Joyful Quilts Of Phyllis Stephens Celebrate African-American Legacy Through A Singular Contemporary Narrative

By Natasha Gural, Contributor
Phyllis Stephens 'My Life is a Bed of Roses' (2021) Quilt with sustainable fabrics 52 x 82 in; 58 x 88 in (fr) Charles Roussel photo courtesy of the artist, Richard Beavers Gallery, and Almine Rech

A woman reclines on her side, one arm props up her torso as the other arm reaches toward her floral head covering. She clutches one ripe, red apple, as another one lies, already eaten, beside a bottle of wine. Earthly indulgence mingles with birds, butterflies, and flowers in this elaborate, joyful, brightly-colored depiction where no fruit is forbidden and the subject seems fully aware of the knowledge needed for hard-earned self care and appreciation of nature.

“I truly believe happiness is a choice. I also believe it’s a choice that only you can make for yourself,” said artist Phyllis Stephens, 65.

My Life is a Bed of Roses (2021), a 52-inch-by-82-inch quilt with sustainable fabrics wowed crowds at The Armory Show in New York, as the art world ecstatically returned to the live experience. A joint installation by Richard Beavers Gallery and Almine Rech featured Stephens’ colossal quilts alongside Abstract-Expressionist bravura portrait paintings by Genesis Tramaine.

“My experience at The Armory Show was incredible. It surpassed my every expectation. To hang alongside the masterful Genesis Tramaine was an honor. Her artistic approach is genius,” said Stephens. “Needless to say, I have been a long time admirer of her work. I thought both works were vibrant and cutting edge. Both of our very different artist voices worked extremely well together.”

Phyllis Stephens 'Perfectly Flawed' (2021) Quilt with sustainable fabrics 88 x 52 in; 94 x 58 in (framed) Charles Roussel photo courtesy of the artist, Richard Beavers Gallery, and Almine Rech

An elegant woman in high heels holds a lit cigarette and gazes at the viewer, her legs crossed as she sits on a tree stump that’s elevated to a throne by her regal presence. Flowers and butterflies abound along with a bird to complete this lush forest scene where nature once again flourishes amid womanly dominance and the embrace of decadence. 

“No matter the situation, no matter how barren things may seem, there is always life around you,” Stephens says of Perfectly Flawed (2021). “Sometimes the true beauty is in the imperfections. Flaws are all about perspective. I have all of this, but I’m still beautiful, I’m still valuable.”

Stephens’ resplendent, intricate quilts convey a painterly quality that beguile some viewers into believing they are large-scale paintings. Her subjects include family and friends. 

“I create the people by expression or the feeling in their face,” Stephens explained. “I need that expression to create the story I’m trying to convey.”

Phyllis Stephens 'Sweet and Low' (2021) (L diptych) Quilt with sustainable fabrics 88 in x 50 in 93 in x 55 in (framed) Phyllis Stephens 'Raw Sugar' (2021) (R diptych) Quilt with sustainable fabrics 88 in x 50 in 93 in x 55 in (framed) Charles Roussel photo courtesy of the artist, Richard Beavers Gallery, and Almine Rech

The viewers’ eyes dance between the two quilt canvases, Sweet and Low (2021) and Raw Sugar (2021), displayed on the left and right, respectively, at The Armory, compelling us to look deeply into the forward gaze of the two women who are suspended in athletic poses against the fecund background. 

Stephens’ work over three decades is in the collections of The National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, and the The National Museum of Ghana in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

Quilts played an intrinsic role in African-American history, stimulating reform in the mid- to late-19th century with sales helping to fuel the Underground Railroad, anti-slavery newspapers, and other vital organizations. African-American women provided some 250,000 hand-crafted quilts to the Union soldiers during the American Civil War. Depicting stories of slavery and liberation, struggle and triumph, quilts empowered African-American women, elevating their handiwork to the realm of art and providing a source of accomplishment and recognition beyond the domestic sphere.

Expanding on a rich history of story quilts, Stephens' singular creations stand out as trailblazing narratives told with precision and skill.

The Bloomfield, Connecticut, native who now lives in Fayetteville, Georgia, is a fifth-generation quilt-maker who began honing the craft when she was eight years old, learning from her grandmother Amelia Howard in Athens, Georgia.  

Stephens' paternal aunt, Corine Stephens Jenkins, in Atlanta taught her how to use a sewing machine. “She was an animated storyteller,” Stephens recalled. “She was a character. We called her ‘Aunt Sis’. She was just a powerhouse. Everyone did what she said. She was awesome.”

While her mother, Sarah Stephens, wasn't a quiltmaker, she was a prolific hand-sewer, who offered unconditional support and encouragement. 

“She told me, ‘No, you don't have to live a life other people understand.’ Without my mom I couldn't be an artist because she constantly encouraged me to be whatever I want,” said Stephens. “She said ‘My daughter could do anything,’ and she really believed it.”

Stephens said her great-grandmother, who was known as Queen, would say “we're going to do something nobody else knows about,” sparkling her passion to celebrate tradition with a wildly contemporary dialogue and respect for ecology.

“I try hard to use fabrics that are environmentally friendly. Several years ago I watched a documentary on the pollution caused around the world by dyes and chemicals from non-sustainable fabrics,” Stephens said. “From that point I felt I needed to pay attention to what kinds of fabrics I used in my quilts. It's important to me to protect the planet.”

Phyllis Stephens 'Redeemed' (2021) Quilt with sustainable fabrics 88 in x 52.5 in 94 in x 58.5 in (framed) Charles Roussel photo courtesy of the artist, Richard Beavers Gallery, and Almine Rech

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