Quilting a Patchwork of Stories
In the southern, working class Georgia neighborhood she called home for a while, fiber artist Abigail Kokai was inspired to create a tablecloth of singular quilted parts, stitching portraits of neighbors into lace. These individuals and their commotion, excitement and everyday dramas made them like family to Kokai. There was outspoken and kind Frida, an African American woman who was married to a blind white man and knew everybody’s business. And Kirk, who would sit on his porch Sunday mornings listening to jazz. And Tim, whose Dolly Parton renditions could be heard long into the night after everyone else had gone to bed. Kokai’s tablecloth symbolized each person’s seat at the table of their small neighborhood community.
“The thing about my neighborhood is that it was colorful,” Kokai said. “It was vibrant with energy and the back stories, along with the shared experiences from all of us who lived there. Each person presented an energy in their own different way and it was also democratic, which is why I equated it to a table. It didn’t matter if you were a long-term or transient resident and it didn’t matter what race, wealth, age or background you came from, each person contributed to the overall experience. There wasn’t any “I’m better/less than you” attitude and we all looked out for each other.”
For Kokai, these stories were treasures. Her fiber artworks, quilts in particular, are a very personal extension of stories, tangible objects that narrate lived experiences, preserve places and times, and communicate the significance of individuals and communities.
“Throughout the history of textiles, narratives have occurred in many forms as a way to record events, identify cultures, and express personal agendas, and quilts by their very nature possess intimate connections and personal significance,” Kokai said. “Fiber is a very flexible medium, physically and conceptually, and at its core, a quilt is essentially made from bits and pieces and forms that create a physical, tactile object that people have a physical, tactile relationship with.”
A full-time artist who grew up in Ohio, she was surrounded by a strong quilting culture. Today, her hand-sewn whales, made from thrift store jeans and old clothes, are available in shops around Alaska and her quilts hang in several permanent collections, including that of the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Both her grandmother and mother quilted. Her grandmother won blue ribbons at state fairs and her mother’s equally technical and aesthetic quilts were more functional. Kokai created her first quilt when she was 8 years old, a 16”x16” mauve, blue and orange piece with lace accents, made from traditional scrap patterns that took her and her grandmother an afternoon to make. Around the same time, she began sewing on her mother’s vintage sewing machine. In junior high school, she made bed quilts for her friends, utilizing simple pattern squares and curtain fabric that a relative in New York City sent her. In high school, she started taking art classes and was soon melding her passion for traditional craft with fine art.
Kokai majored in industrial design in college and studied fiber arts in grad school. For the next four years, she participated in artist residencies and exhibited her work in galleries, museums and art centers in Colorado, Georgia, Idaho and Ohio. In 2015, she traveled to Homer, Alaska on an artist residency with Bunnell Street Arts Center, creating quilts that depicted her observations of everyday life in the small coastal community. One quilt, titled “Save U More,” depicts her experience of walking out of the local grocery and seeing a father leaning up against a pickup truck, his children playing nearby and a hand-painted wooden sign propped against the truck bed that read “Husky Puppies.”
When her residency ended, Kokai stayed in Homer, intrigued by the community of artists whose values she felt aligned with her own sense of purpose.
“The people in Homer are very creative and have a spirit, energy and attitude of doing what they want and need to do versus what they have to do and I really liked this different way of working and thinking and the way they see themselves,” she said. “I’ve always known that I wanted to do my art full time and being surrounded by the unique individuals in this community really inspired me to stay and do my own thing here.”
Kokai has taught and exhibited as a quilter and an artist and her work reflects her interest in illustration, graphic design and interaction with objects around her. She currently is creating a series of quilts inspired by the four months she spent traveling the Alaska Marine Highway system’s various ferries and routes. Supported by a Rasmuson Foundation grant, this body of work depicts stories of the crew and fellow passengers she observed and interacted with, as well as the landscapes she floated through and the people and remote communities at the many ports of call.
Through different mediums, including block print and digital print, this collection of quilted illustrations represents different cultures and blends traditional and contemporary quilting, providing a small glimpse into the vastness of Alaska. Her fringed quilt titled “Cowboy” shows a man wearing cowboy boots and riding a horse across the sky and is her depiction of Johnny Jack, a Tlingit man from the village of Angoon who wears cowboy boots.
Through the quilting traditions of both her childhood and her formal education and training, Kokai’s motivation for creating quilts remains consistent — layering fabric fragments to explore narratives of today’s world, depicting a sense of community and representing the lived experience.