February 28, 2019 | By Delora Putnam-Bryant, ATR, LPC-IT, Multicultural Committee Chair


Quilts and quilt making in the African American culture can be traced back to the times when black Americans were enslaved. There are several accounts of how slaves incorporated the techniques of quilting from their native land’s fabric making process, and enslaved Americans passed down quilting to other slaves.  Materials gathered from scraps of fabric that could no longer be used, were repurposed to create quilts. Organized techniques were not the goals for these people. The quilts were used to make covers to stay warm, and the makers took pride in the art process. The time spent putting the quilt pieces together allowed the makers opportunity to interact with each other, strategize plans, celebrate joys and empower through group cohesion.

The quilt also had deep importance for those who served and strived to free themselves from the bondage of slavery. The images used on the quilts and the processes of the technique communicated safety to those needing assistance to freedom using the passages such as the Underground Railroad.

Quilts today are made and used as art. Some are used as bed coverings and others are sold for financial support. The learning process remains somewhat the same: the passing of generational skill.



Stella Stepney, ATR-BC, LCAT and Gwen Short, ATR-BC


The AATA’s Multicultural Committee has celebrated this process for many years during the “Embracing diversity piece by piece quilt project.” Annually at the national art therapy conference, participants select muslin pieces and create art on them. After each piece is collected, it is later stitched together to make a final piece. The quilt is then raffled off during the conference, and the proceeds support the Pearlie Roberson Scholarship Fund. Established in 2000, the scholarship supports efforts to “explore, express, and connect” in order to enhance the multicultural aspects of the therapeutic experience.

In remembrance of Pearlie Roberson


Pearlie Roberson

Pearlie was an African American art therapy client.  Through powerful metaphors in her paintings and sculptures, she depicted certain periods of her life: childbearing years, years on drugs & alcohol, time spent with her best friend and husband, and the progression of her illness itself.  Through her work in art therapy, Pearlie also conveyed the importance of her spiritual belief in Christianity and her kinship connection to her African roots.  Engaging in informal discussions about their cultural differences, such as race, class, region, and religion, allowed the two to foster a deeper connection than they may have otherwise had.  The art therapist reflected, “Art-making profoundly affected Pearlie’s final months and days; it provided an avenue to her own strength that helped through dark hours of long nights. It gave her perspective and peace.”  To honor Pearlie, the art therapist donated funds that would begin the Pearlie Roberson scholarship. The art therapist was a member of the Multicultural Committee and recognized the need to increase multicultural research and awareness.

The quilt project originated from another art therapist/client relationship. An African American client of Tess Dunkel had been creating a quilt before she passed away.  After the client’s death, Tess completed the quilt and donated it to the Multicultural Committee.  That year at conference, the Committee raffled off the quilt, allocating the proceeds to the Pearlie Roberson Scholarship.  This quilt inspired the annual Pearlie Roberson Multicultural Quilt Project.


The Pearlie Roberson Annual Scholarship Award


This award is specifically designed to provide financial support for an art therapy community-based or research project, undertaken by a Student or Professional member of the American Art Therapy Association, which targets multicultural aspects and capacities of art therapy. The award is based on the merit of the project proposal, not financial need. The award is specifically designed to advance teaching and the research mission of the Association.   Scholarship applications are now being accepted for the 2019 Pearlie Roberson Award.  The submission deadline is May 1, 2019.  Visit the scholarship webpage for more information, and members can log in to MyAATA to download the full guidelines and application.


(Left) 2016 Multicultural Quilt and (right) Brittney Washington with 2017 Multicultural Quilt in Albuquerque, New Mexico.