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 Volume 14, Issue 42  |  May 27, 2022


Art in action: Allyson Allen’s Piece-ful Protest exhibition proves its point – there’s plenty more work to be done

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

Quiltmaker Allyson Allen recently came across the adage, “Make the comeback bigger than the setback.” The saying summed up Allen’s experience this past month as her Piece-ful Protest exhibit was removed from Wells Fargo Bank and reinstalled in its new home at the Neighborhood Congregational Church, where it will remain through April 24. 

To recap recent events: Piece-ful Protest – a 36-piece quilt collection that addresses issues of national and global concern including climate change, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, homelessness, LBGTQ rights, women’s issues, immigration and more – won the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance (LBAA) $5,000 Honarkar Family Grant in 2019. The exhibit was scheduled to be shown at the Community Art Project (CAP) gallery space located on the second floor of Wells Fargo Bank in 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic. Ultimately, the pieces were installed on January 19, 2022. After receiving some customer complaints that the subject matter was too aggressive, Wells Fargo directed CAP to remove the exhibit on January 26. 

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Quiltmaker Allyson Allen and Pastor Rodrick Echols of Neighborhood Congregational Church 

The irony of suppressing protest art wasn’t lost on Allen. “I’m used to people viewing my work and deciding they’re not sure how they feel about it,” she said. “But if you’re uncomfortable, you have to ask yourself – honestly – isn’t it guilt looking back at you from the mirror? What else about it is making you uncomfortable?”

A public backlash denouncing Wells Fargo’s decision soon followed, and Allen received several offers from local galleries and community spaces to showcase the work. The exhibition opens this Saturday, Feb. 19 at the Neighborhood Congregational Church with a reception from 2:30-5 p.m. and a talk by the artist at 4 p.m. Allen will also be honored at the LBAA 14th Annual Art Star Awards on April 24, where several of the quilts will be on display.

Among other advantages – including the spacious and newly repainted Bridge Hall – Neighborhood Congregational also offered its sanctuary walls to Allen, which allows her to display at least half a dozen other quilts from her collection so audiences can see the range of her work. 

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(L-R) Susan Brown Madorsky (Arts Committee Chair at Neighborhood Congregational Church), Allyson Allen and Faye Baglin (board member of CAP) pose in the sanctuary with “Every Now and Zen”

Allen has created more than 2,000 pieces in her 32 years of quilting. Dozens for comfort (as those sent to children orphaned by the AIDS crisis in Africa). Hundreds for education (like her story quilts that tour schools and youth organizations to teach black history). Many for beauty (Allen’s pieces appear in quilting shows and competitions across the United States and around the world). And plenty for activism. All of them are works of art.

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Bridge Hall, located in the Neighborhood Congregational Church, provides an ideal setting to showcase “Piece-ful Protest.” This is a small sample of the exhibit.

Allen’s own history and stories are woven into each piece. Together they tell a rich and inspirational tale that stretches far beyond the recent controversy. While showing her work might be the best way to tell her story, I’m honored to both show and tell you about Allen.

Art as family tradition

Like many artists, Allen’s talents as a seamstress emerged early. Her father passed when she was 5 years old, leaving her mother to raise four children on her own. The family – two teenagers and two youngsters (Allen being one) – moved from Montclair, New Jersey to Los Angeles. “My mom made all the school clothes for me and my little sister,” Allen said. “We’re two years apart and, although we look nothing alike, my mom would dress us alike so if one of us got lost, anybody could help her find us.”

Allen’s older sister taught her the trade. By age 6, Allen could use a sewing machine. By 7, her sister had shown her how to knit and crochet. By the time she turned 8, Allen’s sister had also passed away. But Allen kept her memory alive, teaching herself a new handcraft every year. 

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Allyson Allen, shown in the sanctuary, has used her creative talents for decades to comfort, heal, educate, advocate and protest 

“I took scraps from my mother’s fabrics to sew matching clothes for my dolls,” she said. “I taught myself to make tatted lace, handmade paper and homemade soap. I’m not talking about going to Michaels and buying a soap kit. I’m talking about molds, lye, masks and gloves. I’m talking about soap you had to mix in the garage because of the fumes.” 

Allen was recruited by her junior high home economics teacher because she was the only person who could thread and operate a sewing machine. Around 1990, Allen discovered quilting.

