'Aired Out Quilts' turns stories of lifelong Detroiters into art

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click to enlarge Dwan Dandrige next to the quilt inspired by his time growing up in Brightmoor. - Live Coal Gallery, LLC
Live Coal Gallery, LLC
Dwan Dandrige next to the quilt inspired by his time growing up in Brightmoor.

There’s a saying in Brightmoor — if you can make it out of the blighted neighborhood on Detroit’s west side, you can do anything.

Dwan Dandridge is proof of that. As a teenager growing up in Brightmoor in the '80s, Dandridge saw the crack epidemic decimate the neighborhood, leaving a trail of violence, drugs, and death.

“We had limited extracurricular activities, but what we did have was an abundance of drug dealers that really knew how to recruit from our community,” he says. “They knew that some of our families were struggling and weren’t capable of getting us the things that we needed, much less desired, and they presented a way to access some of those things. Some of us made it out and some of us didn’t.”

Dandridge saw many of his friends get shot or wrapped up in drugs. Despite a volatile relationship with the police and the drug epidemic's impact on his family, they were able to move out of the neighborhood when he was 19.

Now he is the CEO of Black Leaders Detroit, a nonprofit organization that provides grants to Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs.

Dandridge’s story has been immortalized in the Aired Out Quilts project by Live Coal Gallery. The project sewed the oral history of eight lifelong Detroiters and one Highland Park resident into detailed quilts. The nine quilts are currently on display at The Red in the Andy Arts Center until Jan. 17.

These aren’t your grandmother’s quilts, either. Various colors, textures, and patterns are woven together to create intricate scenes like a mural painted on the side of a building. The amount of detail local quilters Patricia Millender and April Anue Shipp were able to incorporate into each one gives new possibilities to what a quilt can be.

Collectively, they tell the story of neighborhoods that have been abandoned, strong community ties, and residents who overcame all odds in the Motor City.

Yvette Rock, founder and CEO of Live Coal Gallery, says the exhibition is a way to highlight the narratives of native Detroiters while supporting local artists.

“All the people working on this are either native Detroiters or metro Detroit area artists,” she says. “It’s also important for Live Coal to bring art into Detroit neighborhoods because everybody’s not going to the big institutions. How do we bring art to the people? That’s what’s important to me.”

click to enlarge Yvette Rock, Live Coal Gallery Founder and CEO. - Live Coal Gallery, LLC
Live Coal Gallery, LLC
Yvette Rock, Live Coal Gallery Founder and CEO.

While the exhibition itself ends next week, Rock and the Live Coal Gallery crew are working to turn the oral histories into a documentary and a book that will be released in the spring. Afterward, the quilts will be given to the residents whose stories inspired them to keep.

The quilt honoring Dandrige’s story shows him in the middle with a black and white pattern on the right side representing his past struggles, and brighter colors on the left to signify a brighter future. Others in the exhibit tell stories of residents from Southwest Detroit, Elmwood Park, and more.

Before being displayed in the gallery, the quilts were hung outside of the homes of each resident back in November.

“Oftentimes we were misguided,” Dandrige reminisces about his time as a teenager in Brightmoor. “The mothers were trying to hold it down and care for us and wear way more hats than they should have been left wearing. There were lots of opportunities to go down that road and there were not a lot of fathers present, but the one thing we aren’t aware of as teenagers is that there are way more opportunities out there.”

He considers escaping the neighborhood unscathed and being successful despite the odds being stacked against him as an act of defiance.

“When I was a teenager, we thought you had four options: you could either be an entertainer, athlete, factory worker, or a drug dealer,” he says. “But if I’ve been able to accomplish anything along with my other peers from Brightmoor, I know there are a lot more talented people in these neighborhoods. Unless we invite them to the table, we’re not going to benefit from what they have to offer the world.”

To date, Black Leaders of Detroit has given over $400,000 in grant money to over 120 businesses and nonprofits. It’s Dandridge’s way of pouring back into his community and providing opportunities he didn’t have as a young man.

The Aired Out Quilts project was a 2019 winner of the Knight Arts Challenge and was funded by the Knight Foundation and the Max M. & Marjorie Fisher Foundation.

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About The Author

Randiah Camille Green

After living in Japan and traveling across Asia, Randiah Camille Green realized Detroit will always be home. And when she says Detroit, she's talking about the hood, not the suburbs. She has bylines in Planet Detroit News , Bridge Detroit , BLAC magazine, and Model D . Her favorite pastimes are meditating...
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