Using bits of fabric, artist Peggie Hartwell lends her talents to amplify voices that need to be heard.
Today’s world is filled with conversation. Social media allows people to say whatever is on their mind, whenever they want to say it, and so they put it out into the world, often multiple times a day. The twenty-four-hour news cycle ensures that there is always someone talking when you turn on your television or radio, whether you like it or not. There are seemingly limitless ways to add your thoughts, opinions, and stories to society, but for some, theirs get lost among the louder, the bolder, or the more well-connected. A talented artist and compassionate person, Summerville resident Peggie Hartwell is dedicated to assisting those whose voices are often unheard, telling their stories through intricate narrative quilts.
Peggie Hartwell’s introduction to the world of quilting and storytelling began at an early age. Growing up on a farm in rural Springfield, South Carolina, Hartwell was surrounded by her extended family. Some of her first memories include all of the women in her family sitting around quilting together, spending their days creating a usable work of art, which they would eventually gift to someone in need within the community. She looked up to her grandfather, who, in her mind, was the greatest storyteller in the world, weaving grand tales with his family gathered around him, hanging onto every word. When the family took part in the Great Migration of the 1940s and 50s, they moved north, settling in Brooklyn, New York. Hartwell was just six years old, and her prior education occured in a three-room country schoolhouse. This new world was filled with immigrants from countless countries, exposing young Hartwell to a host of cultures, customs, and cuisines. Surrounded by people all living in unfamiliar territory, Hartwell began to understand how easy it is to feel voiceless, as she herself struggled with feeling connected to her new home in the big city. Looking back on those early days, Hartwell sees them now as inspirational to what became her lifelong mission: to advocate for those who could use a little more attention.
Hartwell went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater from Queens College, and spent eight years traveling the world and performing a variety of dance techniques. Through her travels during this time and later in life, she acquired an even deeper perspective regarding stories that must be told, including those of refugees, homeless people, and orphans. These stories began to take root in her mind, and eventually found an unlikely outlet: through quilts inspired by those she saw created in her youth. Hartwell worked diligently to become increasingly more skilled at her craft, and today, she is one of the most highly-regarded narrative storytelling quilters in the country. She has been the subject of profiles by the Smithsonian Institute and featured on the hit television program “Reading Rainbow,” and her work has been hung in galleries and museums all over the America. Hartwell is a founding member of the Women of Color Quilters’ Network, and is a member of many other quilting organizations, consistently striving to connect and collaborate with as many like-minded people as possible.
Eventually, Peggie Hartwell moved back down south, always feeling connected to the place of her youth. Here, she works out of her home, piecing together quilts that at first glance, seem to be simply beautiful pieces of art. A longer study, however, reveals astonishing layers of detail. A single quilt crafted by Peggie Hartwell can contain a world’s worth of symbolism, with every element of the piece carefully considered and constructed. Through her work, she tackles difficult subjects and brings to light injustices of the world, encouraging reflection and discourse. Hartwell uses her art to explore her memories, as well as cultural differences and similarities, familial bonds, folk history, the wisdom of the ages, and the plight of those often overlooked, among many other themes. Truly, she follows her heart, listening to her conscience and allowing her spirit to be pulled toward meaningful projects, which she undertakes with immense care and attention.
Ever the humanitarian, Hartwell devotes most of her time toward using her craft to help others, an effort made most clear through her quilt art programs. The programs engage participants of all backgrounds, educating and inspiring them as they work together to create quilted art. Through one curriculum called “Voices on Cloth,” Hartwell connects with students who have special needs, giving them an opportunity to practice and showcase their creative minds. Since 2007, the artist has worked with Margaret Hayden, the department head for the special education program at Summerville High School, to offer the program to local students. Each year, students learn from “Ms. Peggie” as she teaches them narrative storytelling through art, working with her to create genuine masterpieces of which they can be proud. This year, Ms. Hayden’s class of twelve students have brought an impressive sense of dedication and passion to their many quilting projects, and with each project, they become more skilled and more focused. For Hayden, the collaboration with Hartwell was a no-brainer.
“I want this to be an environment that feels warm and welcoming,” says Hayden. “Working with Peggie Hartwell and her Voices on Cloth project, the students experience a noticeable boost in their confidence. It also gives them the opportunity to get recognition that they may not get otherwise; it allows them to be present in their community and showcases how capable they are of producing beautiful, creative art.”
The process begins with a pattern, which Hartwell enlarges to the size it will be and sketches onto freezer paper. She brings it to the students, explaining that they are going to tell a story using fabric and color rather than words. Some of the students cut out pieces of the pattern, and they all take turns carefully selecting patterns and colors and trying them out in the various parts of the piece. Hartwell takes her time with this step in the process, as she believes it is the most important.
“Colors can say so much,” explains Hartwell. “They can be nouns, adjectives, action words; it is all in how you use them; they truly make the piece. The students are so intentional about their choices. For example, if they are selecting a fabric for a woman in the scene who I tell them speaks her mind, they will almost always choose bold elements like red or polka dot. They lend their voices to the quilts by choosing fabrics that will speak to the viewer, and it always turns out beautifully.”
After their selections are made and cut out, Hartwell begins to piece the quilt together, and many students are thrilled to assist. After they have done all they can together at Summerville High School, Hartwell takes the piece home to finish it, and when she is done, she brings it right back to the school so the students can see the final product. The students are often thrilled, and rightfully so: their collaborative work is showstopping, worthy of exhibition anywhere. Still, the idea of their work being displayed publicly seemed like a lofty dream until this past September, when their work was featured at an exhibition at the Charleston County Library downtown Charleston. For one month, the quilts created through Hartwell’s Voices on Cloth series in collaboration with local high school students hung for visitors from all over the world to see. Peggie Hartwell smiles when she remembers the opening reception.
“The most beautiful part of that event was not hanging on the wall,” Hartwell remembers. “It was happening in the room as the students talked to visitors about their work. They felt important, as they should, and it showed. It was such a joy to see.”
When asked to recall that evening, many of the students grin, their joy and pride continuing to radiate months later. One student, Moriah Morgan, remembers the evening quite fondly, and enjoys her work with Hartwell immensely.
“Lots of people came,” she recalls. “I was happy to see crowds were there. It makes me happy to be a good student and I like to help Ms. Peggie; she is one of the coolest teachers I have ever had.”
Another student, Noah Lisle, shares similar sentiments.
“The quilts are fun to make, and I liked going to the exhibit and seeing the finished product,” he says. “It was really fun.”
When they aren’t working on quilts, Hartwell leads the class in other forms of fiber arts. Last Christmas, they worked together to make cards for Meals on Wheels recipients, and this spring, they will create batik fabric and paint on silk. Hartwell hopes that the Charleston Library exhibition was only one of many, aspiring to find more venues who will display the art. Wherever the program takes her and her students, Hartwell is humble when discussing her role in their education.
“I just want to make sure that they understand they have a voice in their lives,” says Hartwell. “Not just in their art, but in their life in general. My philosophy is that if you have a talent, you have a responsibility to share it, and I like sharing it with people who may not always be listened to. So I am just following through on what I feel I am supposed to do, and wonderfully, I think we are actually inspiring each other. Through working with these students, I learn how to look, and learn how to see; by teaching them, I become the student. It is beautiful that our work together can be so collaborative.”
To learn more about Peggie Hartwell
and the Voices on Cloth program, visit peggiehartwell.com
by Jana Riley