Jessie Dunahoo crossed the boundaries of traditional quilting to create unique and immersive environments that reflected his life experiences and imaginative narratives. Born in 1936 on a rural Kentucky farm, Dunahoo’s life was marked by challenges that would have deterred most. However, he found his way through art and craft with a unique perspective. He overcame adversity to become a pioneering artist in quilt-making, assembling blanket-like panels into what he referred to as “shelters.” These shelters, ranging from single tapestries to room-sized forts, were crafted from petroleum plastic bags and various fabric remnants, serving as vessels for practical function and autobiographical and fictional tales.
Born in an era when support for individuals with disabilities was severely lacking, Dunahoo faced the additional challenges of being both deaf and profoundly visually impaired. Despite these limitations, Dunahoo found solace and inspiration in the outdoor spaces of his childhood home. He created an improvised setup of navigation tools. This rough, tactile, sprawling 3D map guided him during explorations of his family land and prepared him for life in the larger world. This time laid the foundation for what would later become his signature environmental sculptures.
Over the years, these sculptures evolved into intricate sewn structures, soft assemblages made from found materials, including grocery bags, fabric samples, pieces of old clothing, and twine that intersect ideas of identity, class, and consumerism. His tactile approach to art creation, sewing each section by hand, without the use of sight, his work was influenced by the senses of touch, taste, and smell, resulting in unique and deeply personal works.
Incorporating elements from the national chains Kroger, Duluth Trading Company, Bounty paper towels, Macy’s, Rite Aid, Michael’s Craft, or the local haunts like Judy’s Track Shop … these bags both created a portrait of Dunahoo, but similar to his work in the family yard, serve as a map to his Lexington. They trace his movement and place in the global exchange and illustrate his sense of belonging in the community. His connections to those who brought him materials.
These days, there is a tendency to refer to quilt-making through the lens and visual language of contemporary painting. Having had the opportunity to work with Dunahoo’s work for the 2019 Atlanta Biennial, a more resonant comparison would be likening his work to the door of a vault to another place, the borders to a clerestory, stained glass window. They exude weightlessness, delicacy, translucency, and a sense of freedom. They possess their own inner light, a distinctive inner radiance. There is a fluidity of color and perception, an assertiveness to the logos we can all identify with. Despite the works being nearly perfectly symmetrical, there is a lack of refinement, which also leads to an absence of intimidation.
Dunahoo’s artistic journey transcends the constraints of time. These are works full of formal manners and potential expressions. The quilts require you to lean in and consider the nuances and intricacies closely. They beckon for our intimate attention. Approach these works with a sidelong glance, catch on a detail of the unique stitches, then redirect your attention, allowing your mind to wander elsewhere while your eyes remain engaged. The work is so tactile, energetic, alive, and alert; Dunahoo was so creative and prolific that it lends itself well to this type of observation. Simply follow your eye’s path and discover something new with each look.