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.