Re-Membering Women’s History: Laura Gadson and Shimoda Donna Emanuel’s Story
March 4, 2021, Written by Trelani Michelle
Any good visual artist, writer, musician, or dancer will tell you that the process of creating is deeply spiritual. Artists are vessels for the ancestors to communicate. Like when they told Shimoda Donna Emanuel that she wants to learn how to make jewelry—a craft that’s granted her a seat at the Penland School of Crafts, studying with Joyce Scott; a spot on HGTV’s Crafting Coast to Coast; a grant to have her doll of Lois K. Alexander Lane on banners on 125th Street in Harlem for a year; and her art for sale at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Those same spirits nudged Laura Gadson to do, as she put it, “whatever comes into my little head.” Those nudges have won the cultural griot numerous awards and grants, a trip to South Africa, exhibits all over the country, and students who’ve gone on to do amazing things in their own right.
Whenever you make room for the spirits to speak and you honor what you’re told, resources will align for you to make it happen and take it to the next level. That’s exactly what occurred about 10 years ago. Laura and Shimoda were respectively doing their thing when they met at the Harlem Arts Alliance—a nonprofit comprised of established and emerging visual and performing artists, and art lovers. Then, around 2013, they co-founded The Harlem Aesthetic, where they curate exhibits and host art shows throughout the year.
Destiny saw to it that Laura and Shimoda would meet; that their interests and personalities would complement one another perfectly, professionally, and creatively; that they’d become art partners; that Laura’s house would be big enough to house their gallery space and art events; and so on. Just because the path is paved, however, doesn’t mean that challenges won’t arise.
But if it’s something that black folk and something that artists know how to do, it’s figuring it out. It’s taking what could have been the end of something, melding it into a new reality, and creating something of a deeper meaning and value. That’s exactly what Laura did in 2007 after becoming her mother’s full-time caretaker, and what Shimoda did in 2017 after finding herself in the same position of caring for her mother around the clock.
The two black women artists rolled up their sleeves, escorted Mama inside, and, along with their craft, mastered the art of caregiving. Shimoda shares how she’s managed to experience more peace than stress during this experience in her new book, Sacred Stitches: The Art of Caregiving. Considering that Laura and Shimoda followed in their mother’s footsteps of sewing, that’s the perfect title for what’s become a full circle for both artists, now nurturing the women who taught them how to stitch. It’s such a fascinating story with so many lessons—right on time for Women’s History Month—including the importance of following spiritual nudges at the risk of being misunderstood, honoring those here first, surrounding yourself with a tribe of understanding and support, and fostering community with other womenfolk.
I am a second-generation artist. My dad was a draftsman and a commercial artist. This was, of course, the time before computers. My father had a drafting board on the porch where he would do commercial ads for people. He’d do lettering, posters, etc. My mom was a seamstress and sewed many of our outfits when we were young. I understand her grandmother was a seamstress as well.
My father worked in the post office for 40 years, but his side thing was photography. He also knew how to fix cars, make furniture, write in calligraphy, and draw. And my mother knew how to sew. She’d make designer hats for high-end stores, even. Growing up, I would play with her hat items. Later, she taught me how to embroider, knit, and crochet.
Though both women are now quilt, fiber, and mixed media artists, their journey as artists didn’t start in the visual arts. Rather, they both, coincidentally (or not), started in music. Laura was seven when she gained an interest in dance, then she graduated from a small dance school in New York with a BFA in dance. Shimoda, on the other hand, by high school, had decided she wanted to become a famous jazz musician.
I realized early on that I’m brown, dark, and short. I knew I wasn’t going to work hard enough to be that fabulous dancer, so I stopped dancing as a full-time dancer shortly after college. I taught public school for a decade, then started a dance program for a “new vision school,” which was a predecessor to the charter school system. I’m very proud of the work I did there. I loved the children, but the administration in New York City can be a little interesting. So, in 1996, I retired from teaching and have been self-employed as an artist ever since. It came natural to me, and it’s what my dad always wanted me to be.
During the last year of high school, I decided to go to music college (New England Conservatory). Me and some of my friends (including Jerome “Najee” Rasheed) applied and auditioned, and everyone was accepted but me. I was devastated. My parents urged me to go to Baruch College to study computers, which were becoming a big thing. I applied, got in, and was awarded work-study. I didn’t like it though; I’m just not that type of person. And I was just really tired of school. After two years, I got a job at Barnes and Noble and stayed there for seven years. I got to read books on different subjects that I was interested in. That was phenomenal. That was my education.
