Member Spotlight: Lavialle Campbell

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On a mild day in the spring of 1992, Lavialle Campbell left her Santa Monica home to purchase a gallon of blood from her local butcher. She was making a quilt to honor her great grandmother’s gruesome voyage to America in the transatlantic slave trade. Her grandmother Minda recounted stories of being on a slave ship, and the repeated abuse and trauma. Quilts, associated with sexual abuse, became weaponized.

For Campbell, the process of making the quilt was one of translating the trauma internalized by the African women who were abused and murdered throughout the middle passage of slavery. “The quilt, made of burlap, became physically heavy to work on,” Campbell says. “But it was also a deeply emotional process; I cried while making it.” The quilt has two sides. The side titled, “The Perpetrator's View” is made of cotton and satin, and left nearly without a mark except for a small print transfer of a quote about John Newton, the captain of a slave ship. It explains how Newton read the bible daily despite the slaves held on board, and he would write the song which we now refer to as ”Amazing Grace.” The other side, “The Victim’s View,” is made of burlap, sewn with heavy thread, and marked with blood stains and a handprint from Campbell which completed the quilt.

 

When I’m on the phone with Campbell, she’s at her full-time job at a Los Angeles law firm. She’s a legal secretary, and on her days off, she retreats to her art studio in North Hollywood where she works with glass and clay. “Quilting is the only medium that I work on at home because it’s clean,” Campbell laughs. At her firm, they’ve designated a room for quilting, purchased sewing machines, and have made over 60 quilts a year for the hospital, City of Hope. “Our office is a special place, and this effort is important to us— the woman who started the group five years ago had a husband who was ill with cancer, so about 11 of us started making quilts for the hospital.”

Campbell’s first large quilt is titled, “The Cancer Quilt.” It’s a hand-quilted traditional log cabin quilt that she made while off from work, recuperating from breast cancer surgery. She didn’t know much about quilting then, and used her favorite fabrics, instead of what would’ve been technically best for the quilt. She also made it without a rotary cutter, so it took two weeks to cut the fabric. “I’ve had an an illness for most of my life,” Campbell says with a pause. “I caught on fire when I was five and was hit by a car at the age of eleven. Art has always been healing for me.” Her father, a craftsman in his own right, taught her always to have her tools and always create if she couldn’t sleep. “I have a neuromuscular disorder, and I get tired and can’t move around a lot, which brought me to macrame for its stationary practice.” For Campbell, the work is non-negotiable; it makes her happy and serves as physical therapy.

Although her process has steps, the execution is spontaneous: First, Campbell chooses her solid fabrics, then she pulls for color, and finally she starches the fabric. When she starts cutting, she rarely knows ahead of time what the quilt will end up being. “I’m an improv piecer,” says Campbell, “I know the result once it's done.” Campbell has made her work process more efficient to produce by taking classes with Sherri Lynn Wood and Gwen Marston. ”Sherri Lynn Wood doesn’t use rules: if you cut something and it’s not straight, you still have to use it, ” Campbell says of Wood’s process. ”And Gwen does the same thing. She makes diamond shapes and then she cuts around and keeps sewing— nothing is perfectly cut.”

Campbell has attended every QuiltCon, and the first year, she submitted three pieces and won first prize in improvisational piecing. She plans to send a piece for next year. ”I've learned to slow down,” Campbell laughs. ”Some people sew fast and jam through stuff, but it benefits the work to think about what you’re doing.” The artist pulls reference material and research from the incidents that have been arresting in her life for all of her most impactful quilts.

Her most recent series focuses on children of color who have been exposed to police brutality. ”I finished a piece about Philando Castile’s daughter,” Campbell says. She references a police video that surfaced online of the four-year-old girl comforting her mother in the backseat after Castille is shot in the front. The daughter cries, please stop crying mommy, I don’t want you to get shot next. ”Oh my god, this little’s baby life has changed because she witnessed this cruel thing,” Campbell says. ”I did this quilt with her words, and I used pink and denim for the twin-size quilt.”

Before I get off the phone with Campbell, I tease her about her nearly absent social presence, even after several gallery shows and work taught in college courses. I can hear her smile on the other end of the phone as she explains that it's not intentional. Launching her website has fallen through so many times, but she's creating it herself this year to make sure it gets done. ”If you ever need anything else, I'm always here,” says Campbell, born, raised, and still residing in L.A.