Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Gullah Lady

Wow! September's program with The Gullah Lady was really something special.
Sharon Cooper Murray aka The Gullah Lady, meets Palmetto Fiber Arts Guild members as we arrive for our September meeting.
Here in the Lowcountry of the Palmetto state the intertwined histories of many different kinds of people overlap with geography and place in a truly unique way. Sharon Cooper Murray grew up in nearby Lake City. A chance visit to Wadmalaw Island resulted in her finding what felt like home to her in terms of the place, the people and all the intertwined histories.

She is a talented and natural storyteller. She told us wonderful stories that began with memories of   her own mother's quilting circle, and later stumbling upon a remarkably similar quilting group on Wadmalaw Island -- of learning from the ladies there an old practice that involved using a sharp bone or a nail to push strips of fabric through a burlap backing.

The traditional Gullah rag strip quilt utilized small bits of fabric too small for garments, towels, or pieced quilts.

As time went by and the number of ladies who made these strip quilts dwindled to -- none but her, Cooper Murray realized how important it was to preserve as much of the Gullah Geechee culture and practice as possible.

Sharon has become The Gullah Lady and her mission now is to preserve the disappearing folk practices she learned from elderly Gullah women on South Carolina's sea islands. Her vision is not only to preserve this tradition, but also to make it relevant to a contemporary audience. She has found one of the best vehicles for this is the "Community Rag Quilt Project".

Everywhere she goes now as she leads workshops about this vanishing culture she invites participants to add a few strips to the community quilt, linking the labor of their hands to each other and to the tradition. The colorful community quilt becomes fluffier and fluffier with each program she does. Of course, she didn't have to twist the arms of Fiber Arts Guild members to get us to do our bit!

Palmetto Fiber Arts Guild members add strips to The Gullah Lady's Community Quilt
Samples of more rag strip quilts.
 The remoteness of our sea islands helped to preserve a way of life that traced some of its characteristics back to the shores of Africa (Sharon told us Gullah may be a corruption of the word "Golla" referring perhaps to Angola.) The cultural nuances are complex and fascinating.

None of us came from that culture or tradition, but many of us could relate to remembrances of old ways of making things that aren't being done anymore -- of remembering the communities that formed around and sustained our grandmothers and great-grandmothers who often lived in some isolation and often poverty. Many of us have some fiber "treasure" that has been passed down to us - a quilt or coverlet -- and we know a story of who made it and how it was used.

Thank you to Sharon Cooper Murray for being with us and sharing your wonderful stories about this rich culture still alive right in our backyard. And thank you for letting us take part in this community quilt project and remembering it really is all about community!!

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