Faith Ringgold is an artist who uses different materials to tell the stories that are important to her family and her people. Whether working with quilting squares, African masks, paint and brush, or her own words, Faith gives the rich colors and textures a life of their own. There's motion in her work, a striving upward and pushing at the edges of her world.
Growing up on Sugar Hill
She was raised in 1940s New York City, in an African-American neighborhood called Sugar Hill in Harlem. Her family didn't have a lot of money, but there was enough to feed and clothe Faith, her brother Andrew, and her sister, Barbara––just not a lot for extras. Their mother, Willi Posey Jones, was an excellent seamstress. She sewed stylish clothes for her daughters and eventually made a living as a fashion designer.
Faith had asthma as a little girl which affected her life in several ways. She had to go for regular hospital visits so she missed early schooling. While other kids were spending their time in kindergarten and first grade, Faith was resting at home, learning to love drawing. Because Faith needed a special diet of lean meats and vegetables, the rest of the family ate healthier, too.
She became the class artist in school and was asked in second grade to copy a scene onto a huge mural. In the original picture, George Washington's troops fed some ragged black boys watermelon. When she told her mother about it, Mrs. Jones informed the teacher that black men had fought in the American Revolution, too, and, after all, didn't everybody like watermelon? So, in Faith's mural, some of the boys were white, and some of them were black, but they all enjoyed the watermelon.
Prejudice and racism were everywhere, and Faith certainly didn't escape its effects. Most of her white teachers at public school decided that their black students were shiftless, lazy, and happy-go-lucky. Dr. Bernath, her principal, was an exception. He gave Faith and her best friend special responsibilities, and when they graduated he told the girls to select two books each from his personal library.
Sugar Hill was a hub of the black middle class, and many famous entertainers–Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, Willie Mays, and Harry Belafonte–made their homes there. All the while that Faith was growing up, her mother would tell her children how they should make contributions to society, and the way to do that was to get a college education.
She went to City College where she studied art. Some of her professors were terrific, but others tried to discourage her from becoming an artist. Yet she persevered. Years later, when she came back to City College to receive an honorary doctorate in fine arts, she decided not to mention her problems there in her speech, but instead gave them some advice:
- “The harder you work, the more talented you will become because your talent can only be defined by you.”
She joined the up-and-coming radical art scene in New York. Once again, she faced prejudice, but this time it was from galleries who refused to give exhibit space to artists who were black or female. She and her group, Women Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation, held sit-ins and other public demonstrations. Many of her paintings from that time showed her anger with society.
Teaching and Learning
For several years in the 1960s and 1970s, Faith Ringgold taught art in the New York City public school system, at Wagner College and Bank Street College of Education. It was challenging work and sometimes discouraging. At college she taught her students African art, specifically art forms that were traditionally done by women: jewelry, clothing, beadwork, and dolls.
She developed her own art in three-dimensional forms: soft sculpture, masks, and story quilts. Faith took her masks and clothing with her on the road, giving performances where she combined her stories of struggle with her art.
Old Art/New Art
Faith and her mother stayed very close through the years. When Faith switched her focus to sewn arts, she and her mother worked side-by-side. In this way they were continuing a family tradition that stretched back through the centuries, for Faith's great-grandmother, Susie Shannon, had sewn quilts when she was a slave.
Stories for Children
Faith Ringgold's story quilts are more than just a collection of bright fabrics in a pretty design. Faith's quilts have something to say for themselves.
Readers are fortunate that several of her quilts have been turned into books. Tar Beach, a remembrance of childhood summer nights spent on rooftops in Harlem, was a Caldecott Honor Book and won the Coretta Scott King Award. Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky brings back the characters Be Be and Cassie from Tar Beach. Their soaring dreams on Tar Beach keep right on going when they hop a ride on Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad. With Aunt Harriet's guidance, they follow the North Star and experience what it was like to be runaway slaves.
Dinner at Aunt Connie's House was based on a piece called The Dinner Quilt. Young Lonnie and Melody explore Aunt Connie's attic just before dinnertime. They find their aunt's paintings of Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McLeod Bethune, Augusta Savage, Dorothy Dandridge, Zora Neale Hurston, Maria W. Stewart, Bessie Smith, and other famous black women. Each tells a little bit of her story to the children, and those stories become part of the family's traditions.
October 8, 1930
- Faith Ringgold considers her “American People” series, begun in the summer of 1963, the start of her mature artistic work. Using a style she called “Super Realism,” Ringgold explored what was happening to black people in the United States and commented upon the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s point of view.
- In 1968, when the Whitney Museum of American Art neglected to include any African American artists in its exhibition of 1930s sculpture, Ringgold helped organize demonstrations. She later co-founded the Ad Hoc Women’s Art Committee, agitating for equal inclusion of women artists in the Whitney Biennial. In 1971, she co-founded the Where We At Black Women Artists collective, a socially conscious group seeking more exhibition opportunities for black women.
- Ringgold’s famed story quilts were inspired by her fashion-designer mother and Tibetan thangkas (paintings on cloth framed with brocade). She draws on traditions of quilt-making to tell stories about herself and the African American experience more broadly. Her quilts pay tribute to a range of historical time periods and noted cultural figures such as Jacob Lawrence, Josephine Baker, and Zora Neale Hurston.
- Ringgold is also an award-winning author. She has written and illustrated numerous children’s books, including Tar Beach (1991) and Harlem Renaissance Party (2015), as well as an autobiography titled We Flew over the Bridge (1995).
- A huge fan of the Japanese number puzzle Sudoku, Ringgold created a visual art variation of the game in the form of an app called Quiltuduko. It uses blocks of color and pattern, inspired partly by her own art. Solve the puzzle and you’ve created not an uninspiring grid of numbers but a work of art! It rolled out on iTunes in 2014, when Ringgold was 84 years old.