New: Summer 2023 Issue, Folk Arts Apprenticeship Exhibit, and I Ain't Lying Magazine Exhibit

Rhonda Blasingame + Brenda Davis

Rhonda Blasingame + Brenda Davis
Rhonda Blasingame and Brenda Davis participated in the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 2021-2022 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. This grants program supports the survival and continued evolution of community-based traditional art forms. During the apprenticeship, the master artist teaches specific skills, techniques and cultural knowledge to the apprentice, who is an emerging artist of the same tradition. Participants are awarded $2,000 to assist with the teaching fees for the master artist and other expenses such as travel costs and supplies. To learn more about the program, click here.

Introduction:

Experienced quilter and mixed media fiber artist Rhonda Blasingame and her apprentice Brenda Davis navigated their apprenticeship during the pandemic. As one can imagine, teaching someone this artform typically requires the master quilter to be in close contact with the apprentice. Prior to the pandemic, Blasingame often found herself leaning over her students to demonstrate quilting techniques such as stitching, piecing together and cutting fabric, binding corners of the fabric, and more. When they were not socially distanced within a room together, Blasingame and Davis successfully adapted to their circumstances by staying in communication over the phone and sending plenty of pictures back and forth.

Audio:

Rhonda discusses how she and Brenda met and how they started their apprenticeship together. Interview recorded on Zoom by Kennedi Johnson. 

Master Artist: Rhonda Blasingame

Above (main image): Brenda Davis (left) and Rhonda Blasingame (right) pose for a photo during an apprenticeship meet up.

Left: Rhonda Blasingame and Brenda Davis working together during one of their apprenticeship sessions.

Photos by Maria Zeringue courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission

Learning to quilt from her grandmother at the age of four, quilting has always been a central part of Blasingame’s life. One of Blasingame’s earliest childhood memories is watching her grandmother and her seven great aunts sit under a quilt frame and work together with a needle and spoon. She picked up the artform in earnest about twenty years ago and worked exclusively as an art quilter for five to six years before returning to traditional quilt making. Over the last five years, she has realized that she enjoys working with antique and vintage quilts. A fair amount of her business involves repairing quilts from the 1920s and 1930s. When working on these quilts, Blasingame says that she feels like she is returning to those early memories of her grandmother: “I recognize the fabrics, I recognize the patterns…that part of [what I do], my grandmother comes out a lot stronger with quilting [hand repairs] than what I’m doing now with the fancy machine because they didn’t really do that.”

Blasingame maintains to this day that quilting is a communal artform. “The easiest way to do it is to work with somebody else.”

Right: During their apprenticeship Rhonda made the same quilt that Brenda was working on, but in a black and white color scheme to show how quilt patterns can look differently based on the color choices of the fabric.

Photo by Maria Zeringue courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission

Learning how to quilt in a community herself, Blasingame maintains to this day that quilting is a communal artform. “The hardest thing in the world is to teach yourself to quilt from a book or YouTube,” says Blasingame, “The easiest way to do it is to work with somebody else.” For this reason, Blasingame happily teaches students the craft of quilting and has passed on her skills to nine apprentices—with Davis being her latest.

Apprentice: Brenda Davis

Left: At the 2022 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Showcase, Brenda Davis talks about the snail trail quilt that she made during her apprenticeship with Rhonda.

Photo by Maria Zeringue courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission

Brenda Davis began quilting about four years ago. She grew up being gifted quilts and always desired to learn the artform. She remembers being in awe of how people could make something beautiful out of sacks and old clothes. Shortly after her retirement, she leapt at the opportunity to learn about quilting. After learning the basics, Davis soon started to run her own beginners quilting class. She takes pride in seeing her students complete their own projects and take them home. Since learning how to quilt, Davis has taught her daughters the craft, as well. She hopes that they will teach their children and their children’s children so that quilting will always remain within the family. Davis also enjoys gifting quilts to family and friends. She is currently working on a quilt to give to her daughter’s friend as a college graduation gift.

Right: Detail of Brenda Davis’ quilt that she made over their course of her apprenticeship with Rhonda Blasingame.

Photo by Maria Zeringue courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission

Davis says that the apprenticeship process was challenging but she wanted to produce a quilt that Blasingame would be proud of. “I wanted to show people my final product and say this is something Rhonda taught me how to make.”

Apprenticeship Experience:

Wanting to expand her skillset, Davis approached Blasingame to participate in the apprenticeship program. Davis wanted to learn about new patterns and the techniques required to craft a more advanced quilt. She was also curious about free motion quilting and how to perform this on her machine at home. Free motion quilting is a quilting style where the quilter creates stitch designs without the aid of feed dogs–the part of the sewing machine that lifts the fabric and passes it along to produce a stitch. Having taught and mentored her share of students, Blasingame met Davis’ desires by honing in on quilting skills such as how to apply decorations to the top of the quilt and how to properly make blocks and piece them together. Blasingame believes that “teaching to the technique” allows for students to walk away from their lessons with the ability to execute multiple patterns.

Blasingame typically will pick a pattern, or design, that requires executing multiple techniques so that her students will be able to build off what they learned in their own work. During their apprenticeship, Blasingame taught Davis about quilting by working on a snail trail quilt together. The snail trail quilt pattern requires the quilter to be familiar with making blocks for their quilt, while also being able to add on triangles to each edge as the quilter sews around the block.

Right: Brenda Davis’ notebook where she has taken a few notes during one of her apprenticeship meetings.

Photo by Maria Zeringue courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission.

Patterns for a quilt are often extremely repetitive, so in their lessons Blasingame and Davis worked the entire time making quilt squares. Blasingame then sent Davis home with the stack of squares that they made and asked her to make 50-100 more squares like the ones they made together. According to Blasingame, this helped Davis develop the muscle memory needed to complete tasks without her supervision. In later lessons, Blasingame focused on and pointed out the abilities Davis would need to master in order to complete the pattern. Davis found Blasingame’s approach to teaching helpful. She left the lessons feeling excited that she could begin to self-identify problems and work on quilting by herself.

Conclusion:

Davis says that the apprenticeship process was challenging but she wanted to produce a quilt that Blasingame would be proud of. “I wanted to show people my final product and say this is something Rhonda taught me how to make,” says Davis. Blasingame responds by saying “The worst thing I could do as a teacher is demand perfection…you want to make it where they feel like ‘Man this is the best thing in the world, I want everyone to learn how to quilt.’” When asked about the finished quilt that Davis produced towards the end of the apprenticeship, Blasingame proudly declares, “You cannot look at [Brenda’s] quilt and say anything other than ‘that is a beautiful quilt’.”

 

Audio: Rhonda talks with Kennedi about her experiences as a master artist in the apprenticeship program and her approach to teaching. Brenda joins the conversation to talk with Rhonda about passing on the tradition to their daughters. Interview recorded on Zoom by Kennedi Johnson.

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Kennedi Johnson

Kennedi Johnson

Kennedi Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Ethnomusicology with a Ph.D. minor in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her current research centers around the ways in which race and gender are perceived sonically in the United States. More specifically, she looks at how the (mis)hearings of Black girls as sassy, angry, or disrespectful impede their learning in the U.S. school system. She has worked for the American Folklife Center, the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, and the Atlanta History Center.