Yolande van Heerden rolled into Greenwood, Mississippi, on April Fools’ Day, 2012, with a mother sheep and her one-week-old lamb in the back of a rented Town and Country minivan. She had driven at a breakneck pace from Nevada. Seems it is hard to find lodging along an interstate highway willing to allow ruminants. Yolande had picked up stakes in Red Rock Canyon’s Calico Basin and moved to the Delta. She had been dating Mississippi for years and had finally decided to go steady.
Yolande grew up in South Africa and first came to the United States as a high school exchange student in Montana. When we met at La Brea Bakery, she had returned to work as an au pair in Los Angeles. We became fast friends and running buddies. I was learning the baking trade, and she was caring for the owner’s children in an apartment above the pastry kitchen. She also worked as a preschool teacher in the progressive, early-childhood education program at the Matilija Campus of The Neighborhood School and at Every Picture Tells A Story, a gallery that specializes in original art from children’s books. Yolande eventually moved to Nevada and began exploring art as a career by launching her Etsy shop, TomboyArt, and teaching art classes for kids in the canyon. Over some twenty-odd years of visiting my family, Mississippi became her second home.
“From that first trip, when your momma bought me a ticket to Mississippi, it just felt right for me to be here,” Yolande tells me. “Now I can’t imagine ever living anywhere else.” And quite frankly, neither can the folks of all ages that clamber up to her. She usually has her two fluffy Australian Shepherds, Mimi and Wyatt, in tow. The dogs have pretty much become art ambassadors for the town and shouts of “Hey, Miss Yolande! Mimi! Wyatt!” follow her all over town wherever she goes.
Stitching and storytelling are natural links between South Africa and Mississippi for Yolande.
Firmly entrenched in her home along the banks of the Yazoo River, Yolande teaches art classes, primarily for children, from what she calls “The Littlest Littles” up to classes for high schoolers, with occasional Grown Folks Art Nights thrown in for good measure. She operates her craft and clothing design business, Tomboy Art, from a studio in our downtown’s historic district. About five years ago, she partnered with ArtPlace Mississippi, a non-profit community education center, to offer sewing workshops for kids and teens. Then, she took on costume design classes for The Greenwood Shakespeare Project, a five-week camp for seventh through twelfth graders, sponsored by ArtPlace and Greenwood Little Theater. Yolande also shares her talents with the Greenwood Mentoring Group, The Baptist Town Community Center, Threadgill Elementary School, and the Depot Senior Citizen Center.
Stitching and storytelling are natural links between South Africa and Mississippi for Yolande. The unmistakable similarities of the work of Delta embroiders, like Ethel Wright Mohamed and that of the Intuthuko Sewing Group outside Johannesburg brings her two home bases together. “Sewing is all about storytelling for me,” she says. “Whether it is picking out fabrics that tell a bit about a place or time that I am using in a quilt or the cut of a garment being inspired by a fabric’s print, it is the same desire to share an experience through textiles.”
In 2016, Yolande spearheaded a project with The Museum of the Mississippi Delta to create a quilt made of worn cotton blue jeans in conjunction with a program established by the Indianapolis Children’s Museum traveling exhibit “Power of Children: Making a Difference.” From October through March, volunteers met twice a week to create patches with themes and symbols related to Greenwood. The individual denim blocks sewn at the museum addressed topics related to personal and social struggles. The intention of creating the quilt was to foster understanding and empathy across the community.
The intention of creating the quilt was to foster understanding and empathy across the community.
Cheryl Taylor Thornhill, Executive Director of the Museum of the Mississippi Delta, credits Yolande with the vision for the quilt as a permanent reminder of the importance of children in the community. “She energized the exhibit by sheer will of the spirit. Each time a child, or even the grown-ups, that worked on the quilt return to the museum, the first thing they do is point to their patch. We have so much glass and hard surfaces here, having the soft quilt greet you when you come in is so welcoming.”
Recently, Yolande contributed a quilt based on a potential new state flag design by Lauren Stennis and the “Mississippi: I Declare” movement for the exhibit Mississippi Made at the Mississippi Museum of Art. The flag quilt will be donated to the Mississippi History Museum at the end of a statewide traveling display. “I used old fabrics from yesterday. I was making it today and hoping for a tomorrow where Mississippi has a flag to represent everyone,” Yolande explained with the passion of a citizen who truly loves her adopted home state.
“I remember my grandmother, always saying as she was measuring us, ‘Hold out your arms, stand up straight.’ Down the legs she would go, around the waist, neck to wrist, with her tape measure,” Yolande recalled as she pantomimed a seamstress measuring a fidgety child. It was customary for all the grandchildren to be measured during each visit to their grandparents’ farm in rural Louis Trichardt in South Africa’s Limpopo province. “She made all our clothes and sewed everything without patterns. Her gifts were never anything bought; everything was homemade. Birthday cards, everything. I think I connected to sewing and making things through her.” Now Yolande is the one with a tape measure slung around her neck, marveling at how a child has grown since she last saw them.
“I used old fabrics from yesterday. I was making it today and hoping for a tomorrow where Mississippi has a flag to represent everyone.”
For a few years now, Yolande has led a spring sewing workshop, which runs February through May, meets twice a week, and culminates in a Project Runway-style fashion show, as well as a field trip to nearby Delta State University’s Fashion Merchandising Department. This year, when ArtPlace Mississippi director Sara Iwanski sent out the message announcing it was time to sign up for Project Runway Greenwood, she anticipated about thirty enrollees. Eighty-five applied. Rather than turn students away, more classes were added. Yolande hustled up supplies and donations and found sponsors for several of the kids.
