Artist: Faith Ringgold
Medium: Acrylic on canvas with fabric borders
Citation: Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach, 1988, Series # 1, Woman on a Bridge. Acrylic on canvas with fabric borders, 74 x 69 in. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. © Faith Ringgold
Rights Holder: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. © Faith Ringgold
Engage! Theme: American Dreams
This story quilt painting is part of a series of works about a young African American girl, Cassie Louise Lightfoot. In this scene, Cassie lies on a blanket with her brother on a rooftop in Harlem, which is ironically called “Tar Beach,” while her parents play cards with neighbors nearby.
She imagines herself flying over the George Washington Bridge, taking possession of it. “Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical,” explains Cassie in the text on the quilt: “only eight years old and in the third grade, and I can fly. That means I am free to go wherever I want for the rest of my life.”
In the narrative, Cassie describes her father’s struggles to find work and join a union. She flies above the city, escaping the problems of urban life below, dreaming about what it would be like to live in the city without the restrictions of prejudice and bigotry. Cassie’s journey evokes the African American trope of flying as a metaphor for escaping slavery; here, flying becomes a symbol of freedom and self-possession.
Ringgold’s painting shows Cassie safely dreaming in the company of her extended family. Laundry dries on the clothesline, food covers the table, and adults socialize. The cityscape under twinkling stars both beckons and fades into background as if it were a blanket covering the rooftop picnic. The image itself is quilted and bordered with additional quilt squares. The patches of blanket reiterate the comforting and nurturing environment where dreams can grow.
Ringgold was born and raised in New York and graduated from City College of New York with a master’s degree in 1959.
Her mother was a fashion designer and sparked Ringgold’s interest in fabric. The story quilts combine the “high art” of painting with “craft work” of quiltmaking and are based on Buddhist thangkas, which were painted on fabric and rolled up for storage and transport.
This story quilt is reproduced in her book Tar Beach, which was awarded the Coretta Scott King Award (given to African American authors and illustrators) in 1992.
What is going on in the central scene? The artist called this image “Tar Beach”—what do you think she means by that?
The image is from a story about young Cassie, an African American girl growing up in Harlem, who imagines flying over the city below and all the struggles of urban life. What struggles are suggested in the image, or which ones might you imagine for Cassie? Where do you go to escape or feel free from life for a while? What do you do there?
The artist has actually added quilted cloth to the border of the painting and shows Cassie lying on a blanket, imagining herself flying overhead. In African American culture, quilts are strongly associated with storytelling. What objects from your childhood or from your family tradition might have the same function or associations?
Think about the American Dream—what does that mean to you? What are your dreams for yourself? With whom do you share your dreams? Do you think that Cassie’s dream for herself might come true? Why or why not?
Further Discussion Questions and Activity Ideas:
Build a group quilt. Each teen should design a square to represent his or her own dreams or dreams for his or her community, and write an accompanying description. The finished product might be displayed in the library or a local community center. If teens want to get more creative, have them brainstorm ideas for a virtual quilt—making their squares as podcasts or short videos.
Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach (New York: Dragonfly Books, 1996).
Faith Ringgold, We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2005).
Gwendolyn Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), and We Real Cool (1966).
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970).