Member Spotlight: Toni Corbett

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“I had to decide what it meant to be a black quilter,” said Toni Corbett. When the Iowan quilter and army veteran returned home from the military, she began to quilt. She needed a creative life, and her mother, a third-generation quilter, taught her how to start sewing. When she re-enrolled into school, she began quilting at the same time. For years, she had watched her mother sew, and in her mother’s home, there hung a calendar with instructions for a block to sew every month. As a beginner, Corbett used the calendar to organize her creative exercises. Her first project was a pillow: “it was probably the sloppiest pillow I’ve ever seen, but it was something I’d made, and that was something to be proud of.” She was the daughter of a creative mother, one who crafted from a spiritual place, and Corbett gained the same appreciation for fabrics and colors and the production of a beautiful garment. Learning how to quilt was returning to her love of creation, and sewing made her feel fulfilled as nothing else had.

Toni Corbett

But she was aware of the history of quilting for the women in her family and African American quilters in her community. Among African American quilters, there is a tradition of a style that can be isolating due to the rejection that these quilters face within more popularized quilting communities, like the modern quilting movement. “Speaking to people like my mother and the woman around her who quilt, they feel like what they do and how they do it isn’t accepted,” said Corbett. “I think it’s a real shame because we need their experience,” Corbett explains that for African American quilters, there is a focus on using African fabrics in their designs and working within an improv style. For quilters like her mother, they can visualize the quilt and execute it without much planning. “African American quilters, especially those who work in the traditional form, often don’t work with patterns, and they also use what they have,” said Corbett. “Reusing fabrics is considered a new trend in the modern quilting community, but black people have been doing that forever—using fabrics that date back to great aunts and great grandmothers and back and back and back.”

Quilt made by Toni Corbett using the Metropolis Quilt Pattern designed by XOXSEW.

Though Corbett understood the importance of traditional style quilts and advocated for their space in mainstream quilting spaces, she still decided to create her own relationship with the medium. She combined her mother’s improvisational roots and her modern aesthetic and was gentle with herself through the process of discovering her voice. Once she learned of Victoria Findlay Wolfe, who encourages an improvisational style of quilting and incremental crafting called fifteen minutes of play, Corbett began to make inroads to creating her own process. “When I start to get frustrated or tired with the work, I set it aside because I became more likely to make errors, which made it less likely that I would enjoy the final product,” said Corbett. “If I stick with just fifteen minutes, it feels low-stakes, and sometimes I’ll surprise myself and go on for longer.”

As someone who manages chronic pain and endometriosis flare-up attacks, as a veteran, as a black woman, and all the things that make us human, Corbett is a strong advocate for mental health. “I’ve found that sewing, crafting in general, is a wonderful outlet for mental health,” said Corbett. “I’ve made a wreath out of clothespins, and sometimes just cut and glue together paper arrangements.” Artists tend to put pressure on themselves to produce plenty of finished work. What Corbett found to have work for her had a different logic: the freeing of ideas without categories like good, bad, worthwhile, or finished.

Black Lives Matter quilt by Toni Corbett.

From this state of improvisation, Corbett quilted her Black Lives Matter quilt, the first she has made from her own design, and the feeling of making the quilt was utterly original.  “I made the quilt during quarantine,” said Corbett. “At the time, the goal was to just get out of bed, shower, and accomplish basic household tasks—I hadn’t quilted anything for months.” But after the death of George Floyd and the protests pleading for black lives to receive respect, Corbett was struck with an idea, a feeling. She picked up fabric and knew what the quilt needed to be without much planning like she had watched her mother do for years. Corbett described the quilt as the least photogenic quilt. From a distance, the quilt looks entirely black with “BLACK LIVES MATTER” in white, underlined three times in yellow, in the lower right-hand corner. But when you take a closer look, the same message is stitched several times throughout the quilt in black, nearly invisible, thread. Fans of her quilt have said: “This quilt is a living organism. It is a metaphor for a bold statement that can be overlooked or unseen if you do not want to see it. That is artistry.” And that was the point for Corbett—until we, as a nation, are willing to confront racial injustice and take a close look, there will always be a misunderstanding.

Corbett will continue to discover her voice as an artist in the small town in Iowa where she resides and is part of the Central Iowa Guild. She has found her community, and each member is willing to do the hard work of examining the theory behind quilting. Corbett said when she joined the guild, she felt intimated by the depth of experience among the group, but as the years go on, she feels more confident that she can hold her own.