“This is my favorite,” says 73-year-old Mae Bell Bledsoe with a beaming smile. “I call it ‘The Man On the Go.’ Look at him! He’s got his horn in his hand and he looks like he’s moving.” She lets go a big laugh.
This African-inspired quilt is one of a number Bledsoe has as part of the African-American quilters showcase at the Quincie Douglas Neighborhood Center’s multipurpose room, 1575 E. 36th St. She is but one of a number of talented Tucson quilters whose remarkable handmade creations are on display through March 13.
Some are quilted on the front and back. Some are geometric designs. Some are created from scraps of fabric. Others, like Bledsoe’s African creations, are pictures that tell a story. But every one is individual, showing the work and perspective of a single person connecting with the cultural traditions and dreams of the maker’s community.
Bledsoe started quilting with her mother when she was 6 years old in Arkansas. She moved to Tucson in 1958 with her husband, who was in the military. They moved around during his time of service, but returned to make Tucson their home, living in the “A” Mountain area.
The African-inspired series began about a year ago but Bledsoe has done quilts in every imaginable style throughout her life. One, called “Summer in Africa,” depicts a pair of figures at work.
“I was on vacation in Yuma and this painting was hanging on a wall,” she explains. “I took a pen and sketched it off and thought, ‘Could I make a quilt out of it?’ I just went home and worked on it and worked on it until I came up with this.
“The biggest thing is sketching it. Once I sketch it, it takes me about a couple of weeks to make it.”
Bledsoe searches fabric stores for the right colors and patterns to complete her visions. In the case of “The Man on the Go,” she really wasn’t nuts about the material she ended up using in his horn and garment. But it ultimately fit her concept of him, so she went with it.
Some of her works are just things of beauty. Others have a different purpose entirely. On a simple black-and-white checkerboard pattern, Bledsoe sewed the words of the Ten Commandments. These she created for her three children.
“If they never go to church, I told them as long as they keep the Ten Commandments they’ll be OK,” she explains. “Keep it on the bed. When they get up in the morning they’d look at those Ten Commandments and try not to break one because if you break one, you break them all.”
Bledsoe’s is an older style of African-American quilting. “This is table-top quilting,” she says. “This is what we did when I was a girl. There’s no frame used to make these quilts. It’s a different look.”
Some she sells, some she keeps. Those she sells run typically between $350-$500 or more, depending on the materials and time involved. It’s very cheap for the love and labor put into each.
Bledsoe has also taught the quilter’s art in Tucson for over 35 years. She regrets that the younger generation is not getting involved. Even in her own family, only one grandson – now deceased – took a serious interest in quilting with her.
“When I start out, I don’t know what I’m going to get,” she says. “But I just work with it until it looks like something I want it to be. I never repeat a quilt. All of my quilts are different.”