Monday, December 17, 2007


This is from an old article in the University Record written By Kara Bomzer(2003).

While most people are content pursuing an activity or two outside of their careers, a select few are more ambitious, immersing themselves in numerous extra pursuits. Karen Simpson, a student account assistant II/ Financial Operations employee is one such person.
Simpson, a U-M employee for the past 25 years, works primarily in what she describes as customer service: answering questions of parents and students concerning their tuition statements. Outside of her job, Simpson sits on museum boards and is a fabric artist, a buffalo soldier, a cook and a writer.

Further evidence of Simpson's wide array of interests is that she has three different degrees. "When I first entered college, I was interested in working with horses and I was also interested in food science," Simpson says. When she graduated from college, her father died, so Simpson settled near her mother. She took a job with U-M, and while there decided to pursue a master's in business. "I didn't want an MBA, so since I was good in Spanish I elected to get a degree in foreign language and international trade," Simpson says.

When she finished her work for her second degree, Simpson helped her mother develop and run a children's bookstore. It was during this time that she discovered another passion: history and historical buildings. "I considered myself very lucky because Eastern Michigan University has one of the best programs in the nation," Simpson says. "I learned from some of the best how to go about developing events and exhibits that help the public better understand the past and its influence on the present." She graduated with a degree in historic preservation.

"I get my love of agriculture from my father, who grew up on a farm. And even though he, like many other Black people of his era, moved to the city, he was always interested in working with animals, and he loved creating vegetable gardens," Simpson says. She became interested in the history of agriculture through this, and it has been an important theme in much of her research and work, especially her work for her master's in historical preservation.
Simpson is historian for the Out of Africa program, a plant- and culture-centered program between the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Ardis Renaissance Academy and the College of Engineering, and the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. She also works with other board members on the museum's bus tour of Underground Railroad sites in Washtenaw County.

Simpson publishes articles on African American culinary and agricultural history. "I have always been interested in the history of food," Simpson says. "Even when I was little I used to wonder what the people we read about in our history books grew and cooked." Simpson's mother made food an important part of her life growing up. Simpson remembers her mother trying recipes from around the world and teaching her how to cook.

In addition to her other activities, Simpson is a fabric artist. "I was always interested in horses, and one day I was looking through a fabric arts magazine and I came across an advertisement for an exhibit that was going to feature photos of horsemen from Nigeria," Simpson says. "The picture with the advertisement featured a set of brightly colored quilted armor for horses from the 1800s. I fell in love with the picture and the history of the horsemen, and I wanted to learn to quilt so that I could make my own set of quilted armor." This spurred Simpson to start quilting, which led to her learning more about the long tradition of the craft in African American culture. Simpson has been involved in fabric art for 15 years, and she opened a studio five years ago.

Simpson also participates in the Washtenaw County Buffalo Soldiers. The group, which takes its name from the one given to Black calvary members by the Cheyenne Indians during the late 1800s, is made up of members from Washtenaw, Wayne and Monroe counties. They participate in a number of local parades, rodeos and school presentations. Simpson dresses in clothing an African American woman from that time period would wear, and she does explanations and demonstrations about what life was like for women at that time.

Simpson also is a passionate horseracing fan who used to own racehorses as a member of a racing partnership. Simpson also enjoys collecting African American memorabilia and reading


Shauna Roberts said...

I like your little bottle tree! I've never made one, but would like to one day.

What kind of African American quilting do you do and teach? I read an article about African American quilting this weekend that said only about 10% of black quilters make improvisational quilts, even though quilters often think of these as the typical AA quilts. That made me wonder what puts a quilt in the African American genre as opposed to some other genre of quilting.

Lafreya said...

Thanks for dropping by.

Yes my next little project is to make a series of bottle tree for my yard.

I consider any quilt that is made by an African American or that deals with African American themes to be in the genre.

I teach the history of African American quilting how it draws from a very rich history of African fabric traditions. How those African traditions changed during slavery and are used up to today.

I tend to teach the improvisation style of quilting because it is a hard thing to learn to do well. People have a difficult time learning or feeling free enough to work with out a pattern. Learning to just play with fabric is for some a daunting.

Improvisation quilts looks easy, in the same way that jazz, blues rap or modern art and yes, writing can look easy, but to do an improvisational quilt, on say the level of the Gees Bend quilters, is hard. Some people sneer at these kind of quilts because the technical level of stitching is considered by some people to be uneven.
But a good improvasational quilt like writing is deep, deep soul work.

Shauna Roberts said...

Your class sounds very interesting. I'd love to take it if you're ever teaching it in Southern California.

I first saw improvisational quilting in the late 1980s at an exhibit of 150 years of African American improvisational quilts at, I believe, the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. I just could not get my head around them--I didn't understand what I was seeing. Luckily, I bought the exhibit book and learned about the underlying aesthetic principles. After we moved to New Orleans and I learned something about jazz, the quilts made even more sense.

My husband and I went to Mobile, AL, about four years ago to see the traveling exhibit of Gee's Bend quilts. That time around I knew enough to appreciate the artistic qualities of the quilts.

But improvisational quilts still look difficult to make to me, and I've never tried one.