Experience the stunning story quilts of artist Tina Williams Brewer

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Experience the stunning story quilts of artist Tina Williams Brewer
Tina Williams Brewer. Whirling Dance and the Unconscious Rhythm, 2007. Discharged batik fabric, silk, taffeta, tulle, organza, and embroidery with cotton floss, silk, and metallic threads. 33 x 43 in. Courtesy the artist.

COLUMBIA, SC.- The Columbia Museum of Art opened its featured summer exhibition Tina Williams Brewer: Stories of Grace, on view through Sunday, September 3, 2023, only at the CMA. Organized by the CMA, Stories of Grace showcases the work of Pittsburgh-based fiber artist Tina Williams Brewer, who creates densely layered, highly symbolic story quilts that explore African diasporic history and ancestral heritage.

The first major museum survey of the artist’s work in the Southeast, this career-spanning exhibition features roughly 45 works drawn from both public and private collections as well as brand-new work that will debut in Stories of Grace, fully divulging the scope and richness of Brewer’s multilayered practice.

“It’s been a privilege to work with Brewer in the leadup to this exhibition,” says CMA Curator Michael Neumeister. “The themes she engages in her art are deeply tied to South Carolina and its history. It will be a joy for our audiences to look at this region anew, through the eyes of a remarkable artist.”

For four decades, Tina Williams Brewer (b. 1949) has created quilts that tell stories of vision and grace. Her approach to art is shaped by personal experiences and an intuitive connection with the past. Brewer relates her quilts to lukasa, traditional memory boards created by the Luba culture of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like lukasa — objects that are ritualistically employed to recount history and evaluate the future — Brewer’s work conceptually links the processes of teaching and remembering.

Born in West Virginia, Brewer studied ceramics and advertising at the Columbus College of Art and Design, Ohio, before settling in Pittsburgh in the early 1970s. She was introduced to quilting through her participation in local crafts groups, where she quickly gained facility with patchwork techniques. While the steady and contemplative act of sewing allowed the artist to balance her creative energies with the demands of motherhood, the medium also held personal meaning — her family had quilted for generations, engaging a Southern tradition that is particularly resonant in African American communities. Like family members before her, Brewer worked primarily with scraps, utilizing fabrics and garments that were readily available. The impulse to “make something out of nothing,” as Brewer describes it, was a way of honoring her heritage.

From the outset, Brewer transformed traditional quilting patterns and patchwork techniques — including log cabin and Jacob’s ladder designs — into a unique idiom that incorporates African symbolism. She began incorporating figural patterns and combining found fabrics with family heirlooms, newspapers, and photographs. Her methods expanded alongside her interests in African and African American history, subjects that she examines through a range of traditional symbols, original motifs, and globally sourced textiles.

Brewer’s work is further inspired by her travels, including a formative trip to Ghana and extensive time spent at St. Helena Island in the South Carolina Lowcountry. The artist was stimulated by the island’s rich Gullah tradition and the accounts of a formerly enslaved population that quickly established self-sufficiency against all odds. She was profoundly absorbed by the links between the landscape and its history, and the human stories that shaped both. As part of the exhibition, the CMA produced a short film documenting her travels in this state and the ways that her work is shaped by memory and place.

The densely layered, evocative works that Brewer has recently created are resplendent with color and energy. Though the artist continues to integrate traditional quilting concepts in subtle ways, these free-flowing compositions sometimes register more as abstract paintings or collages.

Rather than conveying rigid narratives, Brewer’s multilayered story quilts transmit the intrinsic, interlocking natures of history, culture, and spirit. Her colorful and richly symbolic compositions interweave the past with present experience and gesture to futures yet untold.

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