magee

I was very sad to learn of the passing of the wonderful quilt artist, Gwendolyn Magee, recently.

I had only spoken  with Gwen a few times on the telephone while preparing  the “Controversial Quilts” issue for Mark Lipinski’s Quilter’s Home magazine, a few years ago.

Gwendolyn’s quilt, “Southern Heritage, Southern Shame” was featured in the article.

Gwen’s quilt, “God of our Silent Tears,” a statement on the death penalty, was also featured in the article.

I loved Gwen’s work and how she mixed her art with her passion for equal rights along with various political and debatable genres.   I could only hope to be as insightful and creatively driven as she was on this earth.  What a gentle and approachable woman, and a courageous artist.  What a loss for the quilt art world.

I’ve attached Gwendolyn’s obituary.

Quilting artist Gwen Magee passes

The demise of quilting artist Gwendolyn Magee on April 27 came as an unexpected bolt out of the blue as the accomplished pioneer in infusing tapestry work with social consciousness was standing at the threshold of new adventures. The staff at the Margaret Walker Alexander Center was among the first of her friends and acquaintances to offer condolences and to express their sense of loss. They had scheduled Mrs. Magee as a keynote speaker for their 2012 Walker Center’s 2012 Creative Arts Festival. “The world of American artists and African American culture lost one of its great visionaries this week. Gwen Magee’s death is a tragic loss,” The Center’s announced in a press release. Through her mastery of quilt making, Magee critiqued American society and the long-lasting legacy of racism but also expressed a great pride in the resiliency and vibrancy of African Americans.”A Jackson native, Gwendolyn Magee was the 2011 winner of the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. She used her work in quilt forms to tell narratives about what has happened to African Americans from the time of slavery through the present day. In 2010, she had been one of two representatives from Mississippi to attend the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, where she met First Lady Michelle Obama.She never shied away from the unsavory side of history because of her early commitment to tell the truth of history that was not to be found in the textbooks. This included depicting the victims of lynch mob actions as they were suspended from a rope.“I don’t bite my tongue or try to evade the more tragic events in our history,” Magee said in an interview with the Jackson Advocate following the 2011 Governor’s Awards ceremonies. “We must be aware of what really happened. I firmly believe that if you don’t know where you came from, you certainly don’t know where you’re going and what has caused you to be where you are today.”Margaret Walker Center Archivist Angela Stewart said she was “terribly saddened by the tragic loss of Mrs. Gwendolyn Magee,” someone she had come to admire because of the impact of her art  in the contemporary world of African American life and history.“She possessed an artistic genius and creative talent that allowed her to transform items of everyday use, like quilts, into works of art,” Stewart said. “Her quilts were inspiring, beautiful and awesome to behold. Her great talent is going to be missed.”Magee gave free vent to her artistic side only after she had attained maturity, raised a family and begun to think of passing on to her soon-to-be adult daughters some kind of legacy that would bind them to the life experiences they had had at home. “I never thought that I had any talent for art and thought I would always be a consumer of art,” Mrs. Magee said. “What happened to me at age 46 was that my oldest daughter was getting ready to go off to college. Her younger sister would be following her two years later. I wanted to make something special for them to take off to college with them, something that would serve as a reminder of home. For some reason, I decided that I wanted that to be in the form of a quilt. I took a six-week course in quilting. After making my first quilt for my daughter, I got hooked on the art form. And over the next five years or so I gained a lot of satisfaction from taking a block of materials and making a quilt. I gradually moved into abstract art and other areas. I saw other examples of quilting in magazines and I observed that most dealt with some African American theme.”Magee traced her quilting style back to Africa and discovered more than 4,000 years of precedent before she began her own work. She pointed out that the earliest examples of quilting as social commentary were to be found on a statue of one of the Pharaohs. She feels that quilting played a vital role in the survival of black families in both the slavery and Reconstruction eras.“People then had to take every minute they could eke out of a bone-crushing day and used all the scraps they could to make something to keep their family members warm. This to me is a survival technique that is very meaningful and should be highlighted in whatever artistic media that we have available to us.In addition to the Governor’s Arts Awards, Mrs. Magee was a 2007 Ford Fellow, United States Artists, and was named the 2003 Visual Arts Artist of the Year by the Mississippi institute of Arts and Letters.Among her outstanding achievements and trailblazing work as a pioneer in the quilting genre are Mrs. Magee’s Website,, the nation’s first and best-known Internet resource for quilters and the fans of quilters. She also maintained a blog under the title Textile Arts Resource Guide. Her work was chronicled in Roland Freeman’s well-received book Communion of the Spirits (1997). Her work was also featured in the collections Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary Quilts by African American Artists (1999) and Threads of Faith (2004).One of the greatest testimonials of her talent is the traveling exhibit Journey of the Spirit: The Art of Gwendolyn A. Magee (2004-2007) She was born on August 31, 1943, in High Point, NC. She died on April 27, 2011, in Jackson.She is survived by her loving husband and biggest fan, Dr. D. E. Magee; her two daughters, Kamalia Magee Hemphill and Aliya Magee, and her son-in-law Richelieu Hemphill, two grandsons, and a host of other family members and friends.The Mississippi Museum of Art is hosting a memorial service for Mrs. Magee at 5 p.m. Friday, May 6, at 380 South Lamar Street in Jackson. Lakeover Memorial Funeral Home of Jackson is in charge of services.

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3 Comments on “RIP Gwendolyn Magee”

  1. Bonnie Lippincott
    May 16, 2011 at 6:04 PM #

    What a sad loss for the quilting world. That was one of my favorite issues of Quilter’s Home.


  2. Robin Nalepa
    May 16, 2011 at 9:18 PM #

    What a sad loss. I was so moved by her provocative work depicting the lynching victims on the confederate flag. Your article introduced me to her work and I looked for more information about her online. Thank you for the courage it took to publish your article. May God soothe her family’s hearts and give her the opportunity to quilt in heaven.


  3. Tina Fish Lutz
    June 4, 2011 at 12:36 AM #

    I had the opportunity to exhibit Gwen’s quilts many years ago in a small museum in north Mississippi. My favorite quilt was “The Hanging Tree”. It was a black and white quilt with newspaper articles printed in the background about actual lynchings. It was so moving.


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