Renowned textile artist Sara Sonié Joi Thompson-Ruffin created a remarkable signature art piece, Jubilation, which is featured in the renovated Hall Student Center. The quilt and a sonnet by acclaimed poet Glenn North were dedicated on Wednesday, Nov. 10. Click here to view a video about the creation of Jubilation.
Sonié was commissioned to create a work of art to honor the legacy of Don ’46 and Adele Hall. The vision for the piece was to reflect the school’s values of respect, compassion, scholarship and integrity, as well as its commitment to community and service. The result is a vibrant triptych (three panel) mosaic of textiles with fabric donated from individuals in the Pembroke Hill and Kansas City communities.
She utilized the North Star, which carries several meanings, as one of her inspirations for the piece. For education, according to Sonié, the North Star intimates the idea of opening doors and expanding the hearts and minds of others, while in the African American community, it means freedom. The two, in her view, are interconnected.
“Education is freedom,” Sonié said. “It is freedom because it’s open and expansive. When you have not had that opportunity and when it’s presented, you do everything you possibly can to engage that freedom.”
A Hall Student Center Commission Selection Committee, consisting of alumni, community arts leaders, administrators and a student, was convened to lead the selection process.
Erin Dodson, curator for the Hallmark Art Collection who served on the committee, said the group sought an artist to create a work that connects with and inspires students. “Our goal was to commission a work of art that represented the values of the school, and remind students of their interconnection to the broader community and their responsibility to serve others,” she said.
Sonié described the design of Jubilation as “a form of textile circular images taking on a journey of free flowing movement. The textile design appears to twist and turn within each block that seems to hold within it a challenge of configurations that proves to be an assembled disruption with an assortment of designs. The colorful textiles illuminate the passageway of time and allow the viewer to interact and absorb the nuances of cultural essence.”
Sonié’s work has been exhibited across this country, in Africa, Europe, at The Smithsonian, in the White House and at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The opportunity to create a signature art piece for Pembroke Hill brought her connection to the school full circle; Sonié worked with PHS middle school art students in 2005 under the guidance of former art teacher Melvin Woods.
Erin said Sonié’s concept immediately stood out with the committee because of her use of bold colors and striking patterns. However, it was her work in the tradition of quilts telling a story that made her an ideal artist for the project. “Quilts are a great medium to communicate a message,” she explained. “One way Sonié does that is through the colors she chooses – they help connect to our memories and the deep associations we hold with certain colors. It’s also in the materials she uses – there is enormous potential for meaning in the fabrics that are stitched into the work.”
Pembroke Hill students reached out to members in the community to gather donated fabric. They received clothing from an actor who also runs an organization supporting fellow performing artists; a piece of burlap from the director of a local women’s shelter; scrubs from a University of Kansas Medical Center doctor; and a blouse from former Pembroke Hill Trustee and community benefactor Adele Hall, who’s life of generosity and leadership within the Kansas City community served as inspiration for Sonié’s artwork.
“When you think again of Adele and the things that she was able to contribute to this community, it’s a celebration,” Sonié said. “It is a jubilation every time I think about her. It’s about not just one person, but a community that this person contributed to, and that’s a jubilation to me.”
Sonié started with a sketch pad to design her triptych piece before presenting it to the commission. She then freehand cut the donated fabrics as well as fabrics from her studio. “There are sketches and drawings, but it’s primarily needle, thread and scissors, and freehand cutting,” she shared. “There is no pattern at all. This is one of a kind.”
The location of each piece within the circles is based on how she felt. “I am fortunate to have a really large space to work, so in placing these blocks together, I just had to go on what felt good at the time and how I wanted the story to unfold.”
It was an emotional experience for her to organize and sew the pieces together. “I work from a spiritual place, an authentic place. When I think about Adele and how things are being created, it spurs a lot of experiences for me.”
To add to the gravitas of the piece, Sonié asked well-known Kansas City poet Glenn North to write a poem inspired by Jubilation. He created a14-line sonnet that coincides with the 14 blocks in each row, which allowed Glenn to add a voice to the many different shapes and patterns of the fabric.
“What comes across to me with Sonié’s piece is that there are all these different shapes and patterns, and there’s a kind of organized chaos,” he said. “So I take what Sonié’s communicating with the piece, such as her inspiration, Adele Hall, summer, clothing, the idea of the North Star being a symbol of freedom but also a guiding principle for a school or organization, and place them in a certain form that forces you to get the very essence of it. That’s a challenge for me as a poet, how can I bring all these ideas together and put them in a container, much the same way Sonié put all this energy, light, color and vibrancy into this triptych.”
Glenn has created and displayed his poetry at many public institutions, such as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Kansas City Public Library and in front of a police station. “Normally, we, as poets, want our work published in books, but to have a poem you wrote placed in a public space, it’s just quite an honor.”
He said it’s exciting for him to think that students will be walking by and reading his poem while they view Sonié’s piece. “Although it’s a traditional form, I hope people will be encouraged to read it out loud, that it’s like the experience of mouthing along to a song in the car. When I’m working with young people, I find that the spoken word is a great way to get them interested in poetry.”
Sonié is grateful for the opportunity and hopes those who experience the textile artwork feel the legacy of Don and Adele Hall and hope that it encourages others to give back to the community much like she has.
“I’m hoping that they see celebration and grace, and they understand that this was respectfully created in memory of an incredible human being and that their North Star is community-based,” Sonié concluded.