Jim Smoote II started quilting as a student at the School of the Art Institute in the early 1970s after deciding weaving was too time intensive.
Janice Hobson learned to quilt as part of her recovery from a 1998 car collision, a way to rehabilitate her hands toward resuming her dentistry practice.
Jeanette Thompson’s quilting began six years ago, a break from her job as a high school art teacher.
The work of these Chicago quilters is now on display in a traveling exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African American History that opened Monday titled “Journey of Hope in America: Quilts Inspired By President Barack Obama.” The exhibit blends the personal and political in 50 quilts that speak about the president, his history and the history of American civil rights.
“When people hear the name ‘Journey of Hope’ it sounds overtly political,” said Carolyn Mazloomi, an Ohio quilter and quilt historian who curated the exhibit. “The quilts are anything other than dogmatic. They’re personal and collective artifacts that are much more about specific African-American journeys. It’s about our journey as a people rather than the portrait of a Democratic president.”
The three Chicago artists each came to the show, and quilting, through different paths and different motivations, none of which were intensely political. Each said he or she was proud to be part of a show that carried on a tradition of presidential quilting as well as spoke to a moment in history.
Smoote, 61, who estimates he makes about one quilt a month and has created close to 1,000 quilts in his lifetime, said he typically stays away from celebrity quilts, like ones he has made featuring Dennis Rodman and Grace Jones.
“They can become very dated,” he said.
When Obama was running for lower office, Smoote, of Uptown, doubted his political aspirations and didn’t see quilt inspiration.
“I never thought he had a chance,” he said. “But when I saw him on television in Grant Park [in 2008 on election night], I was one of the people crying.”
Smoote, who retired after teaching art in Chicago Public Schools for 35 years, said his favorite quilt is often the one he has just finished.
“Every time you do one you get insight,” he said.
For Janice Hobson, a former dentist and University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry professor who lives in South Shore, working with fabric was a way to help recover from neurological damage she sustained in a 1998 car collision.
“Just to start to manipulate the fabric helped me to retain the use of my right hand and regain the use of my left hand,” she said. Hobson creates about two or three quilts a year and was invited to quilt for the Obama show. She based her quilt, “Starburst II,” on her experience in Grant Park on election night, “all the flashes and light and the energy and the excitement,” she said.
While the Obama quilt is her first experience quilting a commander-in-chief, she said it’s been done for all U.S. presidents. She continues to be surprised by her success in quilting.
“I shocked myself,” she said. “When I got hurt I felt as if my world had fallen apart. I didn’t know that a tragic event could produce something so inspirational and make me do something that would one day be exhibited in a museum.”
Jeanette Thompson, 39, a high school art teacher at CICS North Town Academy who lives in Ravenswood, started quilting six years ago. She created her Obama quilt for a separate show that debuted in Maryland. Mazloomi contacted that group, called Fiber Artists for Hope, and asked to use several of those quilts in her show. Thompson’s Obama quilt led her to be commissioned to make quilts of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I decided to make one because it was such a historical event that he was the first African-American president elected,” Thompson said. “I was very moved by him as a candidate and his election I felt gave America hope.”