Mozell Benson Mozell Stephens Benson (1934-2012) of Lee County was a nationally renowned African American quilter recognized for her improvisational and spontaneous style. Throughout much of her adult life, Benson averaged about 20 quilts a year, giving most to family and friends or others and never selling any. The natural landscape had deep meaning for Benson, and her quilt production followed the rhythms of the seasons: tops for quilts were pieced during the spring, summer, and fall, and then the tops and linings were quilted together in the winter. Benson’s quilts have been shown in a number of museums, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, and many others are held in private collections. She received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001.
Born on January 26, 1934, Benson was one of ten children born to sharecroppers Isaiah Stephens and Cleo Fears Stephens, who lived in rural Lee County. She learned sewing and quilting from her mother, who used fabric from torn clothing, flour bags, and other salvaged materials to create the pieces for her quilts. Although Benson made her first quilt as a young teenager, the practice did not become important to her until later in her life. She married in 1952, and divorced and remarried in 1955. She also began making her own quilts for the first time during this period. Benson’s husband died in 1968, leaving her the sole provider for her family, which by this time included ten children. In 1969, she took a job as a local school bus driver and focused her life on caring and providing for her children and an increasing number of grandchildren. Quilting provided a way to satisfy the family’s needs for comfort and warmth, and it also became an outlet for Benson’s creative energy.
Benson’s life and quilting were organized around a strong connection to her local community and her admiration for the natural landscape. In fact, in Benson’s later years, her garden in the town of Waverly provided most of the food for her own needs. Her quilting process was fluid, intuitive, and original, straying from strict adherence to traditional patterns and methods. She strove to avoid waste in her work, using only fabric given to her by neighbors and relatives and using a sewing machine freely. She did tacking, preliminary sewing of the quilt, by hand with evenly spaced knots. Benson created her designs by identifying similarities or connections in the fabrics she had, arranging them by color, pattern, or sometimes even texture. She created most of her quilts using strips of cloth. Benson also made quilts using such traditional patterns as log cabin and diamond. She used old blankets and bedspreads as batting and old sheets, or larger pieces of fabric, as a backing. She preferred cotton and wool materials for their durability but also included any other materials that seemed right during the process of joining pieces together. Her quilts often incorporate visual elements that create depth and movement through inventive juxtapositions of color and texture.
Mozell Benson Quilt In 1982, Benson’s quilts were included in a traveling exhibition, African American Quilters, that was created by Maude Wahlman, an art history professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City and an authority on African American quilting. The show traveled in the United States and Africa, partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1985, Benson traveled to Senegal, South Africa, and Nigeria as a part of a group of African American quilters sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to demonstrate their work and techniques. Through this event, Benson was able to both expand her knowledge of African textile traditions and demonstrate her quilt-making skills. The trip reinforced her belief that improvisation in various arts and crafts, including quilting, among many African American artists and artisans carried on traditions brought from Africa in the slave trade.
Benson’s quilts were included in a 1993 exhibition curated by Wahlman, Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts from the Rural South, which traveled in the United States for two years. Her quilts were also highlighted in Wahlman’s 1993 book, Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts, the most comprehensive book on this subject. One of her log-cabin quilts was used as the cover image for the book and its second edition. Wahlman was one of the earliest advocates of Benson’s unique style of quilting, and she remained instrumental in bringing Benson’s quilts to the attention of a larger academic and visual arts audience. An excellent teacher, Benson also gave a number of workshops across United States, including one at Yale University.
In 2001, Benson was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship followed by a two-year Folk Arts Apprenticeship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts in 2007. These grants provide artists and crafters with funds to share their talents and techniques with different communities across Alabama. Her growing national recognition did not translate to financial benefits or much local attention, however. When her home gradually became unfit for living, she was forced to rent an apartment for several years. After giving a lecture to an Auburn University architecture class, a team of faculty and students from its School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture designed and built a new home and a separate quilting studio on Benson’s property in 2006. This project employed, to the extent possible, the same principles as Benson’s quilting: economy of means, reuse of materials, improvisation, and connection with landscape.
Benson died on July 16, 2012, in Opelika, Lee County, and was buried in Mount Sinai Baptist Church Cemetery in neighboring Auburn. Sources also list her as having lived in Waverly, Chambers and Lee County, as well. Her daughter Sylvia Stephens, an accomplished quilter who learned to quilt from her mother later in her life, continues to be involved in quilting and teaching the craft.
- Congdon, Kristin G., and Kara Kelley Hallmark. American Folk Art: A Regional Reference. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
- Wahlman, Maude. Signs and Symbols: African Images in Afro-American Quilts. New York: Museum of American Folk Art and Penguin USA, 1993.
- ———. “Mozell Benson.” In The Encyclopedia of American Folk Art, edited by Gerard Wertkin with Lee Kogan. New York: Routledge, 2004.