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Masterpiece Activity: Faith Ringgold's Tar Beach
Share the artist's wonderful story quilt Tar Beach, then invite
your students to create their own autobiographical squares

By Christy Hale

Story quilts are complex artworks, rich with personal details and meaning. They can tell the tales of our own history, or link us to the shared experiences of our community. Faith Ringgold's Tar Beach does both. It combines painting, quilt-making, fictional narrative, and autobiography in a single art form that encourages children to soar high and follow their dreams.

Meet the Artist
Born in 1930, Faith Ringgold was raised in Harlem by a family with a textile history. Five generations before her birth, her enslaved ancestors made quilts. Her great-great-grandmother taught her how to quilt. Her mother, a fashion designer, encouraged her to create art with fabric. Ringgold began her formal art studies in 1950 at NY City College. She taught art in public schools, received her Master's degree in 1961, and traveled throughout Europe. When she returned, the country was in a period of great change. Ringgold began to tell her own stories through her painting and quilts. She also incorporated concerns of the Civil Rights and feminist movements in her quilts.

Tar BeachAbout the Art
Show participating students pages from Tar Beach and ask them to describe what they see. Share the artist's inspiration for this work: When Ringgold was a young girl in Harlem, her family would cool off on the roof on hot summer nights. She would lie on a mattress looking up at the George Washington Bridge, the starry night sky, and the skyscrapers all around her. Tar Beach, completed in 1988, is the first of five quilts in Ringgold's “Woman on a Bridge” series. Ringgold worked in acrylic on canvas, with a tie-dyed and pieced fabric border. The quilt measures six feet tall and wide. It hangs in the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Create Your Own Quilt
Read aloud the children's book Tar Beach (Random House, 1996), which Ringgold based on her quilt. Then have students work together to create a story quilt. Ask students to close their eyes and think of a place, real or imagined. Provide students with an assortment of colored and decorative papers, scissors, and glue. Then ask them each to convey the special places they have chosen by collaging geometric and natural shapes on a quilt square, before combining the individual squares into a class quilt.

Christy Hale is an education writer and children's book illustrator based in San Francisco, CA. Her most recent professional book is Quilting Activities for Little Learners (Scholastic, 2004). This article was originally published in the January/February 2004 issue of Instructor within a special AccuCut® "Quilting in the Classroom" supplement.