Ellen M. Blalock has spent her lifetime telling stories. As a former photographer and videographer for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, she told other people’s story. Starting in 2000, she began telling her own stories in quilts.
“I call myself a narrative artist because I work with the oral history of my family and the community,” she said. “I even created my version of a story from mythology. For example, the M’dusa quilt (detail shown above) gives my version of Medusa and connects her story to the African goddess, Mami Wata.”
“Narrative Quilts,” an exhibition of Blalock’s quilts from 2000 to 2019 at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, NY, tells the story of her family, from baby quilts to her current series, “Spirit Trees” and “Holes.” The exhibit will be on display through Jan. 5, 2020.
The mostly large, figurative pieces draw viewers in to study the detail: A ghostly hand reaching up from below in “Teddy Bears, Monsters and Lies.” Faces in the trees on both ends of “The Homecoming.” The bullet parts sewn into “Now I Am a Man #1.”
Each piece has a story. For example, “The Homecoming” represents a Blalock family gathering at Thanksgiving or Christmas – whenever several generations gather for a meal. “In this quilt, everyone is at the table, even the ancestors,” she said. “The trees are the ancestors that were enslaved. The limbs of the trees are arms embracing and protecting the family that is still in the physical world. The top center represents the African ancestors.”
The people shown in the quilt represent Blalock’s immediate family, including herself, her son, parents, three brothers, and two nephews. The silhouettes represent other family members.
The “Baby Quilt” series recalls a welcoming ritual that Blalock witnessed several times. “Someone would say, ‘Well, let’s see that child’s head,’” she said. “The baby’s head would be unveiled. Next, all in the room would examine the head.
“You see, the Blalocks are a proud people, and especially proud of the shape of their heads,” she said. “The beautiful large oblong shape: Every new baby needs one. For hours, the Blalocks could talk about the shape of their heads. They’d say, ‘Oh, yes, that child is a Blalock.’”
You can hear more of the stories behind Blalock’s artwork when she gives an artist’s talk at 2 p.m. Nov. 24 at the art center, 205 Genesee St., Auburn. Attending the talk is free with exhibit admission, which is $10 per person and free for Schweinfurth members, exhibiting artists, and children 12 and under.