The Polk Museum of Art’s Perkins Gallery, the wide spaces leading to the museum’s auditorium, is now adorned with the elaborate storytelling quilts of Florida artist Lauren Austin.

The exhibition opened on Nov. 12 and tells several stories of Austin’s life through fabric, beads, shells and even glow-in-the-dark thread and paint.

The Exhibit

“Lauren Austin: Life in Quilts” will be on view through March 12, 2023. There will be a reception with the artist this Saturday, Dec. 3, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. 

“Art has given me the ability to reflect on my life visually,” Austin writes in her artist statement. “The artworks here describe moments in my life. I invite viewers to connect to my visions and to share their responses.”

Austin draws on a long history of African diaspora textile making while incorporating the everyday drama, joy, and sadness of the Black experience.

For instance, the first two quilts visitors see are “Our Vision of his Transition” and “Paid for Pain,” and involve the story of her uncle’s death. While he passed away in the hospital, where she has said his care was less than ideal, she quilted the transition he should have had.

Lauren Austin’s “Our Vision of his Transition,” on display at the Polk Museum of Art. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

“I wanted to envision what he would have wanted: resting in his beloved wild spaces with creatures and plants all around,” she said in an artist statement.  “The idea comforts me.”

Austin is a former civil rights attorney turned full-time artist based in Orlando. She says she created her first quilt when she was 7 years old.

“I sewed, quilted and made stuff every year since that first one,” Austin said. “In the 80’s and 90’s, I worked for the U.S. State Department and then as a human rights lawyer.  I used nights and weekends to make art quilts.  I finally took the plunge in 2004 to work in art full time.  I have made many more quilts than I can remember, and taught others to make quilts – including my son, Jacob!”

Austin joins a quilting tradition that is several hundred years old in African-American story-telling through quilting.

According to the African American Registry, “the Middle Passage brought Black Africans to the Americas by the millions and with them the traditional appliqué form of quilt making.  According to legend, a safe house along the Underground Railroad was often indicated by a quilt hanging from a clothesline or windowsill. These quilts were embedded with a code, so that by reading the shapes and motifs sewn into the design, an enslaved person on the run could know the area’s immediate dangers or even where to head next.”

“Just make stuff that comes out of your head,” Austin said in a Youtube video. “Don’t worry about what it’s saying or the message.”

Austin creates large-scale, figurative quilts incorporating her family photos, artist dyed fabric, stone lithography, printmaking, hand-crafted ceramics, and beading to describe her memories, experiences, and thoughts in a visual story.

A detail of Lauren Austin’s quilt, which includes flower blossoms with beadwork. Kimberly C. Moore/LkldNow

“It takes only a few moments with Austin’s work to sense her passion for and mastery of her multiple media,” Polk Museum Executive Director and Chief Curator Alex Rich said in a press release. “The Museum is thrilled to introduce wide audiences to her engaging storytelling abilities in an exhibition that celebrates lived Black experience.”

Austin’s signature narrative quilts focus on Black family life and its relationship to the natural world, with details that celebrate her culture through the medium of dyed, painted, and printed fabric. Her work includes interpretations of the artist’s love of bird watching, gardening and music.  Other pieces use the artist’s historic and vintage family photos printed on fabric to tell her history in a new way. 

“Lauren Austin: Life in Quilts” will be on view through March 12, 2023. There will be a reception with the artist on December 3 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. 

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on
Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Mondays and on major holidays. Admission is always free.

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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