By Dennis Raverty, Ph.D.
The Rev. Posey Krakowsky’s sumptuous quilts not only sew various disparate fabrics, surface designs and textures to one another, they also stitch together diverse cultural and spiritual traditions, from Pre-Columbian Mayan and Afro-Caribbean Vodun, to Christian iconography, and even archaic Chinese script, in what can perhaps best be described as a visual and spiritual “creole” with distinct mystical connotations. Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York has scheduled an exhibition of her work, titled “Spirit-Driven Stitchin,'”on view from Nov. 6 to Dec. 31.
Linguistically, creole is defined as a language derived from two or more mother languages, like the French-related Creole spoken in Haiti or parts of Louisiana. Krakowsky (originally from New Orleans), makes quilts that likewise conjoin various visual languages and spiritual traditions into a new and unexpected unity that maintains and at the same time transcends the integrity of each unique component in the overall configuration of both form and concomitant faith.
In one particularly impressive quilt entitled “Chichen Itza: Day of the Dead,” the artist represents the sugar skulls that are traditionally offered to the departed by contemporary Mexicans on All Souls Day (Nov. 2). The skulls dominate the artwork in a surprisingly whimsical arrangement. The holiday is also sacred to African traditions, as practiced in Benin as well as in the Caribbean, where the Gede spirits, like Bawon Samdi (Creole for “Baron Saturday”), are believed to watch over graveyards and give access among the living to deceased ancestors. In both cases it is not a mournful but a joyous observance, where the living memory of the departed is celebrated. Krakowsky appropriately captures the levity of the holiday, and despite the references to death, her quilt is quite exuberant, optimistic and decorative.
Here and there are affixed to the fabric tiny “charms” such as a rooster or a crocodile, or African trade beads, as well as little stick figures running or dancing, enlivening the sensuous surface of the quilt. Surrounding the richly embroidered and embellished composition is a wide, bright orange-red border ornamented with Chinese script in an archaic style, now used only for signature seals, but originally found on ancient oracle bones used in divination. It represents, perhaps, the multiplicity and diversity of individual souls on this day, each signature referring to an ancestor (Confucian cultures have rites for the veneration of their ancestors).
The artist serves as the curate at New York’s Episcopal Church of the Ascension. That parish combines Protestant and Catholic traditions eclectically in their liturgy and identifies itself as a “broad” church. In her sermons, Krakowsky likewise draws from a variety of different spiritual traditions, and she strives to find the commonalities in these traditions, while at the same time, respecting their individual and idiosyncratic character. Her sermons and her artwork are cut from the same cloth, so to speak.
In an old Islamic parable, several people are with an elephant in a large tent in the dark, and each of the persons are from regions where no such creatures are known. One of them, embracing the animal’s enormous leg says it must be a tree, another holding the tail, assumes it is a vine of some sort, and to yet another person grasping the elephant’s agile trunk it appears to be a large, writhing serpent. Each of them has only part of the truth and so their perception of the overall whole is only fragmentary. God (Allah) is the elephant, and we are the people in the darkness. Each tradition, whether it be Islam or Buddhism or Christianity or even traditional Vodun spirituality, having only part of the truth and whose overall grasp of the whole is necessarily therefore limited.
Krakowsky’s quilts also have elaborate compositions on the back, and can be advantageously viewed from either side, perhaps yet another allusion to the value accorded to a serious consideration of alternate perspectives that might not be altogether commensurate, yet speak to a larger, more all-encompassing truth not entirely evident if one is too attached to their own particular vantage point or to speak metaphorically, to their particular patch or fragment of that quilt, which constitutes but one part of a larger and more ineffable totality.
Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.