Mount Vernon Matters

Quilts Tell a Black Family’s History (and More) at Woodlawn Plantation

One quilt features Christ Church. (Photo: Steve Hunt)

By Steve Hunt

Alexandria, VA – Woodlawn & Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House is hosting a special exhibition of “Story Quilts – Inspired by Family and Faith” by Sheryl Sims now through December 31.

Quilter Sheryl Sims and daughter Amber Whishi at the opening of her exhibit at Woodlawn. (Photo: Steve Hunt)

Woodlawn chose Sims, a lifetime area resident, to display her work because she is “an inspirational artist and powerful storyteller who stitches her stories of family and faith into exquisitely designed quilts. Sims explores her heritage with each quilt, including her enslaved and freed ancestors and her connection to Woodlawn and Quaker Meeting. The quilts reveal a deeply personal journey of perseverance, resilience, and, above all, hope.”

At an opening reception on October 2, attendees could speak with Sims about her work while getting a first look at the beautiful quilts. In his introduction, Woodlawn executive director Shawn Halifax noted that “one of the reasons she makes these quilts is for her daughter” Amber Whishi, who was in attendance, as the quilts illustrate the complexity of the past. Most of all, we want to thank Sheryl for sharing her quilts with all of us.”

In her Artist Statement, Sims notes that she began making quilts several years ago while conducting genealogical research needed to join a lineage society, the National Daughters of the American Revolution (NDSAR), and she wants her family members to know their true history.

In researching her genealogy, Sims discovered a connection to an antislavery Quaker colony founded at Woodlawn in 1846 and to a Revolutionary War soldier.

She is an ancestor of the Hollingsworth family, some of whom maintained their Quaker roots and married in the Woodlawn community, including the family of Chalkley Gillingham, a principal founder of the Quaker colony.

Sims is descended from Andrew Cox Hollingsworth (1724-1782), whose service in the Revolutionary War led to her membership in the NSDAR. Today, she explores her connections through the story quilts on exhibit.

Since tracing her genealogy and discovering that her line passed through the Quaker Meeting House, she says, “It’s become a big part of my life. It’s just really been amazing. I love the storytelling.”

She appreciates the opportunity to share her works and “tell my story on what used to be a plantation.” She thanked those in attendance “for sharing this moment of joy with me,” including her longtime friend Carolyn Banks.

Longtime friend Carolyn Banks, right, came to support Sheryl at the opening of her exhibit. (Photo: Steve Hunt)

Sims says that while she appreciates traditional quilts, “smaller, wall-hanging sized quilts are more my style” as she employs raw edge applique and machine stitching.

“Several areas touch my soul — faith, family, and history. Faith is important. Faith sustains me during times of joy, grief, and political unrest. The same held true for my ancestors, both free and enslaved.”

She describes her process as “simple. I quilt what is on my heart and mind. Inspiration comes from everywhere. My quilts are whimsical, serious, and sometimes painful. They are quilted snapshots in time.”

A visitor studies some of the quilts. (Photo: Steve Hunt)

Sims explained that she may begin by visualizing a subject and making a small sketch or she simply starts cutting and laying it out. Typically, she completes a quilt in a day, each taking between four and eight hours. “I challenge myself to use what I have in my fabric stash and fabrics given to me by generous guild members. I ‘paint with fabric.’

“Quilts tell stories, provide warmth, and lead people to freedom. It might be freedom of expression or freedom to live safely. In my world, quilts always have something important to say.”

Sheryl Sims’ exhibit at Woodlawn allows her to share those messages with the community.

This story has been updated. to fix errors. An earlier version called Amber Whishi Amanda; Sims is a descendent of Andrew Cox Hollingsworth, not James Valentine; and referred to Carolyn Banks as Sims longtime friend and classmate. The two did not attend high school together. The mispelling of Shawn Halifax’s first name has been corrected. Zebra regrets these errors. 

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