Columbia Museum of Art acquires story quilt by artist Tina Williams Brewer

November 16, 2023

New work debuted in summer exhibition Tina Williams Brewer: Stories of Grace

The Columbia Museum of Art announces an exciting acquisition of new work by Pittsburgh-based fiber artist Tina Williams Brewer, who creates densely layered, highly symbolic story quilts that explore African diasporic history and ancestral heritage. Ebb and Flow: Grace and Mercy (2023) was created in conjunction with the recent CMA-organized summer exhibition Tina Williams Brewer: Stories of Grace, the first major museum survey of the artist’s work in the Southeast.

“This is an important work for South Carolina because of its unique context,” says CMA Senior Curator Michael Neumeister. “There are historical and geographic reference points within the composition that are meaningful to our state. But it is also a significant quilt in Brewer’s oeuvre. She is moving in a different direction, emphasizing abstraction in a way that newly stimulates her subject matter.”

Born in West Virginia, Tina Williams Brewer studied ceramics and advertising at the Columbus College of Art and Design, Ohio, before settling in Pittsburgh in the early 1970s. She was introduced to quilting through her participation in local crafts groups, where she quickly gained facility with patchwork techniques.

Inclined to a more expressive practice, Brewer began incorporating figural patterns and combining found fabrics with family heirlooms, newspapers, and photographs. Her methods expanded alongside her interests in African and African American history, subjects that she examines through a range of traditional symbols, original motifs, and globally sourced textiles. Brewer’s work is further inspired by her travels, including a formative trip to Ghana and extensive time spent at St. Helena Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry.

In January 2023, Brewer traveled to St. Helena Island with Neumeister, the first time she had visited in over a decade. She took photographs on the grounds of Lands End Beach and Penn Center that were later silkscreened onto muslin by the Pittsburgh-based artist Matthew Van Asselt. Brewer ultimately cut up these fabrics and incorporated them into a new body of work, from which Ebb and Flow: Grace and Mercy derives.

The densely layered, evocative works that Brewer has recently created, and of which Ebb and Flow is an exceptional example, are resplendent with color and energy. Though the artist continues to integrate traditional quilting concepts in subtle ways, this free-flowing composition registers more as an abstract painting or collage than a quilt. Often while arranging a composition, Brewer is compelled to cover up previously sewn elements with new designs. These partially concealed fabrics might obscure some of the artist’s laborious handwork, but the process itself functions as an important metaphor for the hidden nature of African American histories.

In the center of the work, which combines both figurative and abstract elements, is a large circular form cut from organza.

“It serves to orient the composition, but I think it also serves as a kind of portal into another world,” adds Neumeister. “There is something cosmic about it.”