Fiber artist Jo-Ann Morgan weaves social commentary into her pictorial quilts.
Her wall hangings often memorialize victims of violence and reflect on troubling, controversial topics. Morgan said the familiarity and approachability of her comforter-size quilts adds a soothing counterpoint to the harsh themes.
“How, for example, can an artist offer commentary on the police killings that inspired a Black Lives Matter movement, the separation of families and other hardships of migrants at the U.S. southern border, or the horror of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?” Morgan said. Her artwork attempts to wrest something hopeful from horrible events like these — a chance to dream of a better world.
Morgan was born and raised in California, where she completed her bachelor’s degree at the California College of Art. She moved to Wyoming to pursue her master’s in sculpture, and discovered her love for art history while working as a teacher’s assistant. This led her to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Morgan has served as Professor Emeritus of African American Studies and Art History at Western Illinois University since 2007. She retired in 2019 and now resides in Surfside Beach, South Carolina, where she works as a full-time fiber artist, creating stitched fabric wall hangings on themes related to social justice.
Morgan always planned to return to art. Right before the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, she bought a sewing machine and began to develop her signature appliqué technique.
“It was just a germ of an idea,” she said, explaining it took her some time to capture the technique before diving into this subject matter.
Morgan’s work reflects on political issues including police brutality, gun violence and the separation of families at the U.S./Mexico border. Her motivation in making this work is not only to raise awareness and to start a conversation, but also to imagine what a better future could look like.
“I had been really taken with the community response to tragedies,” Morgan said. “The Treyvon Martin killing in 2012, and then Michael Brown just a few years later … I was inspired by how the community dealt with that pain by making artwork and murals … spontaneous memorials. I had been using that imagery in my teaching,” she said.
“So that had been on my mind for a long time. People have this impulse to memorialize as a way of healing and remembering. We see this on the side of the road after traffic accidents.”
As Morgan began to master her quilting technique, Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment when at least seven police officers forced entry into the apartment. Morgan was inspired to make a quilt as an act of protest.
“That was my first picture that came together as a meaningful statement,” she said of her 2020 work, “Memorial for Breonna Taylor.”
Stitched across the top of the quilt is a flight of birds, much like those tattooed on Taylor’s right shoulder. She is surrounded by flowers and depicted with a crown on her head.
Another piece featured in the Park Circle Gallery exhibit, “An Empty Barber Chair, Monroe, LA,” brings attention to the 2019 police killing of Ronald Greene, a 49-year-old barber from Monroe, Louisiana. “Witness for the Prosecution” showcases Courtney Ross, long-time girlfriend of George Floyd, as she tearfully recalled her relationship with him in testimony at the Derek Chauvin murder trial April 1, 2021.
These works memorialize the victims of these crimes while celebrating the community response.
“People just flooded into the streets — and this was during a pandemic,” Morgan said of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. “I wanted to acknowledge that response and present something positive or hopeful. It was my way of being part of the demonstrations, being involved in the contemporary moment when I wasn’t able to be physically present.”
Morgan’s artwork honoring George Floyd exemplifies this sentiment.
“For my George Floyd piece, I depicted his daughter in what I thought was a hopeful gesture,” Morgan said.
The work depicts Gianna Floyd, with tears in her eyes, raising a fist. Stitched across the work in gold are the words Gianna told then-presidential candidate Joe Biden: “Daddy changed the world.”
“The comforter and what it signifies, that was a conscious decision early on,” Morgan said. “It brings warm feelings of home, of safety.”
Morgan hopes for her work to end up in a public collection “somewhere it can get some eyes on it,” she said.
“One of the reasons I love to show, and I enjoyed my opening at Park Circle Gallery, is because I love to see that interaction with the work. People want to get up close, they want to see the details and wonder how it’s made,” she said.
“And then, they read the statement of what it’s about. What appears to be an innocent image, once they read about it, there’s a moment of realization. It brings the subject that I would like to have considered into people’s awareness. The medium provides a sort of approachability. It’s not in your face; it lets the viewer decide how involved their thought process will be with the topic. It’s satisfying to me,” Morgan said. “The work is doing what I hoped for.”
Learn more about Morgan by visiting picturingblackpower.com. Her exhibition at Park Circle Gallery is on view through Dec. 31.
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.