Mississippi Folklife announces the new Fall 2021 Issue: Performances and the Pandemic.

Rhonda Blasingame + Cassandra Stovall

Rhonda Blasingame + Cassandra Stovall

Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall participated in the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 2020-2021 Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program. This grants program supports the survival and continued evolution of community-based traditional art forms. During the apprenticeship, the master artist teaches specific skills, techniques and cultural knowledge to the apprentice, who is an emerging artist of the same tradition. Participants are awarded $2,000 to assist with the teaching fees for the master artist and other expenses such as travel costs and supplies. To learn more about the program, click here.

Introduction

Rhonda Blasingame and her apprentice Cassandra Stovall have worked together as an extension of their Sew Every Wednesday (SEW) fellowship at the Pearl Street AME Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Despite the pandemic, the pair is closely connected to each other and to the members of the quilting group. They have remained dedicated to their craft and their community by sewing thousands of face masks and keeping in close touch virtually or by phone call.

Master Artist: Rhonda Blasingame 

Rhonda Blasingame pictured at one of the S.E.W. meetings.   Photo by Jennifer Joy Jameson, courtesy of the Mississippi Arts Commission. 

An accomplished quilter and fiber artist, Rhonda first learned how to make quilts from her grandmother when she was a child. Her art quilts are of her own creative design – at times using paint and rusted items to dye her fabrics, and incorporating music themes to honor the Delta blues tradition of Mississippi. Rhonda proudly facilitates the SEW quilting group. She guides the members during their meetings, while taking on apprentices like Cassandra to teach traditional techniques and patterns. As the name implies, this group of eight to ten women have gathered every Wednesday to work on their own projects and socialize. Over the years, there have been 35 to 40 members helping each other. As Rhonda describes, “It’s not like teaching class, it’s more like a come sit down and have a cup of coffee and sew if you feel like it, and don’t if you don’t.”

I don’t even know if I can even explain to you what this group means to me. We have truly, in every sense of the word, created a community within our group. I’m going to start crying, I always do. - Rhonda Blasingame

The importance of this group is not lost on the community at large. SEW frequently receives donations to buy supplies for the group, and they have been featured in the local news. The former NEA Chairman Jane Chu even visited the group in 2017 during one of their regular meetings. “It was really cool to get that kind of exposure, you know, because I’m so proud of my women,” Rhonda reflects. “I think everybody in the world needs to know about them and see what they’re doing.”

Apprentice: Cassandra Stovall

Cassandra Stovall standing proudly next to one of her quilts. Photo courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.

Cassandra is drawn to the SEW family for the support it shows its members. A former educator and US Postal Service carrier, Cassandra only learned to sew after she retired in 2017. While her mother, aunts, and cousins sewed, Cassandra was not interested in learning to sew when she was young, and she was not taught in school. Despite her beginner status, Rhonda asked Cassandra to be her apprentice because she knew she was ready to learn, hone her skill set, and carry the tradition forward. Rhonda explains:

“I saw something in her that I believe she is going to take this and move on with it - not just learn one thing and then do her own thing after that. I really think she has the potential and the interest in it that she'll take it and make it her own and then pass it on to others.”

Apprenticeship Experience

Cassandra would meet Rhonda at her studio every Wednesday during their apprenticeship. They used a quilt pattern found in an instructional catalogue to help Cassandra with the basics of quilting. Step-by-step, Rhonda guided Cassandra from start to finish, from reading a pattern to choosing fabrics, measuring and cutting, and finally, assembling and sewing the quilt. A little afraid of the apprenticeship initially, Cassandra admits that at first “all the stuff on this page was gibberish,” as she holds up a page from the instructional catalogue, until she learned how to “read a pattern.” The resulting quilt Cassandra made during their apprenticeship is the culmination of learned techniques and continued support from the SEW community.

That’s what family does – support each other through all the ups and downs in our regular everyday lives, and that’s what the quilting family is. - Cassandra Stovall

SEW could not hold their meetings regularly in the mornings due to the pandemic, so Rhonda and Cassandra met for much shorter apprenticeship sessions than they would have preferred. Generally, Rhonda would teach Cassandra one step in the process, review it a few times, and then send her home to practice. They would often send photos to each other and to the sewing group to show their progress as everyone worked separately. “You don’t want to lose the connection,” Cassandra says, implying that the phone calls and check-ins are important for the group when they have not been able to meet in person.

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    During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  
  • image
    During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  
  • image
    During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  
  • image
    During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  
  • image
    During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  
  • image
    During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  
  • image
    During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  
  • image
    During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  

During their apprenticeship coursework, Rhonda and Cassandra made a quilt together. These photos show some steps in the process of making their apprenticeship quilt. All photos courtesy of Rhonda Blasingame and Cassandra Stovall.  

Conclusion

With developing aesthetics, the trend now is to make quilting accessible to as many people as possible, according to Rhonda. “It’s like a breathing organism,” she says. “What my grandmother made is nothing like what I’m making.” Whether sewing masks during the pandemic, or completing “Second Chance Quilts,” a SEW project designed to give unfinished pieces a new life, Cassandra recognizes, “The whole point is to pass it down, to keep it going.” Though she joined SEW relatively recently compared to the other members, Cassandra is amazed at how supportive the group has been. “We’ve been through a lot,” She laughs. “That’s what family does – support each other through all the ups and downs in our regular everyday lives, and that’s what the quilting family is.”

In an interview with Jennie Williams, Cassandra and Rhonda discuss the future of quilting, passing it down to the next generation and accessibility.

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Jennie Williams

Jennie Williams

Jennie Williams is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at Indiana University in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. She has served on panels for the folk arts programs at Mississippi and Michigan, and has volunteered or worked professionally for public folklore organizations that include Maryland Traditions, Traditional Arts Indiana, the NEA, and Smithsonian Folkways.