She’s passed on that tradition to her own two nieces, teaching them both the art of quilt making and their own family history. Niece Krysta became one of Allen’s apprentices through two different grant projects at age 8. “She was the youngest apprentice the State of California had ever funded in a master apprentice program,” Allen said. Together the two created a quilt of their family history. “We researched the whole family tree, 179 family members, without the aid of the internet. We presented it at her elementary school assembly for Black History Month. It was the first Black History Month assembly her school ever had.” 

Art as education

Before there was quilting, though, Allen proved herself a dedicated teacher. Holding a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon College of Education and a master’s degree and teaching credential from USC, Allen spent her early career teaching in public and private schools throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. “I went to USC for both my undergraduate and graduate education. I only left my senior year to finish my degree in Oregon because I wanted to include Special Education on my diploma and USC didn’t have an emphasis in that area.” 

Allen eventually transitioned her teaching to nonprofit summer camps, women’s shelters, various prisons through the California Youth Authority and other organizations. Today she frequently lectures about African American history through her story quilts. 

Most of Allen’s quilts are categorized as information art. They combine art, craft, research, original design, history and culture in traditional and contemporary pieces. Like most African American quilts, Allen’s pieces incorporate bold colors, asymmetric designs and appliqué.

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Allyson Allen shows the features of traditional African American quilt designs, which include bold colors and asymmetric designs. “Experiences” (2019) provides a good example of these characteristics.

“My work often references American history, social issues, African folklore, or Black history,” Allen said. “Many of my quilts are created specifically for storytelling presentations. My handmade quilted journals usually incorporate recycled materials, fabric and stitched paper elements.”

“Seven Months Ago” (2015), for example, shows the headless torso of a pregnant girl carrying a jug of water. It symbolizes the stories of millions of African women and girls who make the dangerous trek to fetch clean drinking water for their families. Many are victims of sexual assault and rape along the roadside, resulting in unwanted pregnancies. And yet, without another choice, they rise the next day – and everyday thereafter – to make the same journey. The quilt was originally created for the United Nations Headquarters traveling exhibit, “Water is Life: Clean Water and Its Impact on the Lives of Women and Girls Around the World.” 

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“Seven Months Ago” (2015) portrays the plight of African girls and women who risk their lives every day for drinking water

“Precious Cargo” (2007) recreates an image from an actual slave ship taken from a history book. “I made the little dolls sewed to the top of the quilt – lined head to toe – to represent how the slaves were chained in the hull of the ship,” Allen said. “I worked on it for more than a dozen years, collecting fabrics from Africa. It’s all hand appliqued and each doll is unique. Some are even pregnant.” The back of the quilt shows the continent of Africa, made from a patchwork of different African fabrics.

Written alongside the ship are the words from a slave auction flyer: “To Be Sold 3rd of August Next: A cargo of ninety-four prime, healthy Negroes. Thirty-nine men, fifteen boys, twenty-four women, sixteen girls just arrived from Sierra Leone.” The quilt is labeled Charlestown, July 24, 1769. By using the word “cargo,” Allen points out, it dehumanizes the individuals, emphasizing the notion that Africans weren’t considered people. 

Another quilt recreates a raffle offer: “Dark Bay Horse Star and Mulatto Girl Sarah will be raffled for chance at one dollar.” 

Click open story button to continue reading…

 

Other story quilts depict the lives of Nelson Mandela, Buffalo Soldier Cathay Williams, Mother Teresa and others. Allen transfers journal pages, slave auction leaflets, old photographs, government documents and other historic records onto fabric and weaves history into her designs. 

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“13th” (2019) uses uneven striped fabric to suggest both prison bars and barcode, showing how slavery reduced African Americans to products for sale prior to the ratifications of the 13th amendment 

She is the author of Quilted Pages: Story Art Quilts (2014). There you can learn more about her process, stories and designs. 

Art as healing

In addition to using her quilts to tell stories and teach history, Allen also uses them to aid recovery. She worked in various California Youth Authority prisons across her career, showing the inmates how to build dollhouses, make dolls and, of course, sew quilts. Allen became acquainted with Dr. Cynthia Davis Charles, who ran a project called “Dolls of Hope.” Dr. Charles distributed the dolls and quilts to African organizations for children with AIDS or orphans who lost their parents to AIDS, many of whom were abandoned along the roadside until they found their way to the orphanages. 

