by Erica Ciccarone
June saw the first Jefferson Street Art Crawl, a monthly event organized by North Nashville artists and community members that celebrates historic Jefferson Street and features its artists and businesses. Crawlers who took to social media used the hashtag #MagicOnJeffersonStreet as they posted photos of Afrocentric artwork and videos of spoken-word performances. The night did indeed feel magical, thanks in part to Ludie Amos, a Clarksville artist whose powerful work resounded with themes of the evening: pride, community, and love.
“First and foremost, we were poor, but we didn’t know it … my mother taught us to dream beyond the front porch.”
Nate Harris, owner of Woodcuts Gallery & Framing—a mainstay on Jefferson Street for the past 26 years—helped Amos coordinate a retrospective. Glimpses by Ludie showcases the octogenarian’s hand-crafted quilted wall hangings, dolls, and sculptures. These are not just a record of Amos’s life and times. They communicate something much deeper: the values, mysteries, and joys of a life well lived.
Born in 1935 in rural Georgia, Amos was one of ten children. One of her chores was to push the needle back up through the quilt as her mother hand sewed for the family. Many of her quilted paintings depict idyllic, pastoral scenes of rural life. A grandfather with a fluffy white beard reads the newspaper to a child in his lap. A mother and two little girls wash laundry in basins on a sunny day, as overalls, quilts, and dresses dry on clotheslines above them. Amos uses machine and hand stitching to applique layers of fabric, often employing trapunto—a quilting technique that adds puffy, raised areas to create dimension and texture.
“Each character has a story to tell. I want people to see the dignity and importance of that person. Don’t look at the conditions. Look at the person.”
“First and foremost, we were poor, but we didn’t know it,” Amos says of her Georgia childhood. “We were blessed with a house full of children, and I was grounded in how I could survive.” This sentiment is conveyed in Through the Door, a quilted wall piece that shows a family seated on the front porch from the point of view of someone within the house. “I was told you can do anything you’re capable of . . . but you’ve gotta learn,” she says. “My mother taught us to dream beyond the front porch.” In one installation, Amos created a one-room schoolhouse. An animated teacher stands at the front of the classroom, and three rows of youngsters sit attentively, some raising their hands high. The props are incredibly detailed, right down to the individual handwriting of each student, the day’s lessons outlined on the chalkboard, and the heated rock in the corner.
“No detail is too small or overlooked,” says Amos’s oldest granddaughter, Adrienne. “It is indicative of the care she takes with each piece. It’s the little things in life that matter most.” It is this aspect of Amos’s body of work that stands out the most. Each character has a story to tell. “I want people to see the dignity and importance of that person,” Amos says. “Don’t look at the conditions. Look at the person. You can extract joy and peace out of almost everything.”
Amos’s life changed drastically at nine years old. Her mother passed away, and her father gave her two options. She could stay on with the family or move to Cleveland to live with her aunt. Young Ludie chose to go beyond the front porch and moved to Cleveland. There, she lived in an integrated neighborhood where people of many ethnicities and races had known each other for years. Her aunt took her to art museums and cultural events. She attended an integrated school. Her aunt had a radio, and Amos would listen closely, imagining the stories in vivid detail. Here, she became interested in fashion, and she sewed doll clothes of her own design.
Amos’s aunt and guardian provided boundless encouragement. “My aunt was a pusher. I say that with pride,” Amos says. “Don’t tell her what you want to do and expect her to sit on the sidelines. She would turn over everything possible to make sure you got what you wanted. She was a joyous person willing to teach and learn.” But Amos was now an only child. Gone was the house full of children and relatives. “In the quiet times, I was entertaining myself. I found making and drawing things was my solace to get through the days.”
Amos’s life in Cleveland in the care of her aunt shines through in lively quilted paintings and dolls. Dancing women wear bright-red dresses, white hats, and gloves. A jazz band performs in houndstooth and polka-dot jackets. A trio of women in traditional African wraparound dresses and head wraps huddle together gossiping. In her stand-alone sculptures, African warriors and chieftains are regal in traditional dress.
In 1951, when Amos was 16, her father and aunt passed, five months apart. The one unifying aspect of all of Amos’s work, and the topic about which she is most fond of talking, is family. At 81 years old, Ludie and two of her siblings remain of the original ten. She is mother to three children, grandmother to 11, and great-grandmother to almost as many. As the family historian, images of her ancestors and their stories make their way into her work. Amos cites a deep connection with God as her inspiration, and her art-making is part of her spirituality. She says, “It’s hard to say, to explain to someone, when you’re having a prayer time and moment and you feel at peace and joy with yourself in what you’re doing.”
Her resilience is analogous to her artistic process. “Enjoy the moment, and you can go on. That’s basically how I’ve tried to live my life. I say to everyone, my hands are my gift.
“While I’m working and asking questions, I come to, How can I do this? For lack of a better phrase, you’re almost in a trance, but you come to a stopping point. I don’t say I quit, I give up. I detest those terms. I think, How can I do that? Then I go back and try it again, and then I’ll go on to the next thing.”
Glimpses by Ludie will be exhibited in Woodcuts Gallery & Framing at 1613 Jefferson Street through August. For more information, visit www.woodcutsfineartgallery.com.