Quilts hanging on a art gallery wall

Sixty quilts created and inspired by members of Nova Scotia’s Black communities are currently on a national tour and on exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, PEI.

The Secret Codes: African Nova Scotian Quilts is a collaboration between the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia (BANNS), and the Vale Quilters Association, a group comprised of mostly Black women from the Vale Road area of New Glasgow, and Nova Scotia’s only incorporated guild of Black quilters.

“Travelling in all these communities, rescuing quilts that had been sentenced to basements or thrown away, but also inspiring a new crop of quiltmakers to make new work has been very inspiring to me, to be able to translate that story to not only Nova Scotia, but the rest of Canada,” said David Woods, Secret Codes curator and BANNS co-founder, at the centre’s spring opening night reception for its art gallery on March 26.

David Woods, co-founder of the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia, and curator of The Secret Codes art exhibit. Photo: Matthew Byard.

The Secret Codes is one of several exhibitions on display at the gallery. It features quilts —some dating back to the 1920s — that Woods gathered from Black communities across Nova Scotia. It also features original picture quilts from the Vale Quilters Association based on Woods’ drawings of Black women and Black community scenes, as well as quilts inspired by the women’s own interpretations of Underground Railroad “Secret Code” patterns, which were said to be used to help Black people escape slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“Once we started making David’s quilts, we had to get incorporated, you know, because we started applying for grants,” said Myla Borden, the association’s president. “We chose the name Vale Quilters because the Vale Road is in the heart of the Black community.”

Vale Quilters Association president, Myla Borden. Photo: Matthew Byard.

Borden and association members, including Borden’s mother, Marlene Dorrington, as well as Heather Cromwell, and Shirley McKenzie from Pictou Landing First Nation, were on hand at the March 26 opening in Charlottetown.

Borden said she started making quilts for the New Glasgow Black Gala Homecoming in 1995. From there, she and Woods went on to collaborate on quilts that he would design and she would sew.

In 1998, she said Woods featured her work in an exhibit for the province’s first Black arts show at the Anna Leonowens Gallery in Halifax.

“He asked me to make one, and then he started creating some images. I did the first image, and then after that, the girls came and got involved because we set up the Vale Quilters. And we used to have some local quilt shows. David came to one of our quilt shows and said, ‘Wow,’” Borden recalled.

“And then picture quilts came and he started creating some designs, and we would go through his designs and pick out something that appealed to us, and we would create it.”

David Woods guiding a tour of the exhibit. Photo: Matthew Byard

Since 2007, the Vale Quilter Association has been involved in several art exhibitions throughout Nova Scotia starting with Our Ancestors Garden in July 2007, which toured Black communities in Stellarton, North Preston, Shelburne, Weymouth Falls, and Halifax. Then there was Learning To Fly: African Nova Scotian Quilts which toured Africville in 2009, Truro in 2010, and New Glasgow in 2011. In 2013, the association was part of It Takes a Village: African Nova Scotian Art and Culture at the former World Trade And Convention Centre in Halifax, and then A Taste of Preston Quilt Exhibition in East Preston in 2015. The association also hosted an annual quilt show at the Ward 1 Community Centre in New Glasgow’s Black community.

The Secret Codes exhibit made its debut in 2012 with just 18 quilts at the Chase Gallery in the Nova Scotia Archives of Nova Scotia in Halifax.

When the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown and the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto expressed an interest in the exhibit in 2018, Woods created an expanded version of The Secret Codes.

“We used to do little provincial shows, and community shows, like at local museums and provincial museums, but now this show has gone national,” Borden said.

David Woods gives a guided tour of The Secret Codes at the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown, PEI. Photo: Matthew Byard

Opening night

On the afternoon on March 26, prior to the gallery’s opening reception, the Vale Quilters joined Woods as he gave a guided tour of the exhibit to members of the public.

At the evening reception, gallery director Kevin Rice introduced the curators including, Woods.

“I just want to give you a little bit of background on David [Woods], because he’s been looking at Black art in Nova Scotia for more than four decades,” Rice said.

Rice told the crowd Woods is not only an artist, but he’s also the director of the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia, and in 1984, he was behind the first Black History Month in Nova Scotia.

David Woods offers remarks at the Spring opening reception at the Confederation Centre for the Arts in Charlottetown PEI. Photo: Matthew Byard

“These are quilts that mean a lot on many different levels, from Underground Railroad quilts that were used by enslaved people as symbols for freedom, to the new quilts, the picture quilts, where people are reinterpreting the communities,” Woods said.

“Nova Scotia and PEI share a lot of history. In fact, when I was growing up [in Nova Scotia], the names Pryor, and Byers, and Mills were people that had come from here, and we never really knew much about the actual life here, but things like this will help.”

Woods told the audience about how he was inspired by a woman in his childhood who quilted and made baskets and reeds. Despite having 15 children, Woods said the woman “adopted” him as one of her own.

“And she said, ‘You, you’re one of my children. You come up here every weekend and eat my food, and go to church,’ and that transformed my life because I learned so much,” Woods said.

“It was amazing to be around a woman like that who had come from a very long tradition of women surviving in very rural, isolated, difficult circumstances, but who had embraced all the different life things, and was a creative.”

Continuing the tradition

Myla Borden’s aunt Frances Dorrington is also a member of the Vale Quilters Association. Borden said that the mother of one of the association’s former members taught Dorrington how to quilt, and that Dorrington, in turn, taught Borden.

Vale Quilters Association member Marlene Dorrington. Photo: Myla Borden.

“We’re all from the same community. Aunt Frances taught me how to quilt. When I graduated from teachers college. I thought I was a shoo-in. I thought I was going to get a job that day. I didn’t get a job. [I told myself] ‘Girl get up and go do something,’” Borden said. “So I went up, I called my Aunt Frances and I asked her if she would show me how to make a block, and I was hooked.”

After Woods and the curators of the other exhibits spoke, Confederation Centre for the Arts CEO Steve Bellamy thanked the curators and offered his remarks.

“I’m always struck with how important this work is,” Bellamy said. “When we have the honour of showing exhibitions from a variety of artists, from a variety of communities, it reminds me how important these stories are, how important these perspectives are.”

“I’m really affected by it and just want to offer my personal thanks, and thanks to all of you for taking the time to come here and see it.”

Vale Quilters Association member Heather Cromwell. Photo: Matthew Byard.
Vale Quilters Association member Shirley McKenzie. Photo: Matthew Byard.

The Secret Codes will be on display at the Confederation Centre of the Arts until April 23, 2023. In a press release, BANNS said that various school programs, as well as a joint event with the Black Cultural Society of PEI, are also planned in conjunction with the exhibit during its stay in Charlottetown.

After the Confederation Centre for the Arts, The Secret Codes will continue its national tour in several locations including the National Summit for Black Canadians this July in Halifax, and at the Textile Museum of Canada in April 2023.

Vale Quilters Association members, from left, president Myla Borden, Shirley McKenzie, and Heather Cromwell; and BANNS co-founder and The Secret Codes curator, David Woods. Photo: Matthew Byard.

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Matthew Byard, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Matthew Byard writes news, profiles, and stories of the Black Nova Scotia community. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative.

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