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“Families and Quilts” (2006)

“Twice each year, the guys would have a quilt show in the prison for the other inmates to walk through and see what they made before we turned the quilts over,” Allen said. “Cynthia would share what happened on her last trip. One February, she told the guys that one of the facilities she visited was so overcrowded, they moved the office furniture onto a covered patio so they could use the offices as sleeping space. The kids slept on straw mats until they received the baby quilts. In another orphanage, the kids wrote their names on the chalkboard to wait their turn to play with toys until she delivered the dolls. 

“In five years, working with Cynthia on that project, we made well over 3,500 handmade dolls and quilts in the three different prison facilities. One summer alone I sewed almost 100 baby quilts.” 

Art as charity

Both Allen’s website (click here) and email address are an homage to the sixth principle of Kwanzaa: kuumba, meaning creativity. The maxim instructs its followers to “do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.” Every act Allen does embraces this principle. 

When the pandemic shuttered her many annual quilt shows, Allen shifted her focus to making masks. “From March to August 2020, I sewed over 1,500 masks and donated them all over the country,” Allen said. “I donated to doctors in Washington, nurses in Chicago, firefighters in Los Angeles and paramedics in Riverside. I shipped a box to my friend in Austin and she gave them to food distribution workers. I’ve donated to senior centers, clinics, children’s hospitals and community centers.”

One of those nurses gave back to Allen. She began mailing stacks of fabrics and even a new sewing machine. “That’s the machine I’ve been creating the work on ever since,” said Allen. “It’s a machine I certainly wouldn’t go buy for myself because I can create my work on anything. You’d be amazed if you saw the conditions under which I create. I don’t know if anybody else could do it. I’m not bragging. It’s just bare bones, how I operate.” 

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“Consequences” (2016) shows Allen’s skill for intricate design and applique 

Allen described the small space she carved out on her king-sized bed to sleep. Stacks of fabric and ongoing projects cover the rest. Her living and dining rooms are stacked with boxes of fabric from friends and admirers. “I won’t have to buy fabric again for 10 years,” said Allen. “I am not exaggerating. I’m cutting into fabric that someone gave me as a gift five, six, eight years ago. I’m so blessed with the generosity I’ve experienced.”

One would think those 2,000 quilts were sewn on a sophisticated sewing machine and sent out for the quilting portion. Wrong. “I have never sent a quilt out for someone else to touch any part of it,” said Allen. “I enjoy the handwork more than the machine work. The finishing is the handwork. Sewing that final binding around the edge and sewing its label onto the back, I do all that by hand. I’m not sending that out to anybody because, to me, doing that part represents it’s finished.”

Art as activism

Many people assumed Allen’s piece “Enough” was sewn in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. In fact, Allen created the quilt two years prior. She recorded an artist statement to accompany the piece that called out the myriad injustices people of color endure every day. “For every time we call for help and it doesn’t come, we say, ‘Enough.’ For every time we’re minding our own business and police harass us, we say, ‘Enough.’ For every time we’re denied an opportunity because of our skin color, we say, ‘Enough.’”

Although Piece-ful Protest is timely, it’s also timeless. “It doesn’t matter when these pieces are exhibited,” Allen said. “They were timely two or three decades ago and, unfortunately, they will still be relevant 10 years from now. Whether it’s climate change, abuse, xenophobia, homophobia, racism…we’re just not moving past these issues quick enough.”

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Allyson Allen poses with “Enough” (2018), a piece that is both timely and timeless in depicting the African American experience in the United States

Before Wells Fargo handed down their decision, “Invisible Race” was the only quilt that received pushback in the past. The piece portrays a homeless man, hunched over and wearing a sign on his back that says, “Homeless. Hungry. I’m a person. I exist.” 

“That piece was part of an exhibit I did several years ago called Politically Incorrect,” Allen said. “The fact that homelessness still exists in the United States is, in my mind, politically incorrect. As long as human beings still engage in war or still experience poverty, man is not truly civilized. That’s how I feel. It doesn’t matter how technologically advanced we are. If people are hungry in our community, and if we still engage in war anywhere in the world, we are not civilized. Those are the two most antiquated and barbaric circumstances that can be eradicated in modern times.” 

