Sewing and Growing: Communal Quilts for Education and Liberation

Emma Civey Stahl, Women’s Rights Quilt, c. 1875. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Quilt making is a powerful art-centered form of collaborative learning and communicating that has significant roots in shaping many social, cultural and political movements throughout history. Quilts are a traditional kind of crowdsourced creativity, which can honor and raise awareness about local and global issues and causes such as ongoing pandemics, intersectionality of identity and civil rights. In American culture, the longstanding history of making quilts is woven into the fabric of indigenous culture, women’s liberation movements, African-American identity and LGBTQ pride.

Emma Civey Stahl’s Women’s Rights Quilt (c.1875) is a testament of the narrative value that the textile art form has. Her quilt features a series of circular vignettes that communicate two significant contemporary accounts from her era: the experiences of Civil War soldiers and the women’s rights movement. A century later, quilt making was conceptualized by feminist artists like Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago to promote an equal and equitable playing field for women in the arts (see: Feminist Art Education).

The AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a seminal example of the poignancy and catharsis behind making and viewing quilts. The idea for the project was formulated in San Fransisco, California during the mid-1980s by LGBTQ activist Cleve Jones, as a way to memorialize residents of the city who died from AIDS-related complications. The quilt began to take shape during a march Jones helped organized to honor and support LGBTQ civil rights. Jones prompted marchers to write the names of personal contacts who had died from the virus on their placards, which were then affixed to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. Realizing that the arrangement of the names resembled the qualities of a quilt inspired Jones et al to continue paying tribute to the lives of people affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt (most commonly known as The AIDS Memorial Quilt) was officially launched in 1987, and the organizers (Jones, Mike Smith, Joseph Durant, Jack Caster, Gert McMullin, Ron Cordova, Larkin Mayo, Steve Kirchner, and Gary Yuschalk) began to solicit community members to create 3′ x 6′ panels (roughly the size of a burial plot) using materials and techniques of their choice, in order to express a heartfelt connection to a particular individual they want the public to recognize and remember. The aesthetically striking panels are replete with symbolism addressing and transcending the stigma around HIV/AIDS and visualizing the magnitude of the pandemic, which impacts the lives of over 37 million people. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is the largest communal quilting project in the world with over 48,000 individual squares by contributors from more than 35 countries (Fee, 2006).

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Helen Dear’s contribution to the Corona Quilt. Courtesy of the artist.

Right now we are experiencing an additional pandemic in the form of COVID-19. The Corona Quilt is a communal art making project that utilizes the traditional aesthetics and socially engaged process of quilt making to address the fears, anxieties and stresses related to dealing with COVID-19 and living in quarantine. The idea of the project is that these individualized expressions will be viewed through a collectivist lens and tell an open-ended story of how the pandemic impacts us on both local and global levels. The quilted squares from participants can be created with whatever materials they have at their disposal due to the fact many people are living in a state of quarantine. Examples have included drawings, paintings, collages and photographs. The only requirement is that participants crop their work to fit a roughly 8 inch square. Each completed design is uploaded to social media, forming a patchwork narrative that seeks to help cope with personal feelings of anxiety, while building empathy for other’s experiences.

Women of Gee’s Bend working on a quilt in 2005. Photograph by Andre Natta.

In addition to the outstanding toll on mental and physical health, the COVID-19 crisis has made it a hardship for medical professionals and vulnerable populations to receive and maintain an adequate supply of PPE (personal protective equipment). The renowned Gee’s Bend Quilters have adapted quilt making’s sociocultural purpose to address this problem by sewing masks for all citizens of their close-knit Alabama community (see: Dafoe, 2020). As one of the most influential artisan collectives in American history, Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers have extended and carried on the legacy of African-American quilting, an art form that symbolizes physical and spiritual protection and empowerment for both individual artists and the community at large (see: Wahlman, 1993).

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Faith Ringgold, Woman On A Bridge #1 of 5: Tar Beach, 1988, acrylic paint, canvas, printed fabric, ink, and thread. Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. New York. Gift, Mr. and Mrs. Gus and Judith Leiber, 1988. © Faith Ringgold.

