Atlanta quilter O.V. Brantley tells stories with a needle and thread

Each month, as part of our Aging in Atlanta series, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution introduces readers to a member of the city’s thriving 55+ community. This month, we profile Atlanta quilter, O.V. Brantley.

Brantley, a retired attorney for Fulton County, is a founding member of Atlanta’s Brown Sugar Stitchers Quilt Guild. She is also the co-founder of the Atlanta Quilt Festival, an annual quilting showcase dedicated to preserving and promoting the traditions of African American quilting and textile art. This year’s 2022 festival opening ceremony will take place on Sunday, Aug. 7, from noon to 4 p.m.

ExplorePickleball gives metro Atlanta older adults activity, socialization

Below, Brantley shares more about her quilting story, how crafting has become a means of finding peace and what it means to her to tell stories with a needle and thread.

Q: What area of metro Atlanta do you call home, and how long have you been in Georgia?

A: I live in the city of South Fulton. Atlanta has been home since 1978 when I moved here after graduating from Vanderbilt Law School.

I grew up in Crossett, Arkansas with my mother and father and two sisters. At the time I lived there, my town was segregated like most towns in the South. We spent much of our time at the First Baptist Church. Almost everyone in the town, including my father, worked for the Georgia Pacific Paper Mill.

Q: How long have you been quilting?

A: I taught myself to quilt in 1999 because my best friend had decided to take up quilting. After making my first quilt, I was hooked. It turned out to be a great stress reliever from my highly stressful job as the Fulton County attorney.

Also, my grandmother was a quilter, and I inherited eight of her quilts. I remember her treadle sewing machine and her quilt frame that filled the room in her small home. I have early memories of her making quilts and clothes.

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Q: What is it about quilting that you love?

A: I love that quilting allows you to use many different pieces of different fabrics that come together to make something beautiful.

It also seemed to be a metaphor for my local government law practice. Each day, I tried to make many disparate views come together to forge a consensus that would hopefully make Atlanta, and Fulton County, a special place to live. And like a quilt, even though there might be one piece of fabric that is not your favorite when combined with the whole, a beautiful quilt is created.

The process of quilting is also important to me. I love hand quilting, and I have found that it gives my mind time to rest. When I have a difficult problem, I sit in my rocking chair, hand quilt, and wait for the answer to come.

ExploreA cheesy festival: 6 things to do around Atlanta this month

Q: All of your quilts are so vibrant and alive with color. How do the designs come about? Where do you get your inspiration?

A: My quilts are somewhat autobiographical, although it may not be apparent when viewing one quilt. Since I am African American, I gravitate toward African fabrics and include them in most of my quilts.

I grew up in the segregated South. I did not attend school with white children until I was in the 7th grade, so many of my quilts have a “dream” theme. I had to imagine what a better life would be like. The civil rights movement was important in my life. Since my little town had only about 6,000 people when I was growing up, I wanted to travel and see what the rest of the world was like, and many of my quilts also have travel themes.

When possible, I try to convey a message in the design and the name of the quilt. The message springs from the unique arc of my life, from segregation to personal and professional success, and the importance of being in control of your life by making good choices.

I also have a special place in my quilting collection for red and white quilts. I am a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and our colors are red and white. Over the years, I have made many red and white quilts utilizing different techniques and themes. These quilts will be featured in my first solo exhibit, running from Nov. 11 through Jan. 15, 2023, at the Emma Darnell Conference Center.

Q: Each of your quilts also seems to me to tell a story. Do they feel that way for you?

A: Yes. I intentionally try to tell a story with my quilts. Often I will have a title for a quilt in my mind and search for inspiration to create a quilt that will tell that story. I consider myself a traditional quilter. I love using traditional quilt blocks as a foundation for my quilts, and then I add my personal touches through fabric choices and layout to tell the story.

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Q: In what ways has quilting enriched your life?

A: Quilting has been a tremendous stress reliever for me.

When I started quilting, I was the Fulton County attorney. After retiring, I accepted interim local government attorney jobs while the local government searched for its permanent city/county attorney. I have been the Hall County attorney, the DeKalb County attorney and the East Point City attorney. All of these are high-stress jobs, but it was an honor to be called upon. Quilting was always my escape. I would say quilting has made me a balanced human being.

Additionally, I have used quilting as an excuse to travel the world to see quilts and learn other local crafts. My daughter, India, is my travel buddy. That is a joy in itself. We have dyed batiks in Bali, learned paper cutting in Beijing, practiced calligraphy in Dubai, and created beaded jewelry in Kenya.

After visiting many quilt exhibits and concluding that African Americans quilters were not adequately represented, I also helped to found the Atlanta Quilt Festival. The festival celebrates African American quilting each August with an exhibit, classes, lectures and vendors. The Atlanta Quit Festival will celebrate its 14th year this year and is now the largest gathering of African American quilters in the country.

The best thing about quilting has been the friends I have made along the way. Quilters are the best people.

Q: What advice do you have for a beginning quilter who is eager to learn, but isn’t sure where to start?

A: The Atlanta Quilt Festival offers a beginning quilting class each year in August. I learned from a book titled “Teach Yourself to Quilt.” And now, there are countless YouTube videos that new quilters can learn from. I would also assure them that anyone can quilt. All it takes is patience.

To get specialized news and articles about aging in place, health information and more, sign up for our Aging in Atlanta newsletter.