A lesson on Black history knitted to keep you warm. Karen Hilton Robinson brought her quilts to Madison for the Great Wisconsin Quilt Show.
“Quilted Education presents: A Celebration of Black History by Karen Hilton Robinson,” is being featured as a special exhibit at this year’s Great Wisconsin Quilt Show, running until 5 pm Saturday at the Alliant Energy Center. Karen and her daughter Kayla have been traveling around the country showing off the quilts, but this was the first time the two had the exhibit at a convention dedicated to quilts.
Karen’s quilts tell the story of Black history in the United States. She always had an interest in sewing at a young age and watched Nancy Zieman’s TV show, Sewing with Nancy (which was produced in Madison), but her inspiration came from when her daughter Kayla was in the fourth grade.
Kayla wanted to learn more about Black history, but her school in San Antonio, Texas,. did not make the time to teach it. Karen saw the deficit in Kayla’s education and took it upon herself to provide the lesson her school could not. Karen brought together her passion for sewing and her daughter’s needs into one to create “Pioneers in Black History – A Lesson in History” that highlighted prominent Black figures in history. The piece is part of her exhibit and features portraits of historical Black figures in sports, military service, politics, civil rights, science, the performing arts literature and other Black figures who were the first to do something.
“Kayla, in fourth grade at the time, wanted her teacher to teach Black history and her teacher was unable to. She asked for some books she could share with her teacher, and I said sure. And the teacher still didn’t have time to do it and she was upset,” Karen said. “I thought, ‘Okay. Well let me let me just make a quilt,’ because at the time I was making a lot of quilts and so we decided, as a project to research and I wanted her to help me with it.”
Her passion for history-inspired quilts continued. Karen delved into her own family’s history to make a quilt dedicated to her great-great grandparents called “Willis and Dollie Ellison, My Ancestors.” The quilt is based on a portrait of Willis and Donnie Ellis.
Karen was used to sewing clothes for her daughter, but as Kayla grew older, her desire for clothes changed. What remained the same was that Karen’s passion to create quilts followed her daughter’s current interests.
When Kayla ad changed her major from sports medicine to advertising, Karen became interested in the history of advertising. She made a quilt dedicated to Aunt Jemima, the famous mascot for the titular syrup. She had learned that Aunt Jemima was based on Nancy Green, a formerly enslaved woman, who became one of the first Black models and the first living trademark in advertising. Karen created “Nancy Green, aka Aunt Jemima (11-17-1834)” to celebrate the history of the woman with different renderings of the famed bottle on a quilt.
“I really had never known anyone in advertising and I didn’t really know what it was about. So, I just started researching and it’s just natural for me to look for Black people in whatever in that field and I came across Nancy Green,” Karen said. “We’ve all heard of Aunt Jemima, and nobody knew — I didn’t know — it was a real person.”
Karen has a love for research and translating that into lessons she can make into a quilt. Other pieces of her exhibit feature quilts celebrating Black soldiers from the Revolutionary War to World War II, a commissioned piece for retired career Air Force Master sergeant Timothy Netters and a piece she crafted on for the “Access Delayed – African American Suffragists” at the Texas Folklife Museum to celebrate Margaret Murray Washington, Booker T. Washington’s third wife and dean at the Tuskegee Institute of Alabama.
A documentary on “Pioneers in Black History – A Lesson in History” made by Kayla is available on PBS. Kayla had changed careers to become a filmmaker and opted to tell the story of her mother making her first Black history quilt.
“It’s all in celebration of my mother — that it’s this project is what makes it special. It’s not just a film that I made. It’s a film I made about my mom,” Kayla said. “You share people you love with the world and you don’t always know how the world is going to receive them but people love her in the same way that I do. Not the same way. I love her more.”
“Quilted Education presents: A Celebration of Black History by Karen Hilton Robinson” will be up at the Great Wisconsin Quilt Show through Sept. 9. The show is held at Alliant Energy Center, 1919 Alliant Energy Center Way, from 9:00 am-5:00 pm. Tickets can be purchased at the show for $12.