Tina Williams Brewer has been breaking the rules of quilting for a couple of decades, harmonizing counterintuitive pattern combinations in intricate designs to tell the stories of her African ancestors. It seems as though everyone who knows the internationally acclaimed, Pittsburgh-based fiber artist calls her a friend -- and then lists at least two guilds, committees or organizations they both belong to.
So nobody was surprised when the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts granted Brewer its second-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.
"If you were to write a definition of 'Pittsburgh artists,' you'd have to include Tina in it," says Heinz History Center Historian Sam Black. "She's just that big."
Brewer also works in art-based community outreach, and co-owns the Coliseum, a special-events venue in Homewood.
People who know her have stopped trying to figure out how she manages it all.
"The woman never sleeps," says Laura Horner, who edited a book about Brewer's work.
Brewer herself says she feels deeply humbled by the award and hopes it will spotlight the potential of fiber art.
"I was making work for me and my family, and I was so honored that people are interested in our culture," says Brewer. "I will accept the award for myself and for all those quilters who've been at it for years."
The PCA honors Brewer on Fri., June 12. Horner calls the evening "very African-American in nature." The program will open with a Libation ceremony, an African ritual that calls upon the ancestors to bless those present and those yet unborn. (The event is invitation-only.)
Meanwhile, on view through June 21 at PCA is Brewer's exhibit Guided By the Ancestors. It combines a retrospective with a new project commemorating the New Pittsburgh Courier's centennial.
"I think people don't always understand the volume of history that's taken place in Pittsburgh and sometimes they need someone to point it out to them," says Brewer. She believes stories are best told with "something that's soft."
Brewer's first arts were interior design and pottery. She turned to quilting as something more logistically compatible with motherhood. She learned how to quilt traditional patterns, but needed something a little more expansive than Jacob's Ladder to express her vision. Much of her older work tells stories of the Middle Passage, when many of her ancestors came to America on slave ships.
"I speak for those who have no voice," she says. "I'm very blessed to be a conduit."
As a PCA resident artist, Brewer also volunteers to teach in the community. She's brought people together with many a Lukasa -- a story quilt based on traditional African "memory boards."
Lorena Amos-Brock met Brewer through the local artistic collective Women of Visions and invited her to Westinghouse High School, to teach students about story-quilting. They used fiber art to tell the stories they'd collected from local elders as part of a heritage project.
"We hung it in the hallways and it was like going to an art museum," says Amos-Brock. "Students never forgot that. And I didn't want to part with their work at the end of the year."
- Tina Williams Brewer