Harlem Needle Arts: Building a Black Arts Organization with Michelle Bishop

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Episode Summary

Lisa speaks with Michelle Bishop founder and director of Harlem Needle Arts, a nonprofit arts organization committed to promoting and preserving arts of the Black diaspora. Since 2005, Harlem Needle Arts has been at “the forefront of revolutionizing, preserving, and expanding the narrative of fiber, textile, design, and needle arts in the African Diaspora through exhibitions, education, technical support, economic development and other tools. HNA’s artistic vision of needle arts, enhances identity, promotes dexterity and pride in one’s ability to create through rhythmic art forms fusing history and art therapy.”

Episode Notes

Find more information about Harlem Needle Arts at their website : //harlemneedlearts.org/classes

Film Short about the Harlem Needle Arts current public installation: We the People | Disrupting Silence –  https://vimeo.com/395001456

Commission with the Museum of Food and Drink (currently postponed):  – https://www.mofad.org/the-legacy-quilt

Mentioned in the podcast

Chief Nike Okundaye: An Odyssey Through the Years See description here 

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[00:00:00] Lisa Woolfork: Hello, stitchers. Welcome to stitch, please. The official podcast of black women's stitch, the sewing group, where black lives matter. I'm your host Lisa wool fork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together.
[00:00:38] Lisa Woolfork: You know, here, black women's stitch I'm so committed to centering black women, girls and fems and sewing that when I read the name Harlem needle arts project. Already in, I was already interested and excited and captivated. And the more I learned, I went to a couple of mantra, Mondays that they hosted on zoom and following them on [00:01:00] Instagram, some really beautiful evocative projects that both speak to needs of creativity as well as community.
[00:01:07] Lisa Woolfork: So I am honored to be able to speak today with Michelle Bishop. Welcome to the program, Michelle.
[00:01:15] Michelle Bishop: Well, thank you so much for having me. I am delighted that you have been inspired by us and have had the opportunity to engage with us through our mantra day. It's a wonderful project
[00:01:26] Lisa Woolfork: as a whole, like just going through your Instagram feed, you get a really beautiful feeling for what you are about, but can you tell us a little bit about your background, Michelle?
[00:01:36] Lisa Woolfork: And then we can transition to talk about why you started har Harlem needle arts.
[00:01:44] Michelle Bishop: Sure. I am. Um, You know, I guess from a professional point of view, my background is database development. And so I manipulate data. I've always been a person who has been committed to who I am, culturally. [00:02:00] My family's from Barbados and I I've lived there for a little bit. And I was always inspired by my aunt, my aunt, auntie Jean, as you know, she's known to us who was, you know, one of the original boss ladies in my life.
[00:02:15] Michelle Bishop: And she at 16 years old, uh, was not going off to, to England to become a nurse, like some of the other, some of her other family members in peers. And she didn't wanna do laundry for white people. So she decided she was gonna take a class in sew. And she went to, you know, I don't know who was teaching it at that time.
[00:02:38] Michelle Bishop: And she took a sewing class. She saved up enough money to buy a sewing machine and that original sewing machine still exists. And she. Sew everything she could sew. She started out doing school uniforms and dresses and, um, then she brought, did bridal stuff and [00:03:00] everything that you can think of. She had a small gift shop in a hotel, and then she decided she wasn't gonna do as much clothing, but deal with more home interior.
[00:03:10] Michelle Bishop: So she does, or did reupholstery curtains, bedding, tablecloths, all those different types of things for personal homes as well as hotels. And she did that up until about, um, probably about six years now. She sadly had a stroke, but she's still with us. It's just that she can't work. Um, but her original sewing machine is, is still in her house.
[00:03:37] Michelle Bishop: She had a motor put on it many years ago, and she is the original boss for me. And she that's one of my inspirations in starting Harlem, needle arts, you know, coming out of a background of using my database development. It's a tool for any business. First of all, it's how you manipulate your data and your content [00:04:00] to reach people or to affect something.
[00:04:03] Michelle Bishop: And so I worked for many years, um, most recent profession outside of what I do now for a special events company. And I wore three different hats. um, I designed their custom databases for all their events and, um, Managed their local area network and, uh, what else? And also I was part of the, being an account executive for actually raising funds.
[00:04:37] Michelle Bishop: So I got to see the business firsthand from all avenues. And I knew that I wanted to sort of be on my own while I was there. I, yeah, I, I knew that. And I started to build Harlem needle arts probably in about 2003, 2004. Um, I always, [00:05:00] I'm always selling something. So let's say always selling something, you know, from my earliest years back in the day.
[00:05:08] Michelle Bishop: Well, first of all, I was a girl scout and then the, you know, you would get magazines. Yes. Like write on magazine or yes, all of those magazines. And in the back, they would have all these little tiny ads. And I, there was an ad where you could get stuff and all you had to do was sell greeting cards. And I sent away for that and I started selling greeting cards.
[00:05:33] Michelle Bishop: It was like holiday Christmas cards, where you would take an order for that person and their name, the family's name would be printed in the card. And the more cards you sold, you got to select different prizes. So I would hustle that every holiday season, and I was always doing something involved in something school, very active, you know, went on to pace [00:06:00] university, worked in both, you know, private and nonprofit industry.
[00:06:05] Michelle Bishop: And, um, always committed, like I said, to just always connected to who I was culturally, my, my friend and I had a, a, a business called. Oh God. Wow. Rhythm of life, stream. Great name and what? Wow. Yeah. Another great name. yes. And what we did is we sold, um, cultural accessories. And this is back in, you know, late eighties, early nineties at many of the cultural festivals, you know, from DC, Maryland area to here in New York, the what's well, it was called the African street festival.
[00:06:48] Michelle Bishop: It's now called the international African festival. Those images, dance after Instagram page. And I was like
[00:06:54] Lisa Woolfork: on your Instagram page. And I was like,
[00:06:57] Michelle Bishop: oh my. Yeah, [00:07:00] it's not happening. None of the festivals are happening this season. So dance Africa, international African art festival. I don't know if ODU day will happen either.
