Growing up the daughter of a sharecropper in rural Alabama with nine brothers and sisters, Mozell Benson learned early on from her mother that quilting was a craft of both beauty and necessity. While the layered quilt can provide needed warmth for a family member, its surface has the potential to become a brilliant statement, combining practical design and personal expressive freedom in the hands of a master. Maude Wahlman, a quilt scholar, says of Benson's work: "Her quilts are the visual equivalent of jazz or blues. She will take a basic pattern and then do variations on it just like a musician will do with a jazz piece."
For most of her life Mozell Benson, who lives in Opelika, Alabama, has driven a school bus, but when she is not driving or tending to her large garden she has been quilting, on average twenty quilts a year. Increasingly her quilts have gained attention from museum curators and cultural specialists. Her quilts have appeared in three traveling exhibitions curated by Maude Wahlman. African American Quiltmakers started in 1982, and is still traveling. The exhibit, Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts from the Rural South, traveled from 1993 to 1996. A third exhibit, still traveling, features Mozell Benson and 20 of her quilts.
In 1985 Mozell Benson demonstrated her art in four African countries, as a
featured quilter in the African American Quiltmakers exhibit sent to Africa
by The US State Department.
In response to her numerous accolades, Benson still refers to herself as a "country quilter," who is merely doing what many others have done to keep their children and grandchildren warm. However, with her innate curiosity and her propensity for artistic experimentation, she says that the hardest part about quilting is the necessity to sit still while she's doing it.
NEA: Congratulations on your award. What was your reaction when you heard the news?
MS. BENSON: Wow! That was all I could say! It was such a shock and surprise. I didn't expect it.
NEA: It's nice to get unexpected good news. What are your biggest challenges in practicing and sustaining quilting for you?
MS. BENSON: To me, it's just a fun time. But it's time consuming. I'm an active person and I stay busy doing something.
NEA: Is it difficult to find time to quilt?
MS. BENSON: No it's not difficult, I just don't like doing it in the summertime. I'm a gardener in the summertime. I like to be outside. But I've done a little bit this summer.
NEA: What kind of advice would you give to someone just starting out quilting?
MS. BENSON: Start with something easy. Blocks or strips or larger blocks so you can get it done and feel you've accomplished something, and not have to work on it for months and months.
NEA: When you got started, who influenced you?
MS. BENSON: My mother. It was just something we had to do. We couldn't say, "I don't want to do it." When my mother told us it was time to do something, we did it! It was a necessity for us, so she made sure we all knew how to do it.
NEA: Were there any other people who influenced your style of design?
MS. BENSON: No, I just came to that on my own. I take other people's patterns and change them around or add something to it, make it different. That may be the only thing I do.
NEA: Are you passing along your skills to any younger people?
MS. BENSON: I have two granddaughters who spend a lot of time with me. We've made four quilts together - they've made two each. One is nine, but started when she was seven. The other is 12 and was nine when she started. The oldest one, Pamela, gave her second one away, so I know it's going to be cherished by one of her cousins.
I'm also doing a workshop for senior citizens for the Housing Authority. I've been there for about three years. I've done some quilts with some school kids here in Opelika which they have hanging on their cafeteria wall. And I did some work with two third-grade classes in Loachapoka. I have those quilts. They really enjoyed just doing something and they made their own blocks. They didn't have anywhere for us to set up, to tack them and everything, so I tacked it for them. But the kids designed the blocks, which is the hardest part.
NEA: Is there any way the NEA could be of more service to your artform or your community?
MS. BENSON: Right now, I already have a commitment to the Housing Authority for a couple more years. And there's a church that's going to exhibit our quilts in February, not just me but all the quilters I can find. Right now my hands are full!
NEA: What are you looking forward to during your stay in Washington?
MS. BENSON: I haven't planned anything. I don't know very much about Washington. I have a daughter and grand daughter who live in the area, so I hope to see them.
NEA: You should invite them to attend the award ceremony, the banquet and the concert. The concert especially, because that's when a lot of people come to honor the Heritage Fellows. As a crafts person, you probably don't get on stage much. They should definitely be there so they can see how many people appreciate what you're doing.
MS. BENSON: Thank you very much. I hope I can satisfy them. There must be millions of people out there that are quilters. Being chosen is an honor.