"Whenever I gained consciousness as a child, that is when I knew I wanted to be an artist..."
Michael A. Cummings, a native of Los Angeles, currently lives and sews in the 100-year-old Harlem brownstone he purchased in the early 1980s. " I guess you could say that my home is like my art: It is a living, breathing collage."
Cummings' work as a quiltmaker -- an art form which dates back centuries and involves the piecing together of fabric to form something new -- has brought him national and international attention. In addition to the HBO commission, Cummings has had solo exhibitions with Bates College in Maine, Hallmark Cards, New York City's Cinque Gallery and Studio Museum in Harlem.
Group shows include the Cincinnati Art Museum, Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, New York City's American Craft Museum,Yale University, Atlanta's High Museum of Art, and Japan's Mitsukoshi Department Store.
Cummings' work can also be found in several books, most notably A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers and Their Stories by Roland L. Freeman; Quilts: A Living Tradition by Robert Shaw; and The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cook Book, National Council of Negro Women, Inc.
The New York Times noted in 1992 that Cummings " may seem like an honorary Edwardian in his pictures but he ... draws inspiration from Africa and the art of African Americans, particularly the great quilters of the South."
Cummings' keen sense of history, his reverence for the spiritual, and his reworking the possibilities of the present and the future make his quilts striking.
Cummings' work appears in some notable collections -- Bill and Camille Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg, and the Arco Corporation, among others.
Cummings was commissioned by House of Seagram to produce a quilt for the Absolut Vodka ad series. And he created a particularly moving quilt for the Helias Foundation to commemorate the children who died in the Oklahoma City bombing.
Ironically, Cummings -- one of America's premier quiltmakers -- stumbled into the art form.
"I used to work for the Department of Cultural Affairs in New York City. During one event, staff was required to construct their own banner. That banner opened my mind to what I could do with fabric. This was twenty years ago and at the time I was only painting. But because I was living in a small apartment, quiltmaking offered me a new way to create -- and it minimized the need for storage space. And because I was already inspired by the work of Romare Bearden, I saw it as another way to make collages."
Additionally, Cummings is one of a handful of male quilters in a medium dominated by women.
"Look at all the famous male fashion designers who make clothes for women. And look at all the chefs who are men. As a male quilter, I am in a unique position. It forces people to reassess what they think men can and cannot do. And if you dig a little deeper, you'll learn that in Africa and other non-Western places, men have been the ones who created and worked with fabric -- for centuries."
Frequently Asked Questions
How did you get started in quilting?
I had to make a banner for a work-related project in New York and while developing my composition I realized the possibilities of working with fabrics. It was a challenging beginning, because I didn't know how to sew. There was no family member that quilted. Consequently, I taught myself. I purchased a sewing machine and that has been my companion when working creating quilts.
How long does it take you to make a quilt?
Generally it takes me about 2 months to make a large quilt. Less time is required for smaller sizes. It takes self discipline and patience to construct a quilt. However, because I have a full time office job, I have to budget my time carefully or I will not be able to complete projects.
No. I enjoy using bright colors …
How do you get into art exhibitions?
At this stage in my life…with about 26 years as a working artist, my name is fairly well known in the art quilt community, whereupon, I am invited to participate in exhibitions.
Do you have a favorite quilt.
Yes and no. My favorite quilt would be the one I am currently constructing. After I complete a quilt I emotionally separate myself and begin focusing on the next new quilt design. This detachment allows me the freedom to visualize new images.
How do you select your themes?
I suppose it is intuition. We are all surrounded by media information, have personal experiences, travel or enjoy music. It is just a matter of reaching into your mind for ideas.
How do you make a quilt?
When forming ideas I do a small amount of advance drawing. I visualize in my mind what I want to create and then transfer those images into reality. There are traditional folk artists such as Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Nellie Rowe, who both visualized their specific imagery. When making quilts I use the applique technique. To sew down the main body of the composition I use a sewing machine. I employ some hand embroidery on the surface of the works and I often add found objects to the surfaces. Most importantly, I then wait for the work to talk to me. It will tell me if it feels completed.
Are your quilts made to go on beds?
Yes. The location of my quilt or any other quilt is a decision of the owner. My quilts are both decorative and functional. Collectors generally hang their quilts on walls.
What should I know about caring for a quilt?
First handle with clean hands, never place a quilt directly in sunlight..the colors will fade. Don't place quilts near an open window, because of dust and dirt. Quilts can be kept for many years in museums and in some families there are quilts over 100 years old. You can call your local museum's textile department for more information.
Where do you purchase your fabrics?
I purchase fabrics from stores all over Manhattan. I sometimes dye my fabric; most of the time I have purchased hand dyed fabric from a business in Connecticut called Skydyes. I can sometimes use 30 to 50 different fabrics in one quilt.
How do you price your quilts?
The price of my quilts are developed by adding the following factors in an equation: number and places of exhibitions;
number of books and periodicals that focus on my art;
collections and commissions; uniqueness of art work (one of a kind). What the general public is unaware of is that when an artist has an exhibit in a gallery, the gallery can get anywhere between 20% to over 50% commission for selling the art work. The price has to include this commission .
Why do you create quilts?
I see quilts as giant collages. Over the years, I have come to enjoy working with fabrics in order to create my art. My selection of colors, textures, and design surfaces are endless. Also, because I construct art quilts, it's like working on canvas.
What challenges do you face in translating ideas into quilts?
The challenges for creating quilts are the same as any other art form. Some elements to consider are form, color, and balance that bring a composition together. Knowing what techniques are available is important in order to improvise with your vision.