A textile artist from Fairfield, Texas, Laverne Brackens represents a long tradition of improvisational quiltmaking among African-American women. Born in 1927, Brackens learned the art of quiltmaking as a child by helping her mother tack quilts. However, Brackens did not begin making them herself until 1987 when she retired from her career as a cook following an accident. Today, Brackens is among four generations of family quiltmakers including her mother, Gladys Henry; her daughter, Sherry Byrd; and her grandchildren.
A highly productive quilter, Brackens is known for her improvisational technique that uses bold, bright colors and often features letters and numbers. "I don't go by patterns," says Brackens. I make it up out of my head. When you pick up the material and start working with it, that's when you know what [the quilt] will be." Brackens' quilts regularly feature an off-center centerpiece, rotating printed stripes, and both horizontal and vertical stripping, all contributing to art works that are distinct and unexpected.
These distinctive quilts have been featured in numerous exhibitions and documented in many books and publications. Notably, in 1996, her quilts and those of her family members' were featured in the exhibition Four Generations of African-American Quiltmakers at the High Museum in Atlanta. This exhibition then developed into the show and catalogue Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Four Generations of African-American Quiltmakers for the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco in 2006. Brackens' quilts have also been included in the 1999 Texas Folklife Resources exhibition Quilts of Color: Three Generations of Quilters in an Afro-Texan Family and Storytelling: One Stitch at a Time, a 2001-2002 exhibition at the Texas Memorial Museum of Science and History.
Quilts by Laverne Brackens. Photos by Eli Leon
NEA: I have to begin by saying congratulations. I was so happy to see that you were included in the honors. Your work is so beautiful.
Laverne Brackens: Thank you.
NEA: Tell me, you come from a family of quilters. It's absolutely part of your family tradition. What was it like when you were a kid? Was your mother at home a lot?
Brackens: My mom, she was a housewife. She never worked. We had a lot of fun. We was active, we was energetic. We was just all over everywhere. They all called me tomboy because I was always with the boys. I didn't hardly play with girls. They was too soft. They liked to cry too much. So I always played with the boys. And my daddy used to cut us down in trees. We would climb the tree and let him cut us down in it. He would cut enough that the tree was going to lean the way he wanted it to go, then we would climb that tree to get up on top of it and ride it to the ground. It was just fun!
NEA: That's amazing! I wish I had a picture of that.
Brackens: I wish I had one too but back then they didn't have no cameras. We was just children and we wasn't scared of nothing and so we just had a lot of fun.
NEA: Now I'm assuming because you were a tomboy you didn't like quilting so much.
Brackens: I used to crawl around under my mom’s quilts. Her and my grandmother, my daddy's mom, they quilted together. They said, "You'll be doing this next." And I looked at my mama I told her "Nuh-uh, no way. I'm not ever going to piece quilts." And that was that.
NEA: And yet here we sit.
Brackens: And here we sit.
NEA: Your mom stayed at home. You lived in the country. I'm assuming you raised your own food.
Brackens: Oh, yeah.
NEA: Did she also make your own clothes?
Brackens: Yeah. My mama was a seamstress. She made clothes, she sewed for the neighbors, the neighbors' children, and she quilted, and she crocheted, and she made rugs. She could make anything you wanted her to make.
NEA: How was she with color? She must have had a good sense of color.
Brackens: Oh yeah, she'd mix colors. She never bought patterns. She could look at a pattern, a dress or something in a magazine or whatever she seen it in. She'd go home, cut that pattern, and she'd make that dress.
NEA: I'm thinking you didn't like to sew or cook either?
Brackens: Oh, I was a cook. That was my job. I was a cook at the restaurants. I cooked at the restaurants 45 years.
NEA: What kind of food?
Brackens: All kinds. And then I got hurt. You know these big food carts? I was delivering it up to one of the dorms. And this dorm it had a slope, you had to go up and then when you went back you had to bring the cart down. So when I started down there was a rail for the children in wheelchairs to go to the dining room. They would hold on to this rail until they got down to the bottom. As I was coming down somehow the cart got loose and it ran into me and pinned me to the rail. If I fell I probably would be dead, but I didn’t. I held on to the rail and the cart just messed up my whole right side.
NEA: And somehow that led you to quilting.
Brackens: Oh yeah. I'm fidgety with my hands if I ain't got nothing to do. And that's the reason why I took up quilting. I'm satisfied as long as my hands are working. If I don't have anything to do with my hands, I'm gonna soon get up and start walking to find something.
NEA: What made you decide on quilting?
Brackens: Well, see I can't stand up long. About 30 minutes is all I can stand up without my back hurting. And so I have to do something sitting down. And there's not very much you can do sitting down. One day I was sitting there and I decided to piece a quilt. I wasn't intending to take up quilting.
NEA: What is "piecing a quilt"? Explain that.
Brackens: Piecing quilts is where you take the pieces and you put them together either on the machine or with your hands, then you cut your blocks, and then you put the blocks together.
NEA: What are "the blocks"?
Brackens: The blocks, they got to come out into a square and that will make a block. To change it up and do the type I do, after I make the square block, I will take it, turn it back, and cut it in a triangle. And then I work from there to make the quilts do what I want them to do.
NEA: When you started quilting again, did you start knowing you were going to do something different?
Brackens: Oh yeah. I like to make different stuff. And a lot of things, I don't even know what it's going to look like when I start. Because if I started and it don't look like what I want, I'll change it up and turn it a different direction and make a different block out of it.
NEA: Tell me about your first quilt.
