Be the Artist: Messages and Meanings in Quilts

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Quilts have been used to help tell stories, promote causes, and share memories. Design a quilt collage that tells a story you want to share. Images: Lisa Tate

This summer’s Be the Artist 2020 highlights art created with a specific purpose in mind.

The Purpose: Messages in Quilts

Every quilt made is for a purpose, and often its story goes way beyond the practical need for physical warmth and comfort.

There is more history to quilts than can be mentioned in a brief summary, but according to a timeline put together by the International Quilt Study Center in Nebraska, one of the oldest examples of a quilted piece dates back to between 100 and 200 BCE. The art form of quilt making for both art and function has been part of cultures worldwide, and, often, these layered fabric pieces tell a story.

Sometimes the story is simple and very personal to a family, sometimes it is a secret story that can be deciphered by only a few, and other quilts are meant for the world to see, learn from, and remember.

For families and friends, quilt designs and patterns can be more than just ornamental, and represent family or family member’s history or favorite memories. The popularity of projects like t-shirt quilts has helped to make this easy for some quilters, by upcycling materials such as no longer worn school, sports, or music shirts into the design.

Yet, a quilt can be much more important, and be a symbol of a community’s resilience and importance. Some of the most famous quilts in the United States come from more than four generations of artists from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a remote African-American community. Many of these residents were ancestors of slaves of Pettway Plantation. These quilts were not only made for necessity with upcycled materials, they are often known for their distinct improvisational styles. These quilts have been the subject of a national art tour, a U.S. Postal Service Stamp Series, and have helped the quiltmakers of this area tell their stories to the world.

Quilt Types
Quilts have been an important part of the American and world landscape from preserving culture to remembering those we love.

Even before then, when the Underground Railroad was a way to freedom for thousands running from slavery, coded messages were a way for the “conductors,” including Harriet Tubman, to show where it was safe to stay and which way to go for freedom. Many historians believe there was a “quilt code” as part of it. By reading shapes and motifs, those on the run could learn of nearby dangers or routes. For example, a “bear paw” might say to follