by Suzanne Labry
The Newark 350 Commemorative Quilt
Newark, New Jersey is among the oldest cities in the United States, and 2016 marked its 350th birthday.
Founded in 1666 by Puritan colonists, Newark became an industrial center in the
19th century, famed as a rail and shipping hub and for leather factories, breweries,
and insurance companies. Eventually it grew to be New Jersey’s largest city, and it
remains so today.
During the Great Migration, when more than six million African-Americans left the rural South and relocated to other parts of the country, more of them came to New Jersey than any other northern state. And today in Newark, African-Americans make up a majority of the population.
As part of a yearlong series of events and activities celebrating the city’s rich history, Newark Councilwoman Gail Chaneyfield Jenkins came up with a project called the Newark 350 Commemorative Quilt. Toni Thomas, founder and director of ARTS ETC, the Newark-based art organization dedicated to supporting women in the visual and literary arts and indigenous artists who work in a traditional art form, was tapped to lead the effort.
Thomas was delighted to be a part of the project, but she had to contend with a
“The project came to my attention when I received a call from the NC 350 producer Jackie Harris in September,” she says. “The quilt needed to be completed by December.” Undeterred, she set about figuring out how to “make the quilt reflect Newark’s five wards and the people who live there and create a work that is commemorative.” (A ward is a city administrative division represented by a councilor.)
“I decided the best way to move forward was to take a non-traditional approach to creating the quilt,” Thomas continues. “I am particularly fond of the quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. I looked at some of their work and came up with a direction for the city's quilt. When you look at the practice of traditional quilting, many quilts began with using scraps from clothing that would be considered no longer wearable.”
Following along that theme, Thomas felt it was worth a shot to ask people of the city to contribute swatches of fabric that could be used in the quilt. Collection boxes were set up at the main branch library and at all the local branches throughout the city. Notices and flyers went out asking people to contribute.
“I even set up one at the school where I teach, Arts High School,” she adds. “Our school was a perfect location to collect the fabric contributions because we have students from all five wards attending our school and the school’s central location made it convenient for people of the community to drop off fabric there as well, which they did.”
Thomas assembled a team that included quilters Edith Churchman, Margret Martin,
Faith Valentinetti, Barbara Harris-Sanders, and Glendora Simonson, members of the Newark-based Nubian Heritage Quilters Guild. The group opted to make a (60” x 60”) improvised Medallion-style quilt, using over 250 squares of fabric donated by citizens
of Newark’s five wards.
The squares are surrounded by three borders, the first of which is made from up-cycled denim strips. In the lower center of the quilt is a symbolic representation of the gold dome of Newark’s city hall.
Toni Thomas, a visual artist and art educator, is not a native to Newark. Originally from Detroit, she moved to New Jersey in the late 1980s. She became familiar with Newark when she went to see a quilt exhibit at the Newark Museum right after she relocated.
Her fascination with quilts grew over the years, and she was inspired by visual artists such as Faith Ringgold and Emma Ammos, who used quilting with their artwork. Although Thomas’ mother and grandmother made quilts, Toni did not learn quilting directly from them, but from reading books on quilting and taking classes at the Newark Museum.
Today, she quilts many of her paintings or will make quilted borders around some of her work. When news of the commemorative quilt came to her attention, she saw it as a way to join in celebrating the history of the city she now calls home.
“When word of the commemorative quilt came to me and I decided to get involved with helping to create it, I felt it was my opportunity to get involved with the city's NC 350 celebration and I have enjoyed learning more about the history and people of this great city in New Jersey,” she says. “I look at working on the commemorative quilt as my way of making a contribution during this memorable occasion.”