One aspect the Project Runway Greenwood program stresses is entrepreneurship. Inspired by groups like the nearby Tutwiler Quilters and Mapula and Karosswerkers Embroidery Co-Operative Groups of South Africa, Yolande works with the kids to develop markets for their creations at local festivals and ArtPlace’s annual craft bazar.
“It’s just wonderful to see how these kids change and grow. Some of them were such little girls when they started and wanted everything they sewed to be all pink and sparkly. Now, they are young women and want to be very fashionable.” Her students range in ages from 10 to 18 and are drawn from across the whole county. Charity Webster, 15, is participating in her fifth workshop and recruited her cousin, Shamariya Pruitt, for the classes two years ago. Charity’s mother Sharon says sewing was a gift that Charity got from her father’s mother. “You know how teenagers are, their interests jumping from one thing to the next. Charity has really embraced sewing and she adores Yolande. And, those dogs, too. She’s excited because she now can do things like hem pants and do some alterations.”
“Whether it is picking out fabrics that tell a bit about a place or time that I am using in a quilt or the cut of a garment being inspired by a fabric’s print, it is the same desire to share an experience through textiles.”
Yolanda Greer, a local middle school assistant principal, has her daughter, Khaila Potts, enrolled for a second year. “Yolande teaches the kids that opening up and being creative is a great stress reliever. She encourages them to stick with a project until the end. I see that continue at home.”
“I believe that the best conditions for learning are those that allow us to step outside of everyday thinking about the world,” says van Heerden. “Instead, I adopt an approach in which children are encouraged to lead the creative process, learning answers to questions through play and practical experiences.”
Sisters Helen, 15, and Andie Roy, 17, are learning to sew so they can carry on family traditions. Their grandmother learned to sew as a child. “She made all my mother’s and aunts’ prom dresses and tailored my uncle’s suits all through high school. She always made our Halloween costumes and dresses. She can’t do that anymore because she has arthritis and her hands shake,” Andi shared with a bit of sadness in her voice as she snipped threads from her latest project. “She has a giant chest in her room where she has tablecloths she made for all four of us to get after we graduate from high school. My brother and sister have theirs already, and I’ll get mine this year because I am graduating.” The sisters seem determined that the rest of the kids coming up in the family will have keepsakes, party dresses, and costumes lovingly made for them, too.
Yolande’s atelier is chockablock full of fabric and projects in various stages of completion. A mural of a golden-winged sewing machine reads, “Nanny’s Proverb: He or she who sews will never go naked.” Keeping eighty-five teenagers on track and seventeen sewing machines in operating condition is a herculean task. The walls are filled with chalkboards and charts for keeping track of the workshop sewing teams with high fashion names the kids know from popular songs and magazine advertisements such as Prada, Gucci, and Versace.
“Yolande teaches the kids that opening up and being creative is a great stress reliever. She encourages them to stick with a project until the end. I see that continue at home.”
“In the beginner classes we go over basic things like learning to thread the machines and how to wind a bobbin. We do a lot of practice stitching by making flag banners and pillows. Then they start to work on their outfit for the fashion show. The more experienced students also make pillows with their names appliqued on them. They make wrap skirts that we design without using a pattern like how my grandmother taught me to sew,” Yolande explained. “I encourage them to talk about what they want to make and what they are curious about. You never know what they are going to be into. Last week it was sleep masks for some reason. The week before it was jumpsuits,” she laughed.
When asked if she has any boys sign up for her sewing classes, Yolande says, “I have found sewing with boys a pleasure. In my baby classes, I did a lot of sewing with little boys, ages 5, 6,7, and I found that they—especially the boys who had a hard time sitting still—were absolutely mesmerized by the mechanics of the sewing machine, and they would sew endlessly and their focus was uncanny. With the Shakespeare project, all the actors have to sew part of their costumes, and I found the boys, some of them football players, picked up the mechanics of a sewing machine so fast,” she recalls. “In fact, one of the kids helped me service all the sewing machines and load them in record time. That was after I showed it to him in five minutes.” “Project Runway Greenwood had a few boys apply, and one has stayed. His sewing, sense of color, and composition as a 13 year old, surpassed a lot of the other Level 1 students. He is so incredibly serious and focused on the workshop. It’s an absolute dream working with him. I can’t wait to see his outfit. He is making a West African ensemble.”
“Team Chanel! Get out your projects!” Yolande announces. After retrieving their fabrics, the students settled in front of their sewing machines and went straight to work. Yolande floats from workstation to workstation. “Let me see you thread; remember to count off your steps,” she prompted one student, snapping her fingers rhythmically as she counted each of the eight steps to threading the machine. “Nice job, lady,” she complimented Yu’Nique Robinson, 14, who deftly threaded the machine with her robin’s-egg blue painted fingertips. “Take your time, be mindful, my friend.” For the next two hours, the hum of machines and giggling filled the air. After some debate on the merits of tunic tops, pom-poms, and halter dresses, Team Chanel reluctantly put their designs away until the next class. As they hugged goodbye, the next class arrived. Team Dior filed in, took their seats at paper-covered tables strewn with magic markers, and set right to work sketching and practicing elaborate signatures that perhaps may one day grace their own designer labels.