Above: (left) "Three Flowers" by Yvonne Wells, located in Kentuck's Permanent Collection, donated from the collection of Wyatt and Becky Collins. (Right): Guest Artist Yvonne Wells at the 48th Kentuck Festival, 2019.
Yvonne Wells made her first appearance at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in 1985. She won Best In Show that year (and an additional five times), though the artist herself felt there must have been a mistake. Reminiscing on that win, she recalls, "I said, 'Something is going on wrong here.' I did, I did, because I was comparing myself to all those wonderful artists that were out there."
Today, Wells, along with the broader art community, recognizes that she is undoubtedly one of those wonderful artists. Yvonne is an internationally renowned quilter who still calls Tuscaloosa home, and her work has been exhibited in Japan, France, and Italy, as well as displayed in the prestigious Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. and the American Museum of Folk Art in New York City. Six of her quilts reside in the permanent collection of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Nebraska, and she has garnered numerous awards including the Alabama Arts Award, the Visual Craftsmanship Award from the Alabama Arts Council, and a Governor's Award for the Arts.
However, when she sat down to piece together her first quilt in 1979, she couldn't have foreseen the artistic accolades in her future. She was motivated by a more immediate concern; in the midst of a home renovation, Wells found herself temporarily without a heating system and only a small fireplace to keep warm. She wanted a quilt to drape over her legs at night, and she set about making it herself.
Her early creations were mostly examples of traditional patterns, but, by 1985, she had begun to develop her characteristic pictorial style. Depicting images from one of four self-created categories—Religious, Sociopolitical, Children's Moment (works intended for a younger audience), and Potluck (a collection of miscellaneous subjects)—each of Wells's quilts has a story to tell, and she considers this storytelling part of her identity as a quilt artist.
"I never was a person of many words. I have always wanted to say things, but I was just not getting it out the way I thought it should be presented. So I had this feeling in my heart that there was something that needed to come out and there were stories that needed to be told, as far as I was concerned, that hadn't been told as of yet or in my way of expressing it."
Of course, her manner of expression hasn't always been appreciated by everyone. A self-taught quilter without formal training, Wells says some peers looked down on her work and told her she needed to take classes to learn how to quilt. Those naysayers didn't deter Yvonne, however. Instead, she gained new appreciation for her work. Describing her approach to quilting, she says, "I use what I have and make it work, and it works for me, and I'm satisfied with that. I don't try to do like anybody else. I want it to be Yvonne, and that's what I always want. If I make it, it's right."
Though these quilts (below) aren't located in Kentuck's Permanent Collection, they are incredibly powerful and relevant to recent events.
1: "Being in Total Control of Herself," 1990; inspired by Yvonne's first trip to New York City. Located in the Robert and Helen Cargo Collection
Inspired by recent programming at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, beginning June 5th Kentuck Art Center is dedicating ten days of online content to the Black artists in our Permanent Collection. While Kentuck Art Center cannot address the full complexity of systemic racism on our own, we can gain perspective and a sense of purpose by listening to the voices of artists we are proud to have in our collection.
Kentuck's Permanent Collection holds artworks of significance to Kentuck's history, as well as the American Folk Art movement. The objects collected by Kentuck physically document the narrative of American Folk Art, as well as Kentuck's Festival, Studio, and Exhibiting artists. The objects in Kentuck's Permanent Collection form a history that is the basis for research, exhibition, interpretation, and community engagement.