Brackens: The first quilt that I pieced was a nine-patch. A nine-patch is where you take nine little bitty squares and you don't let ones of the same color touch when you put it together into a block. That middle square, it's always going to be different from the ones on the outside to keep the outside two from being the same color. That's what you call a nine-patch. I saw my mother make them and I saw my grandmother make them, so I decided I was going to make it different. I fixed the nine-patch then I turned around and I took every one of those blocks and I cut them triangle. I stacked one set of blocks over here, one set of triangles over here, and one set of triangles over here. Then I took them and laid them together and made that center block a different color, and that's what they call the improved nine-patch. I don't call it anything. I just call it a quilt of colors.
NEA: Where did you get the material?
Brackens: Well, at first I was buying a lot of the material. Sometimes stores have a lot of remnants and I'll buy that. But I have two friends I work with. We worked together for years. When they quit cooking they opened up sewing rooms, and they make dresses, they make children's clothes, they make some of everything. And when they found out I was quilting they said, "Oh well, we been throwing away all of this excess strings” -- small scraps of fabric. And they knew I liked to work with small strings. They started bringing me theirs so now that's where I get a lot of it from.
NEA: How long does it take you to make a quilt?
Brackens: It depends on which one you're making. Now there is a quilt I call “crazy star” -- this is the only quilt that I named and it’s over yonder for the NEA to put into the Library of Congress. I brought that quilt to get everybody's name. It’s tradition to sign the quilt and turn it over; it’ll go into the Library of Congress.
NEA: You put letters and numbers in your quilts.
Brackens: I put letters in them. I put numbers in them. Sometimes I'll do a patchwork on them like dogs, cats, elephants, cowboy boots -- you name it, I got it. And I also make friendship quilts. Those are very special quilts. I think I made about 40. Ladies with children that passed away in car wrecks, they still had the clothes and they wanted to keep them and remember them by their clothes. So they boxed those clothes up and they sent them to me and I take them. I use everything -- buttons, zippers, all of it, and you should see the quilts I make. I don't have one in my collection. They send them, I make them.
NEA:How did your work get out to the rest of the world?
Brackens: Eli Leon, he's from California and he's the one recommended me for this award. My oldest daughter was in California and Eli found some of her work. She was making quilt tops and he started buying her quilt tops. He asked her about making him a string quilt, she told him, "I don't know how." And he said "Well I need some string quilts and I haven't found people that know how to make them." And she told him "I bet my mama and my grandmother can make them." So he had her to get in touch with us. I made two and I think my mama made three and we mailed them to him and it started from that. From then on, Eli started to collect quilts from us. He asked me if he could show quilts of mine and I said yes. That's how they got on to the computer. Pat Jasper is the lady I did the most work with. She was from Austin and she said she followed our quilts for about five years but she never could get a name. It was when the quilts went to Atlanta, Georgia, and Eli’s name was on there that she knew where to find me. So she came to Fairfield and she found me. She was at that time working for Folklife Resources out of Austin so I went down there and I began to do shows with her. The museum down there bought two quilts. Then a bunch of magazines picked it up. Country Life's reporter picked it up and they made a TV show out of it.
NEA: There was television show?
Brackens: It was a TV show!
NEA: About quilting?
Brackens: Yeah, that’s how a lot of people got to me. They would see the show and they’d see my number because my number is at the bottom of the screen. They would call me and I’d have no idea who all those folks were. Some would come to my house and buy quilts.
NEA: Is the television show about you quilting?
Brackens: It shows two of my aunts and myself and my second oldest daughter. Each one of us has got our own style of quilting. They don't piece and style my quilts. They got their own style. Now this second oldest daughter of mine pieces her quilts just as you would lace a shoe. All in long strips, then she sews. My oldest daughter calls hers “homegrown.” She finds everything in her state. Anything from a pea vine to a picture on a piece of material she makes a quilt out of.
NEA: What was it like for you when a museum wants to buy your quilts? The first time that happened, what was that like?
Brackens: I was laughing; I didn't know what to do with it. It was shocking just like this [award] is. I never was a nervous person, but I was so nervous and so scared till my blood pressure was going every which way. I had a doctor's appointment, and he said, "What in the world happened to you?" He said, "We had your blood pressure under good control." When I told him what was going on he said, "You're having an anxiety attack!" I didn’t know what that was. He goes, "You been thrown into the unknown and you don't know which way to go with it." He was so funny, he gave me some pills and told me "When you come back from Washington, DC I'm going to take you off of these pills because then you're going to be alright."
NEA: How did you find out about your NEA National Heritage Fellowship? Did the NEA’s Director of Folk and Traditional Arts, Barry Bergey, call you?
Brackens: [Barry] told me, "Congratulations, Miss Brackens, you won the National Heritage Award." I said, "Oh my God." And then I looked up at my mother's picture and said, "Gladys, what have you done to me?" It was so funny, that's all I could think of.
NEA: Did your mom see you claim quilting as your own before she passed away?
Brackens: Mm-hmm, she was still quilting. I have a set of her quilts that I will not let go because it's a set of the four generations: it's my mother's quilt, my quilt, and my oldest daughter's quilt, my second oldest daughter's quilt, and two of my granddaughters'. And I made them and got them all in a set. It's four generations and I'm hoping that I can get that fifth generation because I got one granddaughter which is the fifth generation and she asked me, "Granny, if I come over there will you show me how to quilt?" And if she pieces it and makes it, I'm gonna buy it from her to put it in the set.
NEA: Can you talk about the tradition of quilting and what it means to you?
Brackens: In my family at first it meant warmth and love. You know these cold nights you put a quilt on and you be so warm and you have a feeling that the person who made that quilt loves you. And when they make one so beautiful that you don't want to turn lose from it, that is precious. I have 56 children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren and I made everyone a quilt.