Through their storytelling and collaborative properties, quilts continue to inspire and teach diverse generations about social and cultural topics. For example, Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (1991) is often incorporated as a popular learning segment for teaching young students about Black history, community and the art of storytelling. Tar Beach is a book based on Ringgold’s quilts from the Women on a Bridge series (1988). The book tells the tale of a young girl named Cassie Louise Lightfoot who lives in Harlem, New York. Cassie is only eight years old, but gains a valuable and liberating experience via her ability to fly high above the city. On her journey, Lightfoot makes valuable connections to her cultural background and unique identity. Cassie’s narration inspires us to think about socially engaged themes such as equity and equality. She mentions that all you have to do to fly is think of “somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.” In other words, when you have a big idea, you should let nothing get in your way. The book, as well as Ringgold’s series of quilts, present a message of transcendence and having pride in ourselves and where we come from.

Ringgold’s use of quilts as illustrations, reflect her multifaceted identity and make connections to the mediums significance among African-American women. Quilt making has familial significance to Ringgold, going back to her great-great-great grandmother, who as a slave, created quilts for Southern plantation owners. Ringgold learned the traditional African-American art of quilt-making from mother, Willi Posey, who was a well known fashion designer and seamstress in Harlem, New York. Ringgold and Posey collaborated on several quilt projects including Echoes of Harlem (1980), which rhythmically depicts distinct facial expressions and perspectives of African-American individuals. Collectively, the faces are a symbol of Harlem, a cultural epicenter for African-American culture and community.

Bisa Butler, Life Like It’s Golden, 2015-2016, denim. Courtesy of the Byron Nelson Family Collection.

Bisa Butler crafts larger than life figurative quilts that celebrate her Ghanaian heritage and signify the plurality of African-American culture, history and identity. Using vintage photographs as sources, the representational images that are portrayed in her quilts reveal both intimate and formal perspectives of Black America. Butler transforms the archival images she works from by using a vibrant palette and fabric patterns that recall quilting traditions to create entirely new compositions reflecting communal memories and sociocultural experiences from Black History and contemporary life. Her current exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art can be viewed virtually.

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Amanda Browder, Future Phenomena, 2010, sewn fabric installation, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Courtesy of the artist.

Amanda Browder typically eschews the institutional presentation of art, in favor of displaying her large-scale fabric installations within the community. She often works with local communities to realize and create vibrantly colored tapestries that are usually so large that they cover building facades, walls and other public architectural structures. Members of the public participate in the creation of these works by helping to source materials (most of the fabric is upcycled from within the community) and sew large swatches of fabric together. The fruits of this cooperative labor is best represented in her prior quilt-like installations such as Future Phenomena (2010, Greenpoint, Brooklyn), Spectral Locus (2016, Buffalo, New York) and City of Threads (2019, Arlington, Virginia).

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Communal sewing day in Buffalo, New York for Amanda Browder’s Spectral Locus installation, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Her current project, Metropolis Sunrise is commissioned by ArtsWestchester and will transform the art organization’s 9-story historically landmarked building in White Plains, New York. In preparation for the transformation of the building’s facade, Browder invited the community to participate in Metropolis Sunrise‘s fabrication by hosting community sewing days. Working closely with Browder, people of all ages pinned and sewed fabric shapes together, in order to form the monumental textile-artwork that will be displayed prominently in the community. Unfortunately due to the coronavirus, the remaining communal sewing days had to be canceled. The public artwork is currently scheduled to be displayed when it is deemed safe to do so.

Metaphorically speaking, life resembles a quilt. The lived experience is made up of a patchwork of events and an exploration of materials, meanings, patterns and forms that influence how we communicate and make sense of the world around us. When we piece together our experiences, backgrounds and multifaceted identities, we learn about our rich cultural narratives and develop deeper understandings and connections to one another.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Dafoe, Taylor. “The Famed Quilters of Gee’s Bend Are Using Their Sewing Skills to Make a Face Mask for Every Citizen in Their Small Alabama Town.” artnet, 13 April 2020.

Fee, Elizabeth. “The AIDS Memorial Quilt.” American Journal of Public Health, 96(6), p. 979. 2006 June; 96(6): 979.

Wahlman, Maude Southwell (1993). Signs and Symbols: African Images in African-American Quilts. New York: Penguin. 

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