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About Joan M.E. Gaither

I am a native Baltimorean with a history of helping to integrate local schools and businesses during the Civil Rights Movement, receiving a B.S. degree from Morgan University (an historic Black College) in 1965 and my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1998.  Finishing the dissertation was certainly a career highlight, but even a greater feeling of accomplishment came when the dissertation was voted "Outstanding Dissertation for 1998 in Educational Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee."  I continue to strive for that "Perpetual Energy Source Award" that honored my ability to model and facilitate intergenerational participation in art education, public schools, and community arts partnerships.


This high energy combined with an extroverted personality allows me to give, I think, a new meaning to multi-tasking.  I'm an active member in national, state, and local professional arts organizations, as well as my familial, social, and spiritual communities. I came to MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) in 1996 and felt immediately at home within the art department that models and mentors a holistic and child-centered approach to art education.  I am grateful to my junior high school teacher Mr. George Barrick, mentor and friend, who piqued my curiosity for using art making processes and materials for problem solving everyday concerns and for encouraging my continuous doodling and drawing of characters and settings to tell personal stories.


To begin, quilts are more than decoration, beauty, comfort, and protection.  By piecing meaningful fabric, traditional patterns, and collaged text & image to tell narrative personal stories, layers of meaning can emerge to document your life experiences, experiences of other people, places and events. In my mind, they tell the human story, make emotional connections to issues, tells the story that NEEDS to be TOLD, and keeps the connections to our heritage real, fresh, and very much alive.


As an artist, I've discovered that my voice is informed by an interest in mixed media, fibers, and photographic images that allow close scrutiny of surfaces and metaphors for personal meaning.  Memories of manipulating fibers on a large scale to share images of identity and culture extend back to the mid 1970s exhibitions with current colleagues and mentors Joyce Scott and Dr. Leslie King Hammond.  My photographic and watercolor artwork focused on character studies of my immediate surroundings, but always art images with part to whole processing emerged as a needed manipulative way to express my ideas and stories.


In 2000 I hand stitched my first and fairly large narrative quilt, My Story: A Family Quilt.  This embellished, layered, and color-coded 10'X 12' text and image statement of my culture, with brilliant Maryland State Flag colors, photo transfers of family members, threads of gold, and multiple levels of attachments offered clues to the careers and identity of aging and young faces in such a way as to project power and seemed to come alive under the exhibition lights.  It became the catalyst for the more than ten quilts I would hand-stitch during my first sabbatical leave from MICA in 2003.  As more quilts began to take shape, deeply buried memories became "un-layered" in fiber and mixed media to address issues of celebration, identity, protection, racism, and survival.  Most recently, the My American Series Quilts document pivotal events in my life within the context of my communities - regional, national, and global. Somewhere along the journey, I became a community artist and advocate for social justice issues and ideas.  It is a journey that started with me, a professional artist working with one museum and local community partnering to tell the stories of individuals and their African American communities through collecting and interpreting oral histories, everyday objects, and story quilts.  My process is reflective and requires interaction with the selections of fiber type, texture, color and objects of embellishment that then put gold threads of hope and celebration into my personal narrative art works.


My work today as an artist/educator follows several interrelated strands and ideas that have emerged from my long commitment to the education of children.   After 44 years in education, my varied experiences and education have not only shaped my own belief system, but also grounds my teaching practice.  As a result, I believe a teacher encourages students to develop a method of internalizing and learning through a process that is applicable to school and life-long learning.  As a teacher helps students to see through a plethora of commercial images in order to verbalize goals, understand processes, meet responsibilities, and be accountable for their actions, educators help students to find their personal voice for "making special" while creating meaningful experiences and developing a world view.


How is that growing up in a particular environment leads to the framework within which one perceives, thinks, and acts?  As an artist, educator, researcher, and advocate, I continue to pose the problem in my teaching and my art that directs students and myself to examine the possible conflict between the perceptual psychology of visual images and the hidden meaning embedded in those images.  For me, it becomes important to investigate perceptions of culture in terms of what kind and quality of art-like images habitually surround students in schools and in their day-to-day living.  I encourage all educational partners to provide closer scrutiny to imagery selection processes that present visual knowledge purporting to define, validate, and perpetuate cultural identities.  I believe that we prepare our student teaching interns for the awesome responsibility of educating children, but first understanding how their behavioral perceptions, interpretations, and responses to events and experiences within their environment grounds what becomes experienced and or mediated for the students in their charge. My art documents the lives and contributions, in this case, of African Americans in the history and culture of Maryland in particular and in the greater American story in general.  


As a fiber artist and documentary story quilter, my work centers on community collaborations and quilting workshops designed to encourage participants to research and celebrate their own personal histories and stories.  I feel a sense of urgency and passion that drives me to capture the oral histories and memories from our aging storytellers and preserve them in my quilts so they will live on.  The My American Series Quilts, celebrates the contributions, lives, and legacies of African Americans.  I tell many stories in this series - the story of local philanthropists Ed and Sylvia Brown (Homage to Ed and Sylvia Brown), the story of my community’s evolution and connection to Anne Arundel County (Trails Tracks Tarmac), the story of slavery in Maryland (At Freedom’s Door), the story of land ownership and work on a national airport property (The Airport Quilt), the life story of our 44th President (Journey to the White House), and of the history and importance of the Black watermen of the Chesapeake (The Black Watermen of the Chesapeake). The National Black Theatre Festival quilt is the seventh quilt in the continually evolving My American Series Quilts.  


In closing, my work speaks to a place in many communities - telling my own story, telling the stories of others, and finally helping others to find and tell their own stories.

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