A day with Marie

I took the day off work to spend time with my friend Marie, and go to the Sewing & Quilt Expo in Atlanta for the first time. She was quite delighted when we first met to discover I quilted, as she has three daughters and they mostly aren't interested in her hobby. (Her daughters are all Chinese adopted--that's how I know Marie. All three are teenagers.) I was a delighted guest of hers, as we trekked over to Gwinnett County and spent a few hours fueling creativity and getting inspiration. We both had projects we were shopping for, which gave us goals. The quilt show that is also a part of the Expo was smaller than usual, Marie said. All the quilts were nicely done, but bland, generic, traditional, and in general, very ehhh. Except for one row of extraordinary mini quilts, all around 1' x 2', designed each by a member of the NYC Metro Modern Quilt Guild. (Add this exhibit to the list of additional reasons for me to live in NYC in my life. What an awesome guild.) There were panels along the bottoms of the display that told about the inspiration behind each of the mini quilts, a form that offers so much potential for creative juice, because no technique is too big to get overwhelmed by when the final product is tiny. The driving force behind these quilts was the question, "what does modern quilting mean to you?" And the results, in both work of art and words explaining, were captivating, creatively inspiring, and beautiful.

My favorites are here. My photos do them terrible justice. All the mini quilts were beautiful--you should read more about them and their meaning.

The first, Back in To-Day, features two photographs transferred onto the fabric, the first from the Library of Congress's folklife photograph collection, of a woman--in her own modern day--working on a quilt. The second is the creator of this piece, working on her own modern quilt. Quilting, she says, is modern always--for the person doing it. It is happening right now. Interesting perspective on modern quilting.

The second one is scanned images of the quilter's deceased cat, which he started playing with in ditigal form after sorting through some papers years after the cat had died and realizing that chopping the images up yielded graphic and interesting results.

The third is all creams, tiny stitches, and one patch of teal. Right up my modern quilt alley. They are all stunning in person.

I also loved the African textiles and traditional patterns and quilting motifs, but anyone who's ever heard me gush about these motifs from when I was researching them for my material culture class already knows I'm crazy for them. The things they have done with narrow woven pieces of fabric, and created so much movement and pattern... amazing.

A good day.


1988: "History will record..."

The day I visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt, I went on Amazon and bought a used copy of Cleve Jones's memoir, Stitching a Revolution. Jones created the Quilt, with a small team, after having a vision of it during a memorial event for Harvey Milk in 1985--years after Milk's death but when the new virus was devastating gay communities--and hitting particularly hard in Jones's long-time home, the Castro district in San Francisco. He is a wonderful writer, and has survived when so many of his friends have not, and he seems to feel that burden, and it comes through in his continued activism, public speaking, and writing over the years. In 1988, the NAMES Project staff and an enormous group of volunteers brought the Quilt to the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. for the second time (a year after its first memorial display), and he gave a speak that can be found on YouTube--filled with emotion and setting much of responsibility for where we stood in 1988 on inaction from the government of the United States, the one country in the world with the most resources to act. The story behind the Quilt, its legacy, meaning, and growth--not to mention the hundreds of thousands of stories contained within its squares--are incredible. I thoroughly enjoyed reading of its provenance and meaning through Cleve's eyes.

But I will not share all of this here. I will share an excerpt from that 1988 speech.

We stand here tonight in the shadow of monuments, great structures of stone and metal created by the American people to honor our nation's dead to proclaim the principles of our democracy. Here we remember the soldiers of wars won and lost. Here we trace with our fingers the promises of justice and liberty etched deep by our ancestors in marble and bronze.

Today we have borne in our arms and on our shoulders a new monument to our nation's capital. It is not made of stone or metal and was not raised by engineers. Our monument was sewn of soft fabric and thread and was created in homes across America wherever friends and families gathered together to remember their loved ones lost to AIDS.

We bring a quilt. We bring it here today with shocked sorrow at its vastness and the speed by with its acreage redoubles. We bring it to this place, at this time, accompanied by our deepest hope: that the leaders of our nation will see the evidence of our labor and our love and that they will be moved.

We bring a quilt. We've carried this quilt to every part of our country, and we have seen that the American people know how to defeat AIDS. We have seen that the answers exist and that tens of thousands of Americans have already stepped forward to accept their share and more of this painful struggle. We have seen the compassion and skill with which the American people fight AIDS and care for people with AIDS. We have witnessed the loving dedication of volunteers, families, and friends and the extraordinary bravery of people with AIDS, themselves working beyond exhaustion. And everywhere in this land of ours we have seen death.

In the past fifteen months over twenty thousand Americans have been killed by AIDS. Fifteen months from now our new president will deliver his first state of the union address. And on that day, America will have lost more sons and daughters to AIDS than we lost fighting in Southeast Asia--those whose names we can read today from a polished black stone wall.

We bring a quilt. It grows day by day and night by night and yet its expanse does not begin to cover our grief, nor does its weight outweigh the heaviness within our hearts.

For we carry with us tonight a burdensome truth that must be simply spoken: History will record that in the last quarter of the twentieth century a new and deadly virus emerged and that the one nation on earth with the resources, knowledge, and institutions to respond to the new epidemic failed to do so. History will further record that our nation's failure was the result of ignorance, prejudice, greed, and fear. Not in the heartlands of America, but in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress.