Politically Incorrect was installed at the Temecula Valley Museum in 2016. Allen was told “Invisible Race” might offend members of the community because of Temecula’s large homeless population. The museum sits inside Sam Hicks Monument Park, a place where the homeless often gather. “I asked the director, ‘What part of this quilt would offend the homeless? The part that says ‘I’m a human being? I exist?’ Or the fact that someone has to step over a homeless person to come inside the museum? People want to ignore what’s in front of their face. It’s not the art that’s offensive. It’s not wanting to look at a homeless person when they come into a museum to see the art – that’s offensive.” Ultimately, the museum agreed with Allen and hung the quilt.

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“Invisible Race” calls out the uncivilized policies the United States has adopted to address homelessness

“If people are afraid of the different topics and causes addressed in my work, that’s intentional. It’s deliberate. The work creates a juxtaposition between harsh issues and soft, quilted textiles. That’s the whole point.”

Once Piece-ful Protest leaves Laguna in April, it will travel with the Mancuso Quilt Festival to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, South Carolina and Northern California. 

Art as dialogue

As for Laguna, and our town’s polarized reactions to Allen’s art, that conversation has only begun and will likely continue. Isn’t that the point of art? 

On the plus side, Wells Fargo’s decision only elevated interest and curiosity in the exhibition, and that’s a good thing regardless of political stance. “Everything that has happened in the last month has aligned perfectly with CAP’s mission statement, to increase the visibility and appreciation of art and serve as a catalyst for art education,” said Faye Baglin, board member of CAP. “The attention brought to this timely exhibit has exceeded all expectations.”

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(L-R) Faye Baglin and Allyson Allen pose with “Sold. Stop Traffic.” The piece speaks to both human trafficking – from slavery to present day – as well as the many unwarranted traffic stops African Americans endure daily in the U.S.

Allen agreed. “Maybe now the public wonders what the big deal was about and why there was a problem. I hope when they come out, they have some positive takeaway. When they walk through the whole exhibit and see it’s not just a Black Lives Matter exhibit, it’s not an anti-Trump exhibit, it’s none of that,” she said. “It’s supposed to be images and text you would have encountered at any protest rally in the past couple of years. It’s not me making my own statement. These slogans are supposed to be from actual protests.”

Even before our nation’s founding, Americans have depended on public protests to express their views and advocate for change. The Quaker Petition Against Slavery in 1688 represented the first instance when white men called for the abolition of slavery. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 protested British taxation. The Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913 would eventually result in women’s right to vote. The Stonewall Riots in 1969 led to policy changes and social inclusivity for members of the LGBTQ community.

Political and social progress has historically relied on public protest, though it’s rarely been swift or easy. The abolition of slavery took another 92 years in Pennsylvania (1780). Women didn’t secure the right to vote for seven years after the Suffrage Parade (1920). And the LGBTQ community continues fighting for protections today. In other words, ongoing attempts to silence protesters’ voices loom equally large in American history, often with violent and deadly consequences. Look only to our recent past to find other powerful examples. 

A place and its people show us who they are through their actions and reactions. As a town and country divided, it’s important to make every voice heard and allow the will of the people to prevail. 

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In reaction to Wells Fargo’s decision, Allen included an additional quilt to open the exhibition. Here she and Troy Poeschl (exhibits designer for CAP) debate the quilt’s placement. 

“We at Community Art Project are so grateful to Pastor Rodrick Echols, Susan Brown Madorsky, and everyone in the community who reached out to support Allyson and our nonprofit in getting this magnificent exhibition placed in a perfect new home,” said Baglin. “We can’t wait to open the doors on February 19 to share this work and honor Allyson Allen.”

Piece-ful Protest will be available to view beginning Saturday, Feb. 19 through April 24, Tuesday through Saturday, 12-4 p.m. An Artist’s Opening Reception is planned for Saturday, Feb. 19 from 2:30-5 p.m. Allen is scheduled to speak at 4 p.m. Bridge Hall is located at 340 St. Ann’s Drive, Laguna Beach.

For more information on the Laguna Beach Arts Alliance Awards Ceremony and ticket purchases, visit their website at https://lagunabeacharts.org/about-us/art-star-awards/.

Important Note: The Community Art Project (CAP) is looking for volunteer docents. Those interested in participating can contact Faye Baglin at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

For more photos by Jeff Rovner, see slideshow below:

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