Three years before retiring from teaching, I bought a brownstone here in Harlem, which has been a big part of my story. There was a show I would have every July called Lapas and Lemonade, which would be out in my backyard. One thing about having this old 100-year-old, four-story home in Manhattan, I have a lot of space inside and outside of the house, which is kind of rare. I’ve had more space than the average person in this particular geographical area. So it’s where Shimoda and I host events related to our work. I call it my home/studio/gallery.
While working at Barnes and Noble, I was also still taking classes at Jazz Mobile in Harlem and playing classical music with the Henry Street Orchestra. On my way home to Queens one day, a voice said to me, as clear as day, “You want to learn how to make jewelry.” I said, “I don’t know where this is coming from, but okay.” On the way to work the next day, I ran into a girlfriend in the subway who makes jewelry. I asked her where I could go to learn the craft. She said, “I’m looking for an apprentice. I’ll teach you.” And that’s how I got started.
Laura’s courage to say yes to retiring, even though she’d just purchased a home that needed a lot of work, and Shimoda’s yes to exchange business school for a bookstore job then jewelry-making are all examples of following those spiritual nudges. These decisions align so perfectly with a quote of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves. It reads: “Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin.” The woods represent the unknown, the diversion from society’s beaten path.
Going out into the woods is not a one-time ordeal either, and its reward can be especially fruitful when, in our woods wandering, we honor those who were here first. Laura shared when she’d first learned about the roots of the stereotype of black folk and watermelon: Post-emancipation, black folk needed a way to earn a living, so many would sell watermelon on the side of the road. From that, a caricature was created to ridicule our ancestor’s survivability. In addition to believing that all black folk should have a watermelon tattoo or emblem, Laura had her own watermelon-on-the-side-of-the-road moment.
What I first did when I left teaching, and since I was still going to dance classes, I learned to tie-dye, and I already knew how to sew. So I used to make these tie-dyed outfits and tie-dyed dance ensembles, T-shirt with the shorts, and then the lapas over it. In our culture, we always like to look good, no matter what it is, whatever we’re doing. So I would take whatever I had tie-dyed and hang it on the wall during dance class and after class, folks would come over and purchase my stuff. And, as they came and did that, I could go get some groceries. That was my watermelon on the side of the road.
Many artists, at some point in their lives, will be advised to secure a safer future for themselves. It’ll be those who love them and have their best intentions at heart who will make this suggestion. That’s why the courage piece is so important, despite fearing snakes, bears, thorns, and all the many “what-ifs” that we imagine to be awaiting our demise. When Shimoda’s parents urged her to get a city job for its salary and benefits, she did so for years, working in the corrections department. That nudge was still there though, and having that supportive partner, cousin, and friend made the difference.
I didn’t like my job. My cousin, who is an artist, was saying, “Why don’t you just do your business full-time?” I was making beaded necklaces, earrings, and bracelets using stones, pearls, and so on. But I was afraid to do that. Then another correction officer there said, “Why don’t you see if you can get a leave of absence?” That felt safer, so I filed the paperwork for that. At the same time, I had a friend who was a stylist and she was taking my jewelry to difference places. When I came home from my honeymoon, I found out that my jewelry was on the cover of Essence Magazine. Naomi Campbell was wearing my jewelry. Then I got a letter from the corrections office saying my leave of absence had been denied. I showed it to my husband and him being very, very supportive, he says, “You know what? You’ve been wanting to do this. Do it.” So I quit and became a full-time artist. This was in ‘90.
Courage, as well as support, is woven all through that story. Women need one another, especially in creative and professional spaces, to share our work, to celebrate our work, and, when necessary, to defend our work. When Toni Morrison wrote Beloved and didn’t win the Pulitzer or the National Book Award, Maya Angelou encouraged more than two dozen other black writers including Alice Walker to pen open letters to the New York Times to protest the injustice. Then, when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in ’93, Maya Angelou threw a party for her because she felt the country didn’t celebrate her friend sufficiently.
