Sabra Moore on heritage and heresy

Sabra Moore is known for her mixed-media paintings and artists’ books that use quiltmaking techniques of sewing and collage to incorporate photographs, fabrics, beads, and other found materials into work that explores family history and women’s stories. Her work during the women’s movement of the 1970s and ’80s as a member of collectives like NY Women’s Caucus for Art (WAC) and Heresies, and as a counselor for the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, is well documented in Openings: A Memoir from the Women’s Art Movement, New York City 1970–1992, (New Village Press, 1992). Below, the New Mexico–based artist discusses her exhibition “WORDY: Sabra Moore,” on view at Barnard College in New York through August 16.

I COME OUT OF A QUILTMAKING FAMILY. In the early period of my art career, I had two parts of my work: the things I had grown up with, and the paintings that I was making, which were mostly canvas. My grandmother died in a hard way, and I wanted to make a painting for her, and I couldn’t. I made it, but I didn’t really like it. I decided that I would make works with her forms, but with my format, and that turned out to be the way I still work. A lot of cultures have this experience with fabric and made objects where the object also has meaning that’s not necessarily visible to other people. One of the challenges I felt as an artist was how to be authentic in terms of my background and also make work in the context where and when I was making it.

I’ve always done work both in galleries and in alternative spaces. I like that you get a different audience, a kind of unexpected audience. I don’t mind having the challenge of a physical space that’s a little bit different. There are two pieces in the show from an installation related to my daddy’s mother—her first husband killed her second husband, and my grandfather was her third husband. It’s also a piece about family memory because I kind of knew the story, but nobody really told me. The only time my grandmother ever showed me the pictures of her second husband, she simply said that my grandfather was good to her and let her keep the pictures. After my grandmother died, when I wanted to do the “Place/Displace” show, in 1997, I asked my cousin for these five pictures, and I got a huge box of photos. On the back of one of them there was writing, dated August 1912, that I quote in Woodsman/Tent Cloth, 1992. It reads in part: “Come back to me Sweet heart and love me as before.” It was so sad to find this thing from 1912, my grandmother’s suffering, and the intensity of it was like a talisman, to bring her back, to bring him back.

Sabra Moore, Woodsman/ Tent Cloth, 1992, laser transfer print on cloth, watercolor, beads, wood, plastic gun, 35 x 52''.

I realized I can use all of these things that I grew up with—the text, the form, the materials. I made three pieces: a cloth piece and a gessoed paper piece from 1992, and an artist book, Woodsman, from 1997. The artist book is sequential. It’s kind of quiet. I needed to spend time with that. I probably worked on it over two years in different formats. There’s a gun in all three pieces—it’s just a toy gun—to show the violence. I’m not interested in the violence per se. I’m interested in how my grandmother dealt with it. She was really a joyful person to be around, and yet her life had been very hard. Family stories are particularly hard ones when people don’t want you to tell them. Especially with women’s stories; you have a kind of obligation to tell their stories, because they have not been told. And yet we carry our story, and their stories, with us. I tried to tell them respectfully. It’s a question of how you handle history.

I started keeping journals when I lived in Guinea and I’ve kept them consistently since 1964. I generally don’t go back to read them, but when I was writing Openings, I read them through. It was an interesting experience of looking at memory. I tried to be honest in the memoir, and there were hard things to write about. It’s also how I felt about, years later, making the piece about my abortion. It wasn’t easy to do, but it was helpful. It was interesting to go back and look at yourself and try to be kind to that person and acknowledge what happened. And that’s something that art can do. I liked the idea of doing the visuals like a filmstrip. Every time I finished a chapter, I designed it. By the time I finished the whole book, which took me like seven years, it was all designed. The images were mostly images that I had. I have always been a collector. In a quiltmaking family, you’re actually reusing and recycling and weaving a family history in the quilts. It’s part of my heritage. When I pull the parts of my life together, people won’t necessarily see the way I am working now that it’s connected, but it’s totally connected to me.

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