Woman creates 475-piece quilt to honor King

By Katherine Wartell

Hundreds of snippets of fabric in shades of black, brown, cream and tan form what is possibly one of the most recognizable faces from the 20th century. The pieces were stitched together over the span of five months to form a quilt celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was designed and created by Ronna Tyson, a former art teacher at Manhattan High School, for the Martin Luther King Memorial Committee to display at the Manhattan Town Center on Monday.

The quilt, a portrait of King, is made up of more than 400 pieces of fabric. It took Tyson approximately 540 hours to complete.

She said she started construction in June after she ran into Rev. Jim Spencer, chairman of the MLK Memorial Committee, in a grocery store. She said Spencer, with whom Tyson has served on past committees, mentioned a desire for the creation of a quilt for this year’s MLK Jr. celebration and she volunteered for the role.

Then she said, “I got out to the car and went, ‘What did I just say?’” Still, she quickly began researching King, poring over photos of him to find the perfect one on which to model her portrait, finally settling on one of King looking off to the side.

Tyson visited five fabric stores from Belleville to Manhattan and mined her friends’ fabric scraps to find the right pieces, sometimes discarding fabrics she had bought for their beauty because they just didn’t work.

King’s face, tie and suit are composed of about 415 pieces. Tyson said she used the ‘snippet’ method of quilting to construct the quilt, which involved piecing together all the hundreds of fragments to create a complete portrait of King, including changes in his skin tone, shadow and realistic folds in his clothing. 

Like any artist, Tyson acted as her own worst critic, sometimes making changes after hours of work.

“I’d put something on, work for three or four hours, then come back, have a look and go, ‘What was I thinking?’” she said.

The hardest part was keeping the proportions correct. For awhile, she said, King’s chin was overpowering.

But once Tyson was satisfied with her quilted portrait of King, she stitched his image onto blue-green fabric she had chosen for the background. As it stands, the quilt is 33.5 inches wide and 43 inches high, but, she said, cream-colored panels will continue to be added on all sides for people who would like to add their signatures.

“As I worked on the quilt, I kept thinking about [King],” she said. “He really lived his life the way he felt we should all live it. He stood up for his convictions and got killed for it.”

The quilt will be shown at the Manhattan Town Center on Monday, and Tyson said there are already seven other venues scheduled, with the opportunity for the quilt to travel around the state.

Though the hours were long, Tyson said the labor was second to the importance of King’s legacy and creating a beautiful piece for Spencer, who lived through injustice and prejudice as a child in the ’60s.

Spencer, born in Macon, Georgia, said he will never forget the things he saw as a child when his mother took him to civil rights functions across the south, including to Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, nor will he forget when members of the KKK burned crosses in his family’s front yard.

He moved to Kansas in 1979 and founded the MLK Memorial Committee in 1983 after seeing there was a need to remember King’s work in Manhattan.

Spencer, who is an associate minister at Pilgrim Baptist Church, a talk-show host on radio station 95.3 KHCA, and the owner of an auto-cleaning business, said big strides have been made for civil rights, but bigger strides still need to be made.

He said he works with people to teach them not to have hatred in their blood and emphasizes the importance of people from different races working together. He often repeats King’s admonition that “silence is betrayal.”

In 2007, the committee had a portion of 17th Street dedicated as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Drive, but Spencer said this is the first year the committee commissioned a quilt celebrating King. He said he already knows it is going to draw a large crowd.

When Tyson completed it, Spencer said she asked for his opinion and he told her he was elated with the result.

“When she brought it out, I almost had a coronary,” he said.

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