[00:07:10] Michelle Bishop: Probably not. That's in Philly. Um, we did so many festivals and you know, that was, it was a time where, you know, you didn't have a credit card machine outside. Of course we both had nine to five jobs, but you had more energy. You were single, you, you got out there and you were always, we were always on the grind.
[00:07:32] Michelle Bishop: And so professionally, I just kind of morphed. What I was doing and built Harlem needle arts because, um, initially it was, I was looking in Harlem for some place for my mother to take crochet classes. I thought, yeah. I thought it was best that she learned from someone other than me, because, you know, there's just, there's a [00:08:00] level of, you know, being more receptive sometimes when it's outside of the family, in any event, couldn't find any place in practically in Manhattan that even taught crochet or in any.
[00:08:15] Michelle Bishop: And then, um, so I, I thought about that and then I said, Hmm, I should host a class. I'm sure other people would wanna learn. Um, the other inspiration for it is that I was a member. Well, still a member, um, not an active member, but of Harlem girls quilting circle. And yeah. And my friend EFA, Felix organized a only a one day workshop and she was teaching how to quilt.
[00:08:48] Michelle Bishop: And there were like pro I don't know, maybe 25 women that took this workshop. We had a whole day workshop here in Harlem. We loved it so much. Everyone wanted to [00:09:00] continue on. So it became a gathering of, of sisters who we would take turns, hosting the meeting at our homes. And then that got into me curating because we were producing content.
[00:09:18] Michelle Bishop: And I said, well, I, well, someone approached one of the members. Who's an artist, Laura Getson. We did a small exhibit at her home of the work we had produced. And someone she knew said. You should, you know, your work should be at Avery Fisher hall. And she was like, what does that, what does that entail? So at the time, AV Fisher hall was a part of the Lincoln center campus and oh yeah.
[00:09:48] Michelle Bishop: And so that's one of the pieces, the, one of the properties that's part of Lincoln center. It is no longer called Avery Fisher hall. It's now called the David din [00:10:00] center for something anyway. So that particular hall had on their lower level, uh, was called the cork gallery. And you could, what they would do is they would invite artists to come in and they, you would have to install your own work, do your own, sit the exhibit yourself mm-hmm and exhibit your work mm-hmm
[00:10:23] Michelle Bishop: And so Laura followed up with that and then between she and I re curated. The second exhibit there. And then that every year it was once again, me being a data person, it's organizing the content from each person, images, text, um, promotional material, um, signage all and on and on. So I took on that role in the group.
[00:10:54] Michelle Bishop: And so for me, looking at being in all these cultural spaces [00:11:00] and saying, well, the world needs to know about everyone. You know, it needs to know about the art and not solely the art end, but the art and cultural lens of all of the different forms of needle arts. And there were so many people around me that were in the artistic world on a more localized level at the time.
[00:11:24] Michelle Bishop: Um, yes, they needed spaces to be seen. And I, I didn't see that. at all. So I seized the opportunity to sort of meet the unmet demand. I think that's what that saying said. And I started to do research and started. I already, you know, was able to market and seek out media attention and all of that from all the different jobs that I've had.
[00:11:53] Michelle Bishop: I've never had a, a really a job that was just one job. It was [00:12:00] always, oh my gosh, three jobs, you know, marketing. Oh my gosh. Database fundraising, you know, um, research. Um, I never really not, you know, as I sit here and think about it, I never really had a one job within any of the institutions, organizations, companies that I've worked for.
[00:12:20] Michelle Bishop: And so those skills, all of those skills are transferable. And I transferred them and started Harlem needle arts. I launched a crochet workshop. It wasn't called Harlem needle arts. At the time, it was more of Michelle is doing this, come through let's work together. Um, sent out an email. This is before Facebook and Instagram and all of those social media tools and people came from all over.
[00:12:49] Michelle Bishop: They sent in the registration for 'em sent in their payment. I rented a space. We had a workshop. Once again, people enjoyed it. They wanna do [00:13:00] something different. They wanna continue on. And that continued in 2005, I said, I have to, I need to sort of register this as a business. And I decided on the name, Harlem needle arts.
[00:13:16] Michelle Bishop: We incorporated in 2005 and I was still working nine to five still. You know, my daughter was in middle school. Um, and I decided, I, I, things sort of came to me. I can't remember how I was connected with Columbia university. They have a, um, in their law school, they have, uh, a partnership with people who are interested in starting businesses for profit or nonprofit.
[00:13:51] Michelle Bishop: And so they will partner you with, um, um, I guess, I don't know what, what seniors in law school, school, third years, whatever that year in law [00:14:00] school. Oh, the third years, third year students. And they would partner you with two students and one advisor. And I worked with them to begin to, you know, create the paperwork to actually become a nonprofit.
[00:14:15] Michelle Bishop: Oh, that's wonderful. Yeah. And the, they graduated. And so the paperwork was 80% completed and I was still kind of mulling it over. Like what, what does this really mean? And in taking that time to mull over one of the students that following. So they graduated in may that following September, um, her name is Elizabeth and she called me and said, I'm working for this huge, you know, international firm.
[00:14:44] Michelle Bishop: And they do pro bono work. Where are you in your paperwork? Oh my goodness. And so that said to me, that's a sign, you know, go ahead, get this finished. And by that December, the IRS certified us and nonprofit [00:15:00] arts and cultural organization with, um, so our mission is we preserve fiber, textile design and needle arts in the African Dias for.
[00:15:12] Michelle Bishop: And through the means of workshops, exhibitions, technical support to artists, economic development for artists. Um, we are the gamut in terms of providing to both our general constituents, the general public, as well as the artists in our network and beyond our network. Michelle,
[00:15:35] Lisa Woolfork: your story is such a powerful revelation.
[00:15:39] Lisa Woolfork: I mean, just the story of how you began this project based on a personal need, just something as small as you wanted your mother to learn crochet. Maybe your mother wanted to learn crochet, but you figured that yes, you might have taught other people mm-hmm , but sometimes it can be better for, um, you know, for someone else [00:16:00] to teach a family member and, you know, and then you were like, okay, let me look around and see what I can find.
