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Petaluma art project aims to bridge racial divide

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In the 1950s, there was a stark divide between life as a young black girl in Wichita Falls, Texas and life as a white child in the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s those incongruities that Petaluma artist Carol Larson and East Bay artist Marion Coleman highlight through “Defining Moments,” an extensive textile art collaboration undertaken over the course of three years. While the 50-piece collection underscores differences in life-shaping experiences, it also seeks to delve into overlapping themes for both women.

“We’ve had a lot of the same issues, but from different points of view,” Larson, 70, said. “It’s a series about growing up white and black in America. It’s women’s rights and women’s issues and motherhood and self-esteem and body image and on and on. It’s been a really meaty subject to work on.”

Each narrative art piece illustrates a pivotal moment in the women’s lives, creations that tap into deeply personal stories for Larson and Coleman, 71. Both women are in the process of creating 24 individual pieces and collaborating on the final installation, with hopes to wrap up by year’s end.

For Larson, those moments include a five-decade-old sexual assault on her Utah college campus, reflecting on her family’s black housekeeper, Macie, struggling to find time to create while juggling jobs and children, retiring and traveling the world.

“I just kind of feel like my legacy is going to be encouraging people to look at their own stories — in a sense it’s a way of teaching people,” Larson said. “I’m a college dropout. I’m a visual learner, I hated school so much I never went back … I feel like my purpose has been more to give other people permission to look at their own stuff.”

Coleman’s work includes an exposé into living in the segregated South at a time when people of color were marginalized. She addresses her experiences graduating from an all-black high school to attend a predominately white college and the culture shock of moving to San Francisco. A piece is dedicated to falling in love with and later marrying her second husband, who is white and who helped raise her black son from a previous marriage.

“I’ve found it liberating to go back and think about it – I’m basically positive, even when I talk about the pieces talking about barriers,” she said. “I still remember being the little black girl then and people saying things to me that were not very nice. I didn’t hold on to it. It’s like going back through time doing research, except I’m remembering and researching myself.”

Both women are longtime artists and view their careers as a journey to hone their crafts and as unique voyages of self-discovery. They were introduced through the art world, and were friends for about 15 years before Coleman proposed working together on a large-scale exhibition.

For Larson, who has lived in Petaluma since 1974, sewing has been a passion since her preteen years. She’s explored weaving, quilting and other mixed media realms before finally breaking into the world of narrative art with her “Tall Girl Series: A Body of Work,” which tackles a decades-old surgical procedure to shorten her height by six inches with the hopes of giving her a “normal life.” Her parents forbade her from talking about it. She also published a book with photos of her quilts and the stories behind them.

“I sold all my books. I was afraid I was going to wallpaper the house with them, so that kind of led me to doing that work. I felt like ‘oh wow, I’ve got a lot to say, I should keep writing stories,’” she said. “I love it and it’s so meaningful to me and the impact it has on other people is just incredible. Everyone has a story.”

Coleman has been involved in textile arts since childhood, but has also worked on public art commissions and in other mediums. Her interest in narrative art was piqued when she made a memoir quilt for her mother’s 70th birthday. With her background as a social worker largely setting the scene, her work has since touched on African American culture and social justice — delicate themes close to her heart.

“I think it’s like any art process,” Coleman said. “Once you make it, you just have to be prepared to put it out in the world see how people receive it. It doesn’t seem particularly frightening to me now and I’ve done some other memory work and seen people be quite emotional about it … it’s a good thing to get people to think about what’s going on in their own lives and their own stories. Personally, I feel like I’ve accomplished what I’m trying to do.”

While the artists’ work has been in part about inspiring others, they’ve both learned lessons along the way. They’re in the process of reaching out to galleries about exhibiting the piece when it’s complete.

“I think I’ve learned that I’m resilient,” Coleman said. “I guess that’s the best word. I didn’t become bitter or angry about growing up in the segregated South where people were treated so drastically differently.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com.)