ST. PETERSBURG — The vivid, colorful quilts of Eugenia Conner Washington form the centerpiece of The Journey, an exhibit currently showing at Gallerie 909, will be on display through April 4.
“I’ve sewn on and off since I was a child, and I used to make a lot of my clothing and stuff,” Washington recalled. “I’d made quilts in the past but not for a long time,” she said. “But once I retired I was inspired by a book I read and I decided to see if I could take on a challenge.”
The fruits of this challenge were bed-sized quilts for each of her five siblings.
“And it sort of took off from there,” the 68 year old said.
Washington not only makes functional quilts from traditional and modern patterns, but designs and creates art quilts that often depict Afro-centric themes. In one such work a group of four African women walk down a dirt road, carrying baskets on their heads. The lush-looking green grass and the brilliantly blue sky form a vibrant background while the purples and yellows and oranges of the women’s dresses and clothing pop against the natural, earthy backdrop.
For this particular quilt, as with others, inspiration struck the Clearwater resident from an everyday source.
“It’s based on a drawing from a cookbook I had,” she explained. “I might be inspired by something I see. I keep a sketchbook and if I come up with a design idea, I’ll do a sketch. Designs come from different sources; I could be inspired from a photo I see.”
Since she also works with clay to produce ceramic art, which also features Afro-centric themes, some of these works may be reinterpreted through her needle and thread medium.
“One of the pieces that’s currently on exhibit is actually based on a piece I did in clay,” she said.
What has made Washington’s creative output all the more remarkable is that she suffers from a degenerative visual impairment. Macular degeneration typically affects elderly people but it gripped Washington earlier in life.
“It took eye specialists quite a while to figure out what was going on,” she said. “I was in my 40s and I was told it was relatively rare.”
The degeneration became severe enough where Washington even had to give up driving. She was also diagnosed with glaucoma in her 40s. Despite these challenges, she was determined not to let it stop her from expressing herself as an artist.
“I’m legally blind so it’s impossible for me to thread my sewing machine without using an assistant device,” she said. “There are some techniques that I don’t do because my eyesight is poor. My hand sewing skills are not like they used to be, but thank goodness for sewing machines!”
The amount of time it takes to produce a quilt from start to finish varies for Washington, as she doesn’t sit down to quilt for too long at any given time. She might cut pieces out one day and start to assemble them the next and go from there, she explained. One of the rewarding things to Washington is that each quilt she produces is unique, and can become something future generations can admire and enjoy.
“There are people who collect antique quilts,” she affirmed. “They get to be something that can be passed on or passed down, and for me that’s rewarding to produce something that may be around for quite some time.”
The way Washington sees it, The Journey represents the path that she has followed and continues to follow in the creative process—whether it’s taking sewing classes, joining quilting guilds or simply learning the craft on her grandmother’s sewing machine as a child.
“Over the years I’ve added to my repertoire of skills and arrived at where I am now,” she said. “But I’m still on that journey.”
Gallerie 909 is located at 909 22nd St. S., St. Petersburg.