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Stitch by stitch: Diné artist Susan Hudson’s storytelling quilts featured in ‘Craft in America’ series

Susan Hudson at her sewing machine for the series “Craft in America: Quilts.” (Courtesy of Lissa Claffey)

Storyteller. Artist. Advocate.

Those are just three words that describe Susan Hudson’s genius.

The Sheep Springs-based Navajo/Diné artist has made a name for herself in the art world.

She was taught to sew by her mother, who was forced to sew at an assimilation boarding school.

Hudson tells the history of the Navajo people through her quilts.

“What I usually tell people is that we are as one,” she says. “All of us can relate through our stories. There has been one that comes in an causes trauma, but we rise from it.”

Hudson is one of four artists chronicled in the PBS series “Craft in America: Quilts.” The episode airs at 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 27, on New Mexico PBS Channel 5.

The episode also highlights New York-based artists Victoria Findlay Wolfe and Michael A. Cummings, as well as California-based quilter Judith Content.

The series begins at the International Quilt Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the world’s largest publicly held collection of approximately 6,000 quilts from more than 50 countries, dating from the 1600s to today.

Twenty-eight of those quilts are owned by filmmaker Ken Burns.

“This is what human beings are required to do, to take raw materials and transform them into something greater than the sum of their parts,” Burns says. “And that’s what a quilt is, that’s what art is.”

Hudson’s quilts are described as ledger quilts. Viewers are able to read along with the story through each piece of the quilt.

“I start to see visions coming through my head,” she says. “It’s like those old-time movie projectors where the pictures come slowly and cut in and out. That’s my process. I take the time to figure out how I’m going to re-create each one.”

After the visions appear, Hudson then looks for help from her spirit helpers.

“I always seek guidance from them,” she says. “I’ll put an idea to the side and pray on about it. Then about 10 minutes later, I’ll see how I’m going to fix or continue something. It involves more than just me. The spiritual guidance is there to ensure that the story is told boldly and truthfully.”

Hudson has created dozens of quilts during her career, although one recent quilt stands out to her.

“Last year, as I was working on it, my mom got sick and I put it to the side,” Hudson says. “The quilt was supposed to debut at the Heard Museum in Arizona, and the date kept being pushed back. I changed it and decided to honor my mother and my two uncles. On the bottom of the quilt, I made six little classrooms and I put their names there. I had told my mom that as long as the quilt was there, millions of people would see her name. That’s the one I dedicated to her in her honor.”

Hudson is also passing down the tradition to her grandson and granddaughter, Benjamin and Rachel.

“I call them my business partners,” she says with a laugh. “I want them to learn the stories. When you are dealing with the public, you need to be able to have social graces. I’m also teaching them that we’re not going to be taken advantage of when it comes to prices. If someone wants to buy it, they will. My grandson started to sew, and we’re working on a project together.”

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