[00:16:06] Lisa Woolfork: I can't find anything. Therefore, this is a need. I can feel and you did it, and it's such, I, I think a lot about possibility models. That's something that's really important for my own, um, practice with black women stitch. Like when I started this group, it was very, it was a bit difficult because I hadn't, I hadn't, I'd seen a few other people do something, but it wasn't exactly this.
[00:16:34] Lisa Woolfork: And I also knew what I needed and I couldn't find what I needed. I saw that there were these amazing groups. And so I was able to look at models from the yarn mission, for example, was a great model. Another model that I looked at was the social justice sewing academy. That was a great model. And so both of those groups were like, yes, yes, yes.
[00:16:54] Lisa Woolfork: They can do it, Lisa. They are doing it. And you can do it too. And [00:17:00] I don't know. I think some, I don't know. , I don't know why we sometimes talk ourselves out of things. Um, you know, rather than talking ourselves into things or at least to speaking for myself, I, you know, mm-hmm, , it took me a while to think that I could do any of this, but I had possibility models, even the podcast, you know, I love this podcast called tea with clean and Jay.
[00:17:21] Lisa Woolfork: Um, and they're based out of New York and they had a podcast event and I didn't even have a podcast. I just went, um, they had it at this place a little bit adjacent to the west village. I don't know much about New York geography, but I went and it was a great time. And then I met some other women of color and black women podcasters.
[00:17:41] Lisa Woolfork: And then. Four months later, I had a podcast, you know? And so like, it's these types of things that your organization is such a beacon for. I mean, you help me because I follow your newsletter. And that's how I found out about this arts organization. That's giving out grants for the next few months. And [00:18:00] so I put my name on the list.
[00:18:01] Lisa Woolfork: I mean, it was just things like that, like these small things that might not seem like, um, significant actions individually, but just when you think about the cumulative effect that your work has had overall, I really hope that you recognize, like how much of an amazing cultural shift you are helping to bring about and precipitate, um, because you are absolutely bringing that shift about by, um, by normalizing and providing a model for what it means to center ourselves in, in a variety of craft spaces.
[00:18:38] Lisa Woolfork: Yes. Where we find ourselves erase.
[00:18:42] Michelle Bishop: right. And I I'm the person who is pro black. Okay. Mm-hmm, pro African pro African diaspora. And I am not, I'm not the person that [00:19:00] says I'm doing this because they're doing it. This is not a comparison, right? This is a, I create opportunities through this particular model institution, um, that represents who we are and it's there for all the entire world to see.
[00:19:19] Michelle Bishop: But we are about the African diaspora and people of color and indigenous communities as well. And teaching and learning, engaging, understanding, similarities, understanding cultural connections, and. That is critical. And I, it's not just, you know, recently there was a media opportunity for us and this media group said, oh, this past time, X, Y, Z.
[00:19:51] Michelle Bishop: Oh my goodness. And so I had to clarify that pass time. So I clarified, I said, well, so these are the talking [00:20:00] points, right. And please understand what this represents for who we are now. Yes, you can ha you can be a hobbyist and engaged in all the different art forms and that's totally relevant and fine.
[00:20:14] Michelle Bishop: But from the angle in which this interview was related to it, the, we were working with artists, right. And once again, the world doesn't see, not all of the world. Let me not be so general. Um, some in the world don't see the art forms of quilting. A D array boutique weaving, spinning all of these different entities as artistic or things that are related to cultural artifacts.
[00:20:48] Michelle Bishop: And they think of them very utilitarian and very, um, Americain, Americain kinda,
[00:20:59] Lisa Woolfork: yes, they [00:21:00] see it as, um, as more, more craft
[00:21:02] Michelle Bishop: than art. Right, right. And so, and there's a balance in those worlds. Right. And if we look at who we are culturally, and if you look at some of the major art institutions in the world, many of those institutions have an African art collection and those in those collections are include.
[00:21:30] Michelle Bishop: Cultural artifacts, which in many cases represent something that was often constructed by some form of thread, right? That means your mass dress, your attire, your mass, your ceremonial pieces. And so those are artifacts. Those are who we are. But the stitching the hand that has always been something, a part of who we are our existence.
[00:21:59] Michelle Bishop: And it's [00:22:00] been, you know, as my friend, Camille says, you are born when you are born, you are wrapped in cloth in most cultures. And when you are dye, when you die, you're wrapped in cloth. And so what between birth and death, what happens between the construction of fiber? Through ceremonies and rituals and, you know, culturally, all of these aspects of who we are, there's always been a significant passage, rights of passage.
[00:22:34] Michelle Bishop: That includes the, the, the structure of creating something through textile slash thread in, in who we are culturally. And that is not always seen, like I said, from an artistic point of view. Um, but I can go down the, a list of, you know, so many artists that are working in textile or have been working in textile for years.
[00:22:59] Michelle Bishop: Um, [00:23:00] how has it been taken seriously over the years? Where is it now? Um, back when I was starting Harlem needle arts, there is an author Kyra Hicks who wrote the book. Yes. Black threads. And I've read that book from cover to cover. Now, some people may think I'm a little bit insane because it's most, mostly it's statistical information and it's it's data right about who is spending money in this industry.
[00:23:34] Michelle Bishop: So when I have to, and, and, and what, what are the frames of this? So as they call it a pastime, it's far more than that. It's far more than a pastime. These are artists working in this frame, um, here, understand the language. People think of quilting. They have no clue are
[00:23:58] Lisa Woolfork: so right. You know, there's people [00:24:00] out there in the world that keep calling quilts blankets, um, which makes me always wanna throttle someone
[00:24:08] Michelle Bishop: You know, it's, it's at this very moment, probably from an EDU from an artistic educational point of view, this type of art is not necessarily included right. In the textbooks, let's say. Right. And so, at what point will it be included? I don't know. I, I, in some cases, some textbooks are becoming obsolete.
[00:24:33] Michelle Bishop: Then that means, and I spoke to a professor a few years ago and he said from his knowledge base, what he does is he goes after what he already knows is out there. That's not included in textbooks. So he then is able to share information about artists, either from, you know, a media, you know, article or something that had him engaged with X, Y, Z artists.[00:25:00]
[00:25:00] Michelle Bishop: And, and so for me, we also have a responsibility to share. This knowledge about all these people, because then, you know, if we don't do that, they'll say it never existed. Just like, you know, the whole talk about the underground railroad and quotes being used and that never happened and it didn't happen.
