The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., makes artist Sonie Joi Ruffin wonder if she’s doing enough.
“My father was involved with the NAACP; my mother was on the National School Board,” Ruffin said. “I was taught that community is everything. Incidents like Ferguson make me want to do great work because Ferguson is happening all around us.
“We’re losing a whole generation … you can’t just say ‘I’m sorry;’ we have to sit down and have a real conversation. I just hope I can shake some of that pain away with my work.”
Ruffin is an artist, teacher, activist and curator who has traveled around the world. Her textiles focus on African-American history, religion and spirituality, as well as feminine aspects. She combines political, biblical and cosmic spheres of influence that define her life and career.
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Which makes “Let the Church Say Amen,” Ruffin’s exhibit of 37 fabric art pieces at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral and Founders’ Hall, all the more relevant.
In the exhibit’s brochure, Ruffin writes, “Through all our tragedies and hardships as a people we have experienced the ugliness of life, only to rise up and celebrate our gifts and talents of life through God’s unwavering grace.”
Many of the works in “Amen,” all created over the past decade, have been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, the American Jazz Museum, the New England Quilt Museum, and the International Quilt Market in Sweden, Houston, Salt Lake City and New York.
It’s ambitious work that is also accessible, art made by a self-confident creator with an arsenal of techniques at her command. Besides quilting and stitching, Ruffin also dyes and paints pieces.
Ruffin’s style can’t be easily defined. Artworks such as “Pray, 64,000 African American Women Missing, Pray Them Home,’’ (2014), pieced from scraps of African “fancy prints” and installed on the church pulpit, are deceptively simple-looking, but the fabrics are choice textiles and their junctures are unexpected.
The small six-piece artwork “In the Beginning,” based on themes from Genesis, is a minimalist triumph, with Ruffin using simple geometric forms and color to convey aspects of the mystical.
Then there are obvious masterworks of complexity and delicacy such as “Legacy Series I,” in which a woman emerges from a glorious forest of three-dimensional trees — a major theme through Ruffin’s art.
“They speak to everyone in every culture,” Ruffin said. “This work was a vision made visible.”
Four other works from Ruffin’s “Legacy Series,” a body of work that was years in the making, are installed in both sections of the exhibit. The “Legacy Series Middle Passage,” a monumental 10-by-5 work, refers to the approximately 54,000 voyages made during the 15th to the 19th centuries that took millions of Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean to be sold as slaves.
Ruffin depicts the undepictable by forming a patchwork of African textiles that run through the middle of an indigo-colored cloth. As in her “In the Beginning” series, Ruffin’s abstractions of life and death require the viewer to do some of the thinking.
“Legacy Series Ghost Ship,” which is 5-by-4, reminds us that many Africans died during those months-long trips. On wall panels next to Ruffin’s art are moving poems by Glenn North that complement each textile.
Stitching a family together
Ruffin grew up in Joplin. Her parents were people who loved God, gospel music and jazz.
“They had a key to the church, she said, “and we were there from Monday to Sunday.”
Ruffin’s father was a porter and her mother was a professional seamstress.
“My great-grandmere was French creole and the daughter of slaves. She and my grandmother never stopped sewing,” Ruffin said, “and I started doing the same at age 4.”
At 16, Ruffin moved to Los Angeles with her family. Her five brothers and two sisters still live there, and both sisters are “magnificent seamstresses.” Ruffin subsequently lived in Atlanta, Arizona and Chicago, eventually moving to Kansas City with her husband.
Not for nothing is Ruffin’s middle name Joi. Her art is as much about transcendence — through belief in God and the power of African-American culture — as tragedy.
And many of her artworks are contagiously joyous. Pieces such as “Sistah Allegra’s Fan: The Revival” and “Opening Day,” which consists of nine different tableaux of chic women in hats, celebrate life and friendship.
This is the kind of show one wishes could be a permanent exhibit.
“Sonie Joi Ruffin: “Let the Church Say Amen” continues at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral, 415 W. 13th St., through Friday. Hours are noon to 6 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. The church will have a closing reception for the exhibit from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday. For more information, call 816-474-8260.