The American people are ready and able to defeat AIDS. We know how it can be done and the people who will do it. It will take a lot of money, hard work, and national leadership. It will require us to understand there is no conflict between the scientific response and the compassionate response. No conflict between love and logic. Some will question us, asking how could that be. We will answer, How could it not?

We bring a quilt. We hope it will help people remember. We hope it will teach our leaders to act.

There are many, many things more I could share. There is so much meaning, lore, love, and anger contained in the Quilt. Over time, I will share more.

I have also learned so much more about Parnell Peterson and Craig Koller, the two men whose squares I visited, since writing about what I wish I knew and then about visiting their panels. In some way, over time, I would like to share that here, too. I must figure out how best I want to express it, share stories. For now, they are mine, held close, and written in the notebook I've dedicated to the stories I collect of their lives.

"To be off balance but still under control"

Or: too many ideas, a creative explosion, stunning color palettes, African strip quilts, and me

Sometimes, work and play intersect, overlap, combine. For this week's material culture class, we read four selections, chapters and articles, on design and aesthetic. One of the pieces was a chapter from John M. Vlach's book The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, and the particular chapter was on African American historical quilting motifs.

Just a few days earlier, I had read a fantastic article from the Wall Street Journal on Denyse Schmidt--easily my favorite designer involved in quilts and modern textiles on this earth. In it, she describes her style as "neo-hillbilly," which is a remarkably apt term, and one that I thought really got to the heart of her improvisational, old-timey, non-conformist, simple designs and motifs. Nearly every time I browse her quilts and patterns, I find something else that inspires me. Sometimes I want to copy her, other times I want to use a technique or a kind of aesthetic she's used to head off in my own direction. I find her entire perspective on quilting fascinating and stimulating.

Reading Vlach's chapter on African American quilting was nothing less than a revelation. Accompanied by many full-page photos of some very old quilt faces, he explains what many may have known before, but I never did: African American quilting aesthetic is grounded in improvisation, and the strip quilt in particular comes almost directly from West African and larger African weaving and textile traditions. The quilt as a form and quilt-making as a practice are European in origin, and so enslaved Africans "encountered the quilt as of the plantation experience."

He goes into great detail about West African applique techniques, patterns, and purpose, but the revelatory part came after, with his description and illustration of the strip quilt.

Denyse Schmidt, in that article, had been talking about the value of state quilt documentation projects for her own inspiration; those are initiatives that were taken up in the 1980s and '90s in nearly every state, urging people to bring in any quilt they knew of, old and ratty, any condition, to document each one and what the owners knew about them at that time, so that their histories could be collected and kept, as an important part of American traditional culture, and as a true collection of Americana art.

I had begun researching these documentation projects, and found the largest compendium of the projects in one place: The Quilt Index. (Browse at your own risk! It may consume your day.) There are also numerous books, by state, on their quilt documentations, including the processes, some of the most significant quilts, and if you're lucky, directions for some of them.

Everything was colliding at once: quilt documentation projects as a source of "hill-billy" and traditional inspiration, from days when making your quilt meant using scraps, old clothing, and feed sacks--sometimes from textiles you have woven yourself--and accurate design came second to having a warm blanket to sleep under; Denyse Schmidt's minimal take on quilting and what constitutes artistic design; and Vlach's chapter on both of these concepts placed right smack dab in their historical place.

All the sudden, I turn to a page and see an "improvisational log cabin motif," identical the one on the quilt I am currently making. Next to it, for comparison, was the precise, mathematical European log cabin form. Here was one of the core bases for my personal inspiration: southern quilting, and African American design aesthetic. As Vlach points out, this approach greatly resembles an improvisational approach to music that creates jazz, in that you must have a mastery of the form of the craft before you can begin to improvise. And African American women who lived in slavery were creating a counterculture exactly their own when they quilted, preserving a cultural memory within the larger colonial and early American traditions surrounding them.

The photos of quilts accompanying Vlach's text were each more fabulous and inspiring and random and thoughtful as the next. (Sadly, I checked out the book from the school library and was sad to find that the book itself is in black and white, meaning I cannot see the pieces in color.) The strip motif derives from the African tradition of men's textile weaving, in which long pieces are woven on a loom and then cut into strips of the right length to be sewn together to form a blanket. For the first time in my life, I felt an itch to learn to use a loom, to make some of this stuff myself and build up a long, winding bundle that I could cut up and stitch into one quilt front.

Some were so simple they were stunningly curved and mix-matched and all too easy to start planning. Others were more composed, but still with that off-kilter charm, the very thing I was finding I wanted in my quilts, and the very thing that Denyse Schmidt makes sure is in each of hers. Not surprisingly, when I found myself in one of my favorite quilt stores a few days later, I ended up leaving with a quilt's worth of fabrics in a palette that I am calling "menswear + African."

By the way, I am already working on two other quilts right now. So yes, this makes three. And I have two jobs and go to grad school full time. What?

But that's why I have Be The Ink, to compile and share my ideas when I can't execute them anywhere else, for the time being.