[00:25:24] Michelle Bishop: And well, and you know, the, the academic types say, oh, it's, it didn't happen because it was in documentary. Well,
[00:25:32] Lisa Woolfork: some of the academic, and that's why I know, of course you must know Gladys Marie Fry's work. Um, and I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture that she gave up at Monticello. I'm in Charlottesville, Virginia, um, and Monticello is Thomas Jefferson's plantation.
[00:25:47] Lisa Woolfork: And she gave lecture up there and she was like, there's a lot of quilt experts who do not wanna give black women props for the work that they have done because it's not written down in a journal. I said, you know, what, if black people [00:26:00] relied on the journals of white people for our history, we would be even more marginalized than we are now.
[00:26:07] Lisa Woolfork: If we relied exclusively on that. Exactly course, historians have done amazing work dredging up, um, illustrations of our humanity, reading between the lines of the records that were kept by, um, the enslaves. And yet, you know, of course when these people are writing these journals, they're always gonna put themselves in the best light.
[00:26:26] Lisa Woolfork: You would think that the hardest thing in the world was to be a white woman in the 19th century, because of all the slaves they had to manage and how hard it was. Right. Um, because that's what they wrote about in their journals. Um, yeah. But, but we did not get a chance to write any things in our journals because they made writing illegal.
[00:26:42] Lisa Woolfork: So , yeah, we can't rely on that.
[00:26:44] Michelle Bishop: Right. Right. And we weren't because we weren't allowed to be literate to document, you know, of course there's, there it is. Oral history and the Grio [00:27:00] becomes the teller of the story it's passed down. It's passed down is passed down. And so. Yes, their stories. Yes. In modern times we have the authority within ourselves to document and to publish.
[00:27:16] Michelle Bishop: We don't have to always wait for, um, someone else to give us permission to, we have the authority within our own selves to do the work we can self-publish we can. We can publish online books. We can, we can. Exactly. And we can support podcasts.
[00:27:37] Lisa Woolfork: We can build our own infrastructure. Yeah. And we don't have to replicate that, which has already existed because in some ways, those structures that have already existed and exist and existed for such a long time, they weren't built for us.
[00:27:50] Lisa Woolfork: They weren't built for our success. So why should we replicate then when we could try to build something new on our own. Um, and that's one of the things I love and share so much [00:28:00] about Harlem needle arts. Um, I'm gonna take a pause right quick, and we're gonna transition a bit to talk more about what does it mean to build a nonprofit organization around this topic?
[00:28:11] Lisa Woolfork: And I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about the difference between art and craft when it comes to what one might imagine mattering means in the art world. So y'all stay tuned, hang in there with us and we'll be back in a bit.
[00:28:38] Lisa Woolfork: Here it's ditch, please. The official podcast of black women's stitch. We talk a lot about sewing, but if you want to see and not just hear about some of the things we've been discussing, feel free to join us on the socials. You can find us at stitch, please on Facebook and you can also find us. On Instagram [00:29:00] at black women's stitch, you can find photos of projects that we've been working on.
[00:29:04] Lisa Woolfork: Really interesting social commentary and on Thursdays at 3:00 PM Eastern standard time, you can join black women's stitch for a live Instagram chat. Again, that's every Thursday at 3:00 PM. So find us on the socials. Follow up with us. We are happy to hear your direct messages. You can reach out to us at the black women's stitch page on Instagram, and we'll help you get your stitch together.
[00:29:47] Lisa Woolfork: Welcome back everybody. You're listening to the stitch please podcast the official podcast of black women's stitch. And I am joined today by Michelle Bishop of the Harlem needle arts. Um, and she is a, just, [00:30:00] just been so wonderful and so inspiring to talk to. And, um, in this next segment, I wanna talk more about what you just described when we were off recording about some of the serendipitous moments in your time, working with the Harlem needle arts.
[00:30:15] Lisa Woolfork: Can you talk about some of those, some of the synergies and things that have kind of come together, things that you might not have been expecting, but that happened anyway.
[00:30:25] Michelle Bishop: Yes. I, you know, this entire journey has been just. A number of different serendipitous moments. Like I described earlier with the law student calling me to then have, you know, worked with her firm to finish up our, um, IRS submission to be a nonprofit organization.
[00:30:45] Michelle Bishop: And then I think shortly after that, I said, because of course in New York, being able to have space is at a premium. And at that point at that stage of the game, it wasn't like we had all these grants or anything. I [00:31:00] was just trying to make things happen and make them affordable to the community at large.
[00:31:04] Michelle Bishop: And I said, oh, well, you know, like working in the libraries because the libraries are free. And then there was the museum for the city of New York. So I put those on my list and I went to take a workshop, a full weekend workshop on crochet at F I T. And I was, you were put into like groups and I was in a group and I was talking to one of the participants.
[00:31:30] Michelle Bishop: And she, and in exchanging who we were and what we did. And she said, oh, well, I worked for the museum for the city of New York. And I could have probably fell out on my chair
[00:31:41] Lisa Woolfork: that you, you do what, where
[00:31:42] Michelle Bishop: please say more right, exactly. And I said, you would not believe that I just wrote down that I wanted to be able to host workshops there.
[00:31:54] Michelle Bishop: And, and she said, oh, well, you know, we can make that happen. And hence that built a relationship. There [00:32:00] have been tons of moments like that. And, um, more recently in, um, I was called by the national black theater. My gosh, here in Harlem. Yes. Um, founded by Barbara anterior and they were working on a, um, a talk with three.
[00:32:26] Michelle Bishop: Three presenters. I I'm trying to remember all the details. And so they called me because they wanted, they needed a moderator. And so they wanted me to be the moderator, the person they were thinking of was not available. So they called me. So I was the second choice and I said, sure, you know, well, if we're gonna talk about this topic and I'll tell you more in a minute let's let's partner, let's work together and host this event, you know, I'll, I'll, you know, work with you on distributing to our mailing list and getting the [00:33:00] word out and packing the house and I'll even get someone to videotape it.
