In Exchange, a new solo exhibit by artist and quiltmaker Heather Jones at The George Gallery, we see a blend of several different worlds. It’s a collection of sewn panels made by an American former painter, with dazzling patterns and vibrant colors inspired by her month-long residency at Black Rock Senegal in Dakar, Senegal.

Black Rock Senegal is a multi-disciplinary residency program developed by artist Kehinde Wiley, best known for his official portrait of President Barack Obama. The program brings together visual artists, writers and filmmakers at Wiley’s studio on the coast of Africa. During her time there, Jones was inspired by the colors and patterns she saw in the people’s everyday attire.

“It’s a really dusty city,” Jones said. “There’s all this red, sandy dirt that’s in the air. And by the end of the day, if you’ve been out and about, you’re covered in this layer of red dirt. But there were people dressed head to toe in these beautiful African textiles, these beautiful vibrant prints, and they weren’t going anywhere special; it was just a daily trip to a market and they were dressed in these beautiful garments, knowing full well that they would end up covered in dust at the end of the day.”

With Exchange, those vivid colors and patterns come together with Jones’ collage-style approach to create unpredictable designs using fabrics sourced both locally and from Senegal. “I think instinct and improvisation go hand in hand,” Jones said, “because you’re relying on your decision-making in that moment when two colors come together, or two shapes come together.”

That instinctive approach carries over from Jones’ roots as a painter creating her work in the moment.

“I had done a few things with a sewing machine, but I really started working with the textiles after my kids were born,” Jones said of her shift from painting to quilting. “I had my first child in 2006 and then my second in 2008, and I wanted to make things for them. But in a practical sense, I had a studio at home that I could access during what little bit of free time I had. Textiles made sense to me because they were not as messy. I was working in our dining room all day, and if I had 15 minutes or a half-hour when they were napping, I could jump in and do some work.”

Jones was an admirer of Wiley’s work, but she felt conflicted about applying for the residency at Black Rock Senegal when Wiley announced it last year.

“There was a little bit of a hesitancy,” she said, “just because the smallest amount of time that I could stay there was one month, and my kids are 12 and 13, so the idea of me being gone for a month at a place that was that far away, I was thinking, ‘Can I really do this?'”

Ultimately, Jones applied at the last minute, and was thrilled to find out she was chosen for the residency, spending October of 2019 in Dakar.

“It was really amazing,” she said. “There was this sense of joy throughout that environment. As trite as that sounds, I’ve never been in a place that was at once so different from my environment but yet there are lots of similarities as well. It was great because I was able to have the freedom to work in my studio for many hours a day, as many days as I wanted. I really didn’t have any responsibilities other than working in my studio. It was very special.”

In another season, the Exchange exhibit, which opens on July 23, would stand on its own as the display of art that it was meant to be. But with Black Lives Matter protests all over the country, Jones is cognizant of the context.

“It wasn’t that long ago, but it was a different time then,” she says of her residency period. “But certainly with everything that has happened since that, it has definitely made me even more acutely aware of how important it is for us as to realize that the things that black people have brought to our country should be respected and admired by everyone.”

And Jones isn’t just talking about the patterns and colors that inspired her work; she’s talking about the overall cultural influence of African Americans.

“So much of what we take for granted here in America from music to art to all aspects of our lives are due in part to the fact that the United States is a country of immigrants,” she said, “Some brought here without their consent. And I think that we definitely need to acknowledge that, especially in these troubling times that we’re in today.”

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