Church Hats as an Emblem of Cultural Pride

Jada Patterson in her studio at work on a bust based on her dad’s features. “He was adorned like Jimi Hendrix and always had a hat,” she said. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Ceramic artist Jada Patterson pays homage to the strength and style of Black women

Joyous music, hands clapping, feet stomping, the rumble of the bass, voices singing praise — this is the Black church experience. For decades, the Black church has been a sacred place for Black men and women to find community and solace and to embrace the Black culture. Men and women show up in their Sunday best in colorful suits and dresses, the women adorned in jewelry and, most noticeably, beautiful hats.

These unique church hats were the inspiration for a new body of work by Kansas City ceramic artist Jada Patterson. The series pays homage to the Black women in her life and her personal church-going experience, which have helped shape the woman she is today. A 2020-21 Inspiration Grant from ArtsKC helped fund the work’s production and an upcoming exhibit at plug gallery.

“A lot of the work I do deals with adornment. I just think the way Black folk adorn themselves, whether through our hair or our clothes, and now looking at the hats of my elders, is a natural progression of my work,” said Patterson.

Patterson was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she spent most of her days at her local, predominantly Black, Baptist church. One of the memories that stood out to her were the exquisite church hats the Black women around her wore. These hats came in all shapes, colors and fabrics — velvet, feathers, pinks, blues, greens — each one expressing the beauty within these women. Patterson was mesmerized by the uniqueness of the hats and the posture of grace these women would exhibit because of them. Growing up half Black and half Italian, she connected the most to her Black heritage and found her Black pride at church. Her family legacy was deeply rooted in the church; her uncle and grandpa were both head pastors during her upbringing. Most Sundays, you could find her in the choir along with her mom, dad and cousins.

The arts are heavily involved in the ecosystem of the Black church and welcomed as a means to create a beautiful space for individuals to connect to divinity through dance, praise, spoken word, gospel and singing.

“It really taught me how to be a good person, regardless of what you’re supposed to get out of church. It taught me the very basic principle: to treat others how you want to be treated,” Patterson said. “It taught me how to find my form of art that brings me joy and allows me to release.”

A display of hatboxes and “Church Hats” made of beeswax, inspired by Patterson’s memories of the exquisite hats worn by the Black women in the church she attended as a child. (from the artist)

In 2016, Patterson moved to Kansas City to attend the Kansas City Art Institute, where she found her niche in ceramics. She fell in love with the tactile nature of clay and wanted to use it to bring her church experience to life.

“One of the most beautiful things about ceramics is its durability,” said Patterson. Ceramics is one of the reasons we can study ancient cultures, because the clay seals a part of history. As she became older, many of the Black women who helped raise her passed away. To honor these women’s legacy and archive their history, she is recreating the iconic hats they would frequently wear on Sunday mornings.

“Black women are the least supported, the underdogs of our culture; it would be beautiful to immortalize them through such a permanent material like ceramics,” she said. Despite the larger society’s lack of recognition of the Black community’s beauty and culture, Patterson believes “we knew we were beautiful all along.”

Patterson is not only using ceramics for these hats, but shea butter, black soap and beeswax to honor the protectants her Black ancestors used. Her collection holds a sense of familiarity due to the materials used as well as the way she translates her memories into art, hand-molding realistic depictions of various hats, including straw hats, sun hats, cloches and floppy hats — all a direct result of what she saw growing up in the church. She also handcrafted flower barrettes out of beeswax, strung together like a curtain, symbolizing the transition of womanhood through hair, beauty and adornment traditions passed from the Black women from her childhood.

“I think a lot of the adornments our ancestors used were honestly to protect themselves,” she said. “These sealants and protectants that we still use on our skin and hair are how we protect our bodies and seal our culture.”

These materials are very intimate to the Black community and have been part of its history for centuries. They act as protectants, but also a spiritual way of connecting to one’s ancestors by rubbing these materials into one’s skin.

“This exhibit is an homage to the Black women who have just literally gone through so much and still look phenomenal after a long week of work and sweat and whatever that week put them through,” Patterson said.

In the future, Patterson plans to give these hats to the families of the women who inspired her as a memorial to preserve their memories in ceramics.

An exhibit of Jada Patterson’s church hats series runs Sept. 16 – Oct. 15 at plug gallery, 1328 Agnes Ave. For more information about the artist and the exhibit, visit www.jadapatterson.com or www.plug.gallery.


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