[00:33:04] Michelle Bishop: Um, and do all of that photography, you know, all the things that we needed to make this a success. And so it happened that the three people who were part of the panel, there was, um, there was a professor from Buffalo. Buffalo, um, SUNY Buffalo, whose name please. Forgive me. I can't remember her name. There was the kilt artist, Laura Gadson who's here in Harlem.
[00:33:31] Michelle Bishop: And then there was chief NEK OCU, and, um, chief Neke came from Nigeria. She had a long relationship with the national black theater and, um, she is an artist. She is a historian, a humanitarian. She is the keeper of all things at D or at DRA. And I'll share more about that. And so this whole event happened and she came from Nigeria.
[00:33:58] Michelle Bishop: So I got to [00:34:00] meet her, got to meet her daughter. And we, you would think that we kind of knew each other forever. I love when
[00:34:07] Lisa Woolfork: that happens, but we had just, you just, you just meet and then you just hit it off.
[00:34:13] Michelle Bishop: We just hit it off. And so I. Was there. And then we have a mutual friend. Perfect. And this mutual, right?
[00:34:22] Michelle Bishop: So this mutual friend has known them all his life. She is like his second mother. Okay. And so, and then like all the pieces to who he was came together as well. And so we stayed in touch and chief Nique's daughter, uh, lives here in Brooklyn and she carried on the tradition of a DRA. And so we got to talking, I said, oh, you should come and teach for us.
[00:34:49] Michelle Bishop: So she came, she taught, we had a wonderful all day exhibit learning, stitch, a DRA, a DRA, and, um, [00:35:00] the space. We were an organization in residence at, uh, the Leroy Neiman art center. In that role, we were there in the space. We had access to the space to host workshops. We partnered to curate exhibits so on and so forth and worked together in this community of Harlem to really bring, uh, content to the forefront.
[00:35:26] Michelle Bishop: So when her name is Shae, Shae taught, it's a gallery space and a, a workshop space. And she said it would be great to have mom chief NEK come here and exhibit her work. And I paused and I said, let me see how I can make that happen and what ha. So I met Shae months before months later, she's teaching for us.
[00:35:55] Michelle Bishop: And a year later her mother's work is in the gallery. Her mother [00:36:00] comes from Nigeria, chief NEKA O comes and this event. I could have cried, right? Just joy, because first of all, she's a female chief and she's a female chief because she's so highly revered in being a woman who was sold into marriages. And you know, was one of many wives at a very young age, but she was able to build her own empire where she has four centers in Nigeria.
[00:36:41] Michelle Bishop: One center is dedicated solely to women and teaching them how to carry on the tradition of a DRA. And then she has other locations where she teaches, she has a gallery. She teaches industrial design. She is always bringing back to the community [00:37:00] and one of her highest honors. Is that the Italian government awarded her their highest honor, because she went to Italy to help women who were being sexually trafficked it's on the wow.
[00:37:14] Michelle Bishop: Right. So there were a lot of Nigeria women who were brought to Nigeria, excuse me, brought to Italy on the false Pret. And so she helped and exploited. And so she helped as part of that process. So now all of this being said in this Seren moment and not, you know, not taking advantage of, but building a relationship with the, these creative people around me and making it, you know, curating this highly successful exhibition and workshop because someone said to me, oh, we want you to do this.
[00:37:52] Michelle Bishop: But then I said, oh, well, let's do this. So we have point a point B, which turned into CD and E. Right. And [00:38:00] all, and, and working into community with other people and, and understanding how it benefits all of
[00:38:07] Lisa Woolfork: us. Yes. Yes. Understanding how and what I'm hearing and what I love so much about your story is that you, that it's like every invitation is an opportunity.
[00:38:19] Lisa Woolfork: You know, that every invitation, right. You wanna moderate this panel? Sure. I'll moderate this panel, but let's talk. You know how we can, can we, can we build on this to do more than just me showing up the day of how, like there's things I know that can benefit you, just like there's things that, you know, um, that can benefit me so we can kind of have this exchange of resources and discussion and I can help boost your audience and you can help boost mine.
[00:38:47] Lisa Woolfork: And that I think is just exactly story about what community can look like and should look like. And that's also like how we build yes, an alternative infrastructure. Um, to one that's usually [00:39:00] just top down that says I have the power and if you want it, you need to appeal to me, you know? Um, and I really think that that's one of the things I love about the Harlem needle arts project.
[00:39:10] Lisa Woolfork: Let me ask you a question. What are some of the benefits and risks or limitations of starting, um, making your organization a nonprofit. And I'm asking for strictly personal slash selfish reasons, I've been towing a lot with the idea. Mm-hmm, about a nonprofit for my group, black women's stitch, which I, which is a labor of love.
[00:39:31] Lisa Woolfork: And these women that I'm connected with, um, are just amazing. And now lifelong friends. And I have heard some other folks I've been talking with about like getting grants to build the podcast, cetera, et cetera. Um, but I also live in a place in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is not that big, a town that has more nonprofits per capita than anywhere else in the country.
[00:39:54] Lisa Woolfork: We have more nonprofit. We, we it's like we have a nonprofit, industrial complex we've got, [00:40:00] it's absolutely true. like, you know, everybody, I mean, I know. Off the top of my head. I can name four people that either found it or currently work at nonprofits. Um, and so what is some of the, what do you see as some of the benefits of having a nonprofit?
[00:40:17] Lisa Woolfork: And more importantly, since your work is so dedicated to centering blackness and black people, does, do you find that you have to compromise some of what you do in order to do this? This is another issue for me on the side. Like, I don't have very many sponsorships. I do partner with different like sewing related organizations, but I'm not sure.
[00:40:41] Lisa Woolfork: I don't know. I guess I I'm so afraid of having to compromise my message, my tone, my direction in, in exchange for a sponsorship that I just don't wanna do. Mm-hmm , I'm like, okay, that's fine. I'll just be broke. You know? I mean, and so that's what I'm trying to figure out.
[00:40:58] Michelle Bishop: Wow. [00:41:00] Okay. So let me, okay. So. Firstly, I never compromise anything.
