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African American Decorative Arts

African American decorative arts embrace many forms, from the practical utility of bed quilts and baskets to the traditional crafts of blacksmithing and wood carving to the skill in design and construction of residential architecture or boat building. Whether the objects are practical or beautiful, the artistic creations are based on decades of learned tradition and natural instinct.

The tradition of African American folk and craft artisans began in Tennessee with the settlement of the land and the introduction of slavery to the emerging agrarian society. Slaves brought from Africa not only traditional skills but also a sense of color and pattern that made their craftsmanship unique. The strong African sense of family enabled artists to learn their skills from their parents, what African American artist and historian Pecolia Warner called "fireplace training."

Decorative arts in the early nineteenth century began as practical objects such as bed quilts, basketry, woven goods, iron work, and funerary art were created for daily utility. Richard Poynor (1802-1882) of Williamson County was a noted craftsman and carpenter. His chairs are prized possessions today among many Tennessee furniture collectors. Later works, less dependent on practical need, nevertheless maintained African color schemes and design patterns in creations of artistic expression and improvisation, as found in the gravestones and markers of William Edmondson of Nashville.

Although European in tradition, bed quilts were adapted to reflect distinctly African origins through the alteration of patterns and color selections. Quilts were used not only to cover beds but also as barriers between rooms in slave quarters to provide privacy and insulation. In the twentieth century, quilts became less utilitarian and more unique pieces of fabric art. The collections of the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum in Athens contain a striking cotton quilt titled "Schoolhouse," made by Sarah Moore, an African American woman, in the 1920s. The Nashville-born fabric designer Viola Burley Leak has given a strong voice to African American history through her sewn fabric pieces, which depict scenes from black experiences.

Early African American craftsmen produced basketry to serve the needs of plantation life in everything from cotton baskets to egg and market baskets. These forms also gave way to the improvisation inherent in African American craft tradition. Twentieth-century basketmaking was no longer driven by need, but by a new monetary value, which allowed for creative license in the design of unique objects such as woven purses, pocketbooks, and flower baskets.

African American artistic talent expressed itself more often in blacksmithing than in any other trade except carpentry. Unlike fabric and cloth hand crafts, which were passed in fireplace training among females, the smithing tradition was the only craft passed down by males from generation to generation. Rural blacksmiths crafted utilitarian objects from horseshoes to hinges but had few opportunities for creative expression. These rural craftsmen acquired many opportunities to achieve independence, however, and were often able to purchase their freedom with money earned through work for their owners and neighboring farmers and plantation owners. Smithing proved lucrative enough for some freedmen to be able to purchase their families with their earned incomes. Urban blacksmiths had more opportunities to demonstrate their artistic skills than rural blacksmiths, when they were hired to produce fences and commissioned works. Twentieth-century Shelbyville artist Vanoy Streeter carries on the African American tradition in metalwork with his sculptures created with yards and yards of formed wire.

African American traditions continue to thrive in Tennessee decorative art while allowing artists to rely on improvisation to guide their creations. Twenty-first-century artists produce creations using the traditional techniques of their ancestors while allowing contemporary events to influence design and form.

Suggested Reading

William Ferris, ed., Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts (1983); Robert L. Hall, Gathered Visions: Selected Works by African American Women Artists (1992); Maude Southwell Wahlman, Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts (1993).

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » February 08, 2011