One of the highlighted special exhibits during this year's Quilt Festival Houston is "Stories of West Africa," a solo exhibit of work by artist and humanitarian Hollis Chatelain. Shown: Fabrics for Sale (detail)
One of the highlighted special exhibits during this year's Quilt Festival Houston is "Stories of West Africa," a solo exhibit of work by artist and humanitarian Hollis Chatelain. Shown: Fabrics for Sale (detail)
Photo courtesy of Hollis Chatelain and Quilts, Inc.

Fall in Love With West African Fabrics at 2018's Quilt Festival Houston

It's easy to see why artist and teacher Hollis Chatelain fell in love with the colorful fabrics she discovered during her 12 years working with humanitarian organizations in West Africa. The repeating prints of spirals, geometrics, flora and fauna, all rendered in bright, happy colors, are enough to put a smile on anybody's face.

"When I would step outside and look down the street it was like looking at this moving, beautiful painting," says Chatelain, of the people who dressed head to toe in colorful fabrics.

Using photographs taken while in West Africa, Chatelain created ink drawings and published an educational coloring book for children and adults titled Stories of West Africa, with the goal of sharing positive aspects of the rich African culture she found there: everyday life, a strong sense of community and family unity.

A longtime quilter, Chatelain then colored in the drawings with Prismacolor pencil, scanned them, and had them professionally printed on fabric to create a traveling exhibit of 16 art quilts, also titled "Stories of West Africa." We'll see her work at the upcoming Quilt Festival Houston; hers is one of seven highlighted special exhibits.

Working Donkeys (detail), 33 by 40 inches, is one of 15 quilts by Hollis Chatelain that show everyday life, a strong sense of community and family unity in the rich African culture. She also created a quilt that combines fabric patterns.
Working Donkeys (detail), 33 by 40 inches, is one of 15 quilts by Hollis Chatelain that show everyday life, a strong sense of community and family unity in the rich African culture. She also created a quilt that combines fabric patterns.
Photo courtesy of Hollis Chatelain and Quilts, Inc.

The scenes she has selected show people at work: beekeeper, farmers, potter, tamarind harvester, weaver and pounder of millet.

"For each image I chose African fabrics as a background because African fabrics are so woven into the culture and the society there; such an important part of everyday life. I love African fabrics; most of mine are scraps from tailors," says Chatelain. "I got permission from Vlisco, a company in Holland that really started these types of fabrics in Africa in the 1800s. So many of the fabrics that I was inspired by were actually made by Vlisco. I contacted them, got permission to use the fabrics as inspiration, but I did change them."

Not only did Chatelain discover a passion for African culture, she also met her husband — also a humanitarian — during her time abroad. Together they have recorded a series of podcasts that tell a narrative behind each of the vignettes. One school in Durham, North Carolina, where they both now live, already has adopted the book into the elementary school curriculum. Chatelain was invited to visit the school to talk about the project.

"They asked so many questions, all of them relevant. All of the children were lying on the floor drawing, coloring in these pictures," says Chatelain. "They asked great questions about the people, what do the children do. It was really cool. That, to me, I was dancing all day long."

Copies of Chatelain's coloring book, as well as her greeting cards, will be available for sale near her exhibition. And if you fall in love with those African fabrics, like Chatelain has, then she can point you to a couple of vendor booths at Quilt Festival Houston that carry the line.

More highlighted special exhibits at 2018's Quilt Festival Houston:

Kate Fassett: Heritage Quilts in America  — original work by Fassett and his design team, inspired by American vintage quilts in Britain's American Museum in Bath

Made in Texas — 25 quilts by regional artists

My Heart's Common Thread — textile art by Lorraine Turner featuring endangered species with hidden elements of nature; profits benefit non-profit animal sanctuaries worldwide

OURstory: Human Rights Stories in Fabric — Susanne Miller Jones curated this collection of 42 art quilts from six countries that celebrate human rights activists

Power of Women — quilts and sheer art cloths that express love and appreciation of influential women

Quilted Leather Art Saddles — one-of-a-kind art saddles by Cathy Wiggins, embellished with western-styled hardware and unusual charms

Quilt Festival Houston is scheduled for 7-10 p.m. November 7, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. November 8-10, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. November 11, George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas, quilts.com/quilt-festival-houston.html, free to $50. Classes begin November 5; IQA members get in two hours earlier during the November 7 preview night.

Educators interested in adding Chatelain's coloring book, Stories of West Africa, to their curriculum can visit hollisart.com/coloring-book for more information. Listen to the companion stories on podcast at soundcloud.com/user-183885647/sets/stories-of-west-africa.

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