[00:41:07] Michelle Bishop: Okay. I am, this is, this is total blackness. This is a total blackness operation. Um, and, and anyone we do business understands that. So I don't compromise anything. I don't alter anything of what, what the ideas that we put forth and what we want to present. I don't alter that for other people. What I will say about being a nonprofit versus a for-profit versus different layers of nonprofit organizations.
[00:41:40] Michelle Bishop: So there situations coming out the gate, that if you choose to be a nonprofit and become a 5 0 1 C three organization where you can solicit grants, sponsorships and grants are two different things. Okay. [00:42:00] And so. Solicited grants from whether it be city, state, federal government, and or private foundations and or individuals.
[00:42:11] Michelle Bishop: Okay. Now that's becoming a 5 0 1 C three. Like I said, I went through the entire process, filled out all the paperwork. You wait for them to respond the IRS that is, and they tell you you're in, or you're not. Or in some cases they will come back to you and say, here are a list of questions that we don't understand re we reply to these questions, and then we will review them and get back to you.
[00:42:35] Michelle Bishop: That never happened to us. Sit another survey for this moment, I guess, because I was expecting that to happen. And, and, and it's normal. It's a part of the process. Now there's a different way in which you can register as a nonprofit. And what you're stipulating is that you're working on getting the status.
[00:42:59] Michelle Bishop: So you [00:43:00] register your business as a, the type of business that it is, is a nonprofit business. And then you become, um, you, you seek out fiscal sponsors. So let's say, right. So let's say you're in the process or you're thinking about the process, but you know, um, organization a who already is a nonprofit who already is vetted in the, in the world can be your fiscal sponsor.
[00:43:29] Michelle Bishop: You can apply for funding. The funding goes into their bank account and they write you the checks less their fee for, and then they can't look
[00:43:40] Lisa Woolfork: taxes and stuff like that too. So
[00:43:42] Michelle Bishop: like, well, well, yes, they handle the taxes, right? They handle the taxes. Now the other being a for-profit. It has to do with what your business plan looks like.
[00:43:59] Michelle Bishop: What are your [00:44:00] goals? And I say business plan, because it doesn't matter if you're a nonprofit or a for-profit , if you don't have a plan, if you don't treat, if you don't treat this like a corporation, that it is don't, this is me saying this. I'm not saying the world says this do not come into the game, treat everything like it is business.
[00:44:20] Michelle Bishop: I don't care. If you decide you're gonna sell cupcakes on the street, it is a business. What is your business plan to do this? How many cupcakes do you need? How, how much material do you need? How much on our average day, what's the best location to sell it? What is the best price? Otherwise you're going out there blind.
[00:44:37] Michelle Bishop: You don't have a plan. And you also have to understand that when you become a nonprofit, you're working based on fiscal years of whomever, the funders are. You're working on delays in money. Uh, they can award you something on paper when, when you may not get the funding until I don't know, four or five [00:45:00] months down the road, but you're still expected to be within the timeframe.
[00:45:04] Michelle Bishop: That's right. To present the work that you said you're going to present. Okay. So this is not to de deter. This is to say plan and the blessing for, for Harlem needle arts is in developing. And I I'm honest to say, even though I had worked in nonprofit, I didn't have to work in the grant area at the time I worked in fundraising.
[00:45:28] Michelle Bishop: Oh, I see. But that was different. That was special events fundraising. It was built around the glam in the glitz of an event. It had nothing to do. I could call someone and say, this is happening. These are, this is who was gonna be on a bill. And how much money you're giving us this year. And they say, we are gonna give you $25,000 for a table of 10 people and tickets to the show afterwards and list me as this person.
[00:45:59] Michelle Bishop: [00:46:00] I love you, Mr. Smith. Thank you so much. I will see you at the event. Okay. That's a different type that's fundraising in a different way. It was around a special event. When I worked for associated black charities, I worked in fun in their fun with their fundraising event. I did marketing for them, but I never had to write grants for them.
[00:46:23] Michelle Bishop: So there's, there were lots of things that I did not know, but I learned. And one of the things for me is that I forced myself to be able to learn the governmental money process first. That is the hardest. That's the one with all the bureaucracy, that's all the paper pushing that. If you can get through that part of it, then you are able to go then to corporate funders, individuals, foundations, because they see you have a track record.
[00:46:59] Michelle Bishop: Everything. [00:47:00] Every all public money is public knowledge. So if you go online right now to New York city and look up Harlem needle arts, you're gonna see who gave us what money. It's not private information. I work now for New York. Yes. Right. We, we work for New York, but you see, when I write a grant, I'm telling you who I am now, if you don't, if you don't feel our.
[00:47:28] Michelle Bishop: Represents or our content represents who you want, you know, how you wanna fund that's up to you. But I, I do not, I don't sacrifice who we are. I do look at partnerships. I look at how we reach, how do you reach different bodies within the community? How you do you, how do you, how do you dispel myths about this world of needle arts?
[00:47:52] Michelle Bishop: Oh, my grandmother used to be like, oh, black people don't do that. Why would I, why would I quote when I can go to, I'm not gonna call [00:48:00] any, I could go to the store and buy bed in a bag. I've heard that. Oh my gosh. I'm like, you know what, please
[00:48:06] Lisa Woolfork: stop talking to me about this because I am certainly not gonna make you anything for the same price as a bed and a bag.
[00:48:14] Michelle Bishop: Yeah, I, you know what, I, I also imported at one point in my entrepreneurial world, um, uh, home accessories from Senegal had traveled there and built a relationship. And one, you know, one of the things that part of my responsibility also yeah. Is to educate people because they don't have, at this very moment, we are in a pandemic and the cottaged industry.
[00:48:42] Michelle Bishop: That's keeping people alive. Yes. Is thriving right now, all the stuff that was grandma stuff, actually, it was not grandma stuff solely. It was people who did those things from the, the youngest of age throughout their lives. Yes,
[00:48:58] Lisa Woolfork: we should not [00:49:00] stigmatize. I don't understand how some folks, they, they seem to reject, um, certain heritage when they say, oh, this is not your grandma's quilt block, or this is not your mama's crochet pattern.
[00:49:12] Lisa Woolfork: And I'm like, why wouldn't you want your grandma's qu block? And why wouldn't you want your mama's crochet pattern? Right. It's only because they are older women, we dismiss them and say that it's not, it's no good anymore. It's really just another form of those types of biases and hierarchies that shape the way we approach so much of our lives, unfortunately.