In Beloved, Toni Morrison wrote, “She’s a friend of my mind. She gathers me, man. The pieces I am, she gathers them and gives them right back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” Shimoda’s friend, who shared her art everywhere she went, was a friend of her mind. Her support led to one of Shimoda’s signs to do what she needed to do but had feared doing. Both Shimoda and Laura’s eventual branching off from the Harlem Arts Alliance and co-founding the Harlem Aesthetic is another example of the eternal power of sisterhood.
The Harlem Arts Alliance is an interesting entity. You really could embrace the idea that “I am an artist and something real,” because you were in this room with all kinds of performing artists, theatre artists, visual artists, design artists. We’d all come and kind of commune and sometimes there were opportunities that would come out of being part of this network. I met Shimoda through that, and we live not far from each other. Sometimes we would go over there together or come back home together. We ended up working together, and I’m going to say the first show was around 2007. It was called Cotton by the Sea.
I have space, so we didn’t ever have to rent space. Before pop-ups became popular, we would do these events at my house. Then we teamed up with another artist named Phati, who’s no longer with us, who designed clothes. So at that point, Shimoda was doing jewelry, I’m doing whatever comes into my little head, and Phati is doing clothing. So we kind of hang together, and we become the Harlem Aesthetic. When Phati passed, Shimoda and I said, “We’re going to stay together.” Our little insignia has three cowrie shells to represent the three of us.
The cowrie shell itself is an ode to the ancestors, having once been used as a form of currency in West Africa prior to the transatlantic slave trade, a part of our history that many black folk would rather skip over. It’s difficult, it’s complex, it’s triggering, and it might even be shameful for some. As Laura mentioned, however, rather than shameful, it should be the complete opposite. It’s evidence of our ability to “overcome and survive, whatever the situation. We probably have superhuman strength, because we were those Africans that did not perish.” Because of them, we are. One of the most challenging yet rewarding expressions of reverence is parental caregiving, and Laura and Shimoda answered the call.
Mom taught by her example that keeping the fabric of our family together within a circle of love is a sacred, stitch-by-stitch labor of labor. Mom gave me life. She took care of me. She encouraged my creativity by instructing me in the ancient needle and craft textile traditions of hand stitching…Now, I take care of Mom.
I learned so much from Laura, not knowing that I would be in this situation. Even though her mother can’t speak, Laura talks to her mother like I’m talking to you. She has a sense of what her mother wants and I would wonder how does she know? I just thought that was amazing.
In the midst of all of this, we have become very good friends and very good support systems for each other. We’ve been lucky to have each other. And as life would have it, with every change, we seem to be able to say “Okay, we’re changing in the same path.” While she does fiber art now, I delved into making jewelry. You live a little and then you start to take inventory of what went on before, and I’ve just been blessed to be in a whole lot of places with a whole lot of stories.
In honor of Women’s History Month, Black Art in America celebrates Laura Gadson and Shimoda Donna Emanuel for following those ancestral nudges, for keeping our beautiful black traditions alive, for honoring those who were here first, and for being prime examples of what happens when women create communities for themselves and other women to create and showcase their talent.
Laura’s work can be found at https://thegadsongallery.com and Shimoda’s can be found at https://shimoda-accessories.com/sacred-stitches-circles-of-love
TRELANI MICHELLE is a writer, editor, and a historian who’s helped over 1,500 teens and grown folk write and showcase their personal stories through memoirs, poetry, podcasts, and visual art. She wrote her first book, What the Devil Meant for Bad, in 2012 while a senior at Savannah State University. In 2016, she received a Master’s in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. While a graduate student, she started Zora Neale Hurstoning, interviewing 19 black elders over the age of 80 in Savannah, and wrote a book called Krak Teet with their stories. Michelle co-created a curriculum that centered social issues, self-exploration, writing, and ethnography and taught it to high schoolers in an after-school program for two years. In the summer of 2018, she completed a 10-week internship at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center where she curated and digitized Gullah Geechee collections, wrote and recorded podcast scripts, and held original handwritten manuscripts of Zora Neale Hurston. In addition to The Library of Congress, Michelle has partnered with UNC’s Black Communities Conference, the City of Savannah, the Jepson Center, Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Deep Center, and the Life Balance and Wellness Institute to help people share their personal stories.
This article was originally published in Black Art in America on 3/4/2021.