Born in Anding, Mississippi, just south of Yazoo City, on 12 August 1916, Sarah Mary Taylor grew up in the Mississippi Delta under Jim Crow. The daughter of Pearlie Posey (1894–1984) and niece of Pecolia Warner (1901–83), both of whom were noted Mississippi quilters, Taylor learned by the age of nine how to piece quilts. By 1931 Taylor left home, married, and began making quilts for her own household. Like many African Americans of the era, she also worked at a variety of plantation jobs, including field hand, nanny, cook, and housekeeper.
Taylor often made pieced quilts composed of long strips of colored and printed cloth sewn together to form geometric and abstract designs. However, she is best known for her appliqué quilts, which she made by sewing designs onto the quilt’s background fabric. Taylor seems to have decided to make appliqué quilts after folklorist William Ferris interviewed her aunt, Pecolia Warner, for his film, Four Women Artists (1978). Wanting to sell her own work, Taylor made a quilt of nine blocks and appliquéd her name, address, and phone number onto each block. A series of appliquéd quilts followed. Some, such as Taylor’s Men Quilt (1979), Mermaid Quilt (1979), and Purple Hand Quilt (1985, commissioned for use in the film The Color Purple), also included figurative designs. Taylor at times drew the patterns freehand and at other times copied illustrations from magazines, newspapers, catalogs, feed sacks, and even cereal boxes. Sometimes she drew inspiration from three-dimensional forms: a plastic ornament hanging on her bathroom wall inspired the fish design that decorates one of her quilts. Taylor made the pattern for her hand-motif quilts by drawing around her own hand. Taylor used such patterns, rendered in cardboard, over and over again.
Whether Taylor was making strip or appliquéd quilts, she generally preferred bright colors and simple, bold designs, often in multiple patterns. She sewed together strips of different sizes and colors in a seemingly haphazard fashion or cut appliqué designs in different materials and colors and laid them out in a random arrangement that pleased her eye. Neither highly ordered nor symmetrical in design, Taylor’s quilts evidence a preference for the irregular and asymmetrical. Such design principles—bold colors, simple designs, multiple patterns, and asymmetry—have been perceived as demonstrating continuities between African and African American textile traditions. For example, appliqué quilts made by African Americans have been associated with the appliqué textiles of the Fon of Benin and of the Ewe, Fanti, and Ashanti of Ghana, where similarly abstracted figurative patterns also appear. Similar motifs have also been related to African American cloth charm traditions. For example, the hand motif that appears in several of Taylor’s quilts has been associated with an African American charm known as a mojo, meaning “hand” as in “helping hand.” However, Taylor rejected the idea that this motif was associated with Haitian voodoo and asserted her Christian faith as a Missionary Baptist.
Taylor’s quilts can be found among the holdings of the American Museum of Folk Art, Hampton Institute, the Montgomery Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the B. S. Ricks Memorial Library, Yazoo City.
- Mary Elizabeth Johnson Huff, Just How I Pictured It in My Mind: Contemporary African American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Art (2006)
- Liz Lindsey, “Sarah Mary Taylor: Identity in Context” (master’s thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2003)
- Maude Wahlman, Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts (1993)
- Maude Wahlman and Ella King Torrey, Ten Afro-American Quilters (1983)