[00:49:30] Lisa Woolfork: And you're undoing
[00:49:31] Michelle Bishop: that. Right. Right. And you, and, and you have to understand the value in our traditions right now, our, yes. You can take a tradition and create a contemporary spin on. That of course you can certainly do that, but understand the origin of why we work with our hands, understand the fact that, you know, I know a couple of entities right now who are able to [00:50:00] secure contracts with the city of New York to make the things oh, that's right.
[00:50:06] Michelle Bishop: PS.
[00:50:06] Lisa Woolfork: Yes, me too.
[00:50:08] Michelle Bishop: Right? So this is happening all over the country. Now these are people who, of course they've had other professions. This is part of who they are. We're not just one way. We're not many dimensions.
[00:50:25] Lisa Woolfork: One way love that
[00:50:26] Michelle Bishop: is we are multidimensional people. We have different ways in which we can exist in this world.
[00:50:38] Michelle Bishop: As a suggestion to the world, we should have different avenues that are more internal, more about who we are than just about who we are serving in the world. And I don't say that when I say serving, meaning just going to a nine to five job and coming home. Right. We, [00:51:00] we, we, yes, we're we actually are working for ourselves in a way, cuz we are working cuz we need, we're not just working cuz the other person.
[00:51:07] Michelle Bishop: And
[00:51:07] Lisa Woolfork: that's why for me, I, I know some people use the phrase selfish, sewing. They say, oh, I'm gonna do some selfish sewing this weekend. And I reject that term entirely. I call it self care sewing because when I get to sit down at my sewing machine, it's not about the students that I teach during my regular job.
[00:51:25] Lisa Woolfork: It's not about any demands that a committee or somebody is asking of me. This is something that I am doing because I love it. And because there's something about the transformation and the sitting down and the stitching and the, sometimes the UNS stitching and the cutting and all that requires to make a garment or to make a quilt or to make some peace, um, is doing something for my spirit.
[00:51:49] Lisa Woolfork: Um, and that's why I never call it selfish, sewing. And instead I say, self-care sewing because this is a time when I'm prioritizing my needs. [00:52:00] Um, which is not something that we are as, as black women in particular get encouraged to do very often.
[00:52:07] Michelle Bishop: That's true. And, and we have, and
[00:52:09] Lisa Woolfork: talk about that. Please tell me more.
[00:52:10] Lisa Woolfork: Y'all need to check out these mantra Mondays. They've got a lot of them. I know that you, you started doing them, um, way before this pandemic hits, but now you can access them on zoom. Can you tell us about it?
[00:52:24] Michelle Bishop: Yeah, mantra Mondays. I created a time every Monday or almost every Monday where no matter what you're working on, whatever hand work or artwork we would gather most recently before this at the Harlem Y come into the space and you would work on your project.
[00:52:45] Michelle Bishop: Some there's music in the background, you're in community with other people. You may learn something from what the other person is doing. Occasionally we would have guest speakers like we've had on, you know, the zooms that you've listened into. [00:53:00] And it, I say to in, in promoting it, give yourself permission to.
[00:53:06] Michelle Bishop: And that's because we don't necessarily make time to have to do something for ourselves to be creative. And yes, this, you know, I can't talk about it enough about what this time is forcing us to do. And it's sad that we have to be in this place, that something has driven us to a place to stop for those who can stop, you know, to, to reflect on, well, what is it really?
[00:53:34] Michelle Bishop: That gives me joy in my life. Right. What creative outlets do I have? Um, I used to do X, Y, and Z when I was growing up. Why did I. Why don't I have a sewing machine in my home. Why don't well, I could, I, I remember how to sew. I could be, you know, making masks for those in need. There there's so many factors, [00:54:00] but we have mantra Mondays it's Monday, the beginning of the week, where most of us don't ever want to get out of bed on like, here we go again to a job.
[00:54:09] Michelle Bishop: That's people probably think, why would you do it on a Monday? No. Why not? A Friday? Mm-hmm start your Monday off. Right? Start your Monday evening from six to eight doing so that you are refreshed you're invigorated so that you can get through the rest of the week. And also because we are a. Environment, you know, when people get on the bus or train, they carry, you know, their hand work with them.
[00:54:35] Michelle Bishop: They're knitting their crochet. Even some people spin in public. Um, there are, there, there are things that give you that temporary moment of just, or calm. And, and so, and it also keeps you on point in a way, because when you come back to the next mantra Monday, that's when we're face to face, you want to show [00:55:00] what you've completed.
[00:55:01] Michelle Bishop: You there's a sense in all of this, I've always said, In all of the different aspects of creating, there is a sense of pride that one has within themselves that says, wow, I did this. You know, I made the rules surrounding how this piece is gonna come out. Yes. There are some people who work with patterns.
[00:55:22] Michelle Bishop: Some people alter patterns. We try to encourage people to actually alter patterns. You know, look at things differently. Look at a different color, add different colors because that's who the aesthetic of who we are is more colorful. And so that's what mantra Monday is the, the mantra is all of the art forms, quilt, knitting, crochet, spinning bat Adray or ad, um, weaving fiber fusion TAing.
[00:55:59] Michelle Bishop: All of [00:56:00] those beating. All of those art forms are considered rhythmic because it's a continuous, repetitive stitching or connecting. So they're considered rhythmic art forms and rhythmic art forms are studies have been shown, create calm in one helps people to focus. Especially young people helps young people with math.
[00:56:26] Michelle Bishop: It creates a state where you, the mantra of the St. Stitch, the repetitive nature of the stitch, similar to like a yoga keeps you in a place of calm and still miss. And you can pick up an item and start working on it. And the next thing you know is three o'clock in the morning. That's true. That's why I love hand work.
[00:56:51] Michelle Bishop: I love Hamburg. I love hand quilting I'll piece together by machine, but I love hand quilting, but, um, so that's what mantra Mondays is [00:57:00] all about for, for, you know, bringing people together.
[00:57:02] Lisa Woolfork: That's a really beautiful story and it's a wonderful point on which to end. I think that I am going to forever re I'm going to ever for I'm going to forever rhythmic arts or a rhythmic form because I'm not a big hand.
[00:57:16] Lisa Woolfork: So I, you know, I can knit to save my life. Um, I cannot crochet to save my life, but I could knit to save my life. But, and I know like when I was doing a lot of knitting, the clicking of the needles, you know, that just felt so good. And even now, like with my sewing machine, it's funny because when I created this, the theme song for this podcast, the opening sound, the opening bars of the song.
[00:57:41] Lisa Woolfork: Or my sewing machine, I recorded the sound of my sewing machine sewing, and I built the layers of the song that I composed around that sound, because, and so like, when you say rhythmic or a rhythm, uh, um, a rhythmic art form, I'm like, oh my gosh, it is, and it can be kind of, [00:58:00] you know, hypnotic and can kind of bring you into this state of peace.
[00:58:03] Lisa Woolfork: And although I don't hand so or hand do a lot of hand work, there have been moments when I look up and it's three o'clock in the morning. Um, and I did not have the intention of being up that late because you get so into it and you sink into the process so much. So Michelle Bishop, I just wanna thank you so much for being with us today.
[00:58:21] Lisa Woolfork: Is there anything you wanna tell us about the next steps for Harlem needle arts? Like what are your next big projects on the horizon and how people can find you on social media to get more information about what you're.
[00:58:34] Michelle Bishop: Sure. Currently we have two projects that are in, um, out in the world. One, we have a public art installation, which commemorates the documented 400 years of enslaved Africans, um, that came to this country and we are honoring the resilience.
[00:58:53] Michelle Bishop: Uh, determination and the, just the overall fortitude of African diasporic people [00:59:00] to, to, to survive and thrive. And that's, we pay honor to the sacrifices that they made for us to be here today. So we honor them and that's in, um, Let's say a Colonel young triangle park in Harlem, you can go to our website and find out that information.
[00:59:17] Michelle Bishop: The other project that is in it's completed, um, but the pandemic has postponed it. So it will be, uh, on once it launches, it will be on exhibit for six months and that is called the legacy quilt. And it's part of, uh, the exhibition, which is curated by Dr. Jessica Harris for the museum of food and drink. It will be on exhibit at the Africa center in Harlem.
[00:59:45] Michelle Bishop: And it, the exhibit is called African slash American making the nation's table. And what the quilt it's 14 feet by 30. There's [01:00:00] one that's 14 feet by 30 feet. And the other one is 22 feet by nine feet. The first quilt, which is called the lazy legacy, quilt has 400 different quilt blocks. Each quilt block is honoring the 400 different either inventions, uh, farmers, agricultural specialists, inventors.
[01:00:21] Michelle Bishop: I said that chefs, um, people who have been a part of the landscape, uh, of America and food, and there are 400 different narratives within it. 400 different stories, but there's so many more, but the number 400 was around the commemoration commemoration. Yeah, that's wonderful. Right? Exactly. And, and also they resurrected the Ebony test kitchen, what, which is part of yes.
[01:00:53] Michelle Bishop: So yeah, that was going to be, from what I understand, I think it was gonna be, it was auctioned [01:01:00] off and they got the original test kitchen that John Johnson had in his building. And a test kitchen is where chefs come and test out different recipes and products. And they, you know, serve people within the Johnson publication, um, building.
[01:01:17] Michelle Bishop: And so the, they, the entire original kitchen is on exhibit. Um, what else is there? That's so there's a lot of history about how we, of as African people in this country contributed to food and, and, and still are contributing. And the, the number of inventions. It's just phenomenal. And you see the landscape, sorry.
[01:01:44] Michelle Bishop: You see the landscape of, um, you see the landscape of how we were able thrive to thrive,
[01:01:53] Lisa Woolfork: survive, and thrive,
[01:01:55] Michelle Bishop: just thrive, thrive. And so much of what we are, [01:02:00] what this country is of course is because of, of, of African. That is the truth that's people. So, yeah. So, and we will be lastly, we will amplify the amount of public art installations that we have as we are.
[01:02:17] Michelle Bishop: That was already part of the plan before the prior pandemic. But more importantly now to. Public spaces, art and creativity. Yes.
[01:02:27] Lisa Woolfork: Well, Michelle Bishop, thank you so much for speaking with me today. This has been really a delight and a treat. Um, I will be sure to include in the show notes, um, much of the information that you have given me.
[01:02:39] Lisa Woolfork: Um, and so that folks, you could go to the show notes and find out more information and get on the Harlem needle arts, um, mailing list. I'm on that list. Some great stuff comes through there. So, Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
[01:02:55] Michelle Bishop: Thank you for having me and stay well.
[01:02:57] Michelle Bishop: Stay safe.[01:03:00]
[01:03:09] Lisa Woolfork: Thank you for joining us for this week's episode of the stitch. Please podcast the official podcast of black women's. The sewing group where black lives matter, there are a variety of ways that you can support the program and you're doing it right now by listening to the pro, by listening to the podcast, it does help us grow.
[01:03:29] Lisa Woolfork: Another way to do that is to rate the podcast, review it, subscribe to it. All of these things are ways that you can support the podcast without having to spend any money at all. If you would like to spend some money to support us, there are ways to do that as well. You can make direct donations to our Patreon site for monthly contributions, as well as one time contributions to PayPal cash app or Venmo.
[01:03:54] Lisa Woolfork: And finally, we have another cute, very adorable way for you to support the black women's stitch [01:04:00] project. It's a pin, a P I N enamel lapel pin. That's very cute. It's about two inches wide and one and a half inch tall. And it's of the black women's stitch logo. And that is $15. With free shipping to the us.
[01:04:18] Lisa Woolfork: And so if you drop $15 in the, a PayPal, Venmo or cash app accounts, and then send me your email. No, not email. You send me your mailing address to my email either at black women's stitch@gmail.com or you send me a direct message on the black women's stitch Instagram page, we will put the pin in the mail to you.
[01:04:42] Lisa Woolfork: Um, again, free shipping, $15 for the pin, and all of this goes to support the black women's stitch project. Thank you again for joining us this week. Come back next week. And we will help you get your stitch together.[01:05:00]

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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