Even before I look at her art, Cookie Washington makes no pretense about sharing her views. “There’s just so much more good than bad in the world,” she gushes as we sit down. “If gas is $4 a gallon, you can still ride the bus and make new friends.”
She seems exactly the type of person who would forsake her car to make new friends on a bus.
Washington, 48, has been living and working in Charleston as an artist for over 20 years. Now, she’s based at the Rhodes Art Center at the Old Navy Yard in North Charleston, where her studio is cluttered with reams of cloth and other sewing equipment that she uses to make commissioned clothes, quilts, and other crafts.
“My mother told me very early in my life, ‘You better learn how to sew, or you’re going to be naked, because nothing is going to fit you.'” She laughs easily, referencing her short, broad stature. “Perhaps that was not the best way to put it, but it made an impression.”
Washington graduated from nursing school, but ultimately didn’t feel the call to practice medicine. Instead, she began to make her living designing and creating clothes for women, wedding gowns and other formal wear. Then, eight years ago, Washington began to explore art quilting as her marriage was ending.
“I needed something that calmed me down and was just for me,” she says. “I didn’t really know that anyone would ever see this stuff.”
Washington soon discovered that not only was an eager audience awaiting her creative work, there was also an entire community of African-American art quilters in the Charleston area.
Quilting is a deeply rooted art in the Lowcountry; enslaved Africans, Washington says, used quilting to tell their stories.
“I desire to keep this tradition alive and validate our culture by weaving stories about the African or African-American experience into my quilts, just as our ancestors did almost 400 years ago,” she says.
Washington’s work is rich with symbolism, illuminating the artist’s interest in the metaphysical as well as the historical. One gets the feeling these would go very well in places of worship, whether in a church hall or at a personal altar. Besides the practical advantages of being able to make clothing for herself and others, the process of working with needle and cloth has been like meditation, sometimes even culminating in spiritual revelation.
Washington begins a new work by first sewing together the basic quilt, which serves as a canvas of sorts. Her images are all cut from cloth, which she hand-stitches onto the quilt. Washington is very particular about the types and patterns of cloth she uses for each component of the quilt, using an intuitive method of choosing them — letting the figures “choose” their own cloth.
One of the most striking aspects of her quilts is the attention to graceful detail. She’ll embellish a scene with sewn-on beads, shells, or bone fetishes that friends have brought her from trips to Africa. She’s even used feathers for angel wings, which she admits were insanely difficult to sew onto cloth.
Currently, Washington is working on a series of quilts about goddesses. The one she shows me today, the first in the series, concerns Sophia, the goddess of wisdom. The quilt portrays her as a celestial silhouette, arms outstretched and winged in her “ascendant” incarnation. Washington, a voracious reader, first learned about Sophia in a text on Kabbalah-type teachings and thought the goddess was something her female audience should know about.
“I realized that I have so many ‘Sophias’ in my life who have given me wisdom, guidance, help, and prayers, and have never given up on me,” she says. “They have a different kind of wisdom than the men in my life, a divine feminine wisdom that is very ancient. It’s dark — it helps us conceive of children and ideas and passions — but I think, ultimately, it’s also more peaceful.”
Washington’s other major project this summer is her series of “goddess dolls.” The dolls are made of plain black African cloth stuffed with fiberfill, devoid of distinguishing facial features but distinctly female in form. Each is adorned in her own colorful outfit and accessories, according to her specific mythological character.
“It’s almost a trance-like process that I go through for them to be here,” she says.
Although she doesn’t show regularly in a gallery, Washington has managed to build up a solid word-of-mouth business over the years. After a successful exhibit at the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center last year, she is hoping for another show this fall featuring works that show their interpretation of African goddesses and what, if anything, they mean to modern-day African-American women.
That is to say, Washington’s quilts never fall into the category of the traditional square.
“I tell people I quilt, and they go, ‘Oh, yeah, my grandma makes quilts — she made me one for my bed!’ Never will I do anything like that — I am not your grandmama,” Washington says.
“This is wall art. I am interested in making art that stirs your soul and makes you think, makes you feel something and makes you exuberantly happy. I am not at all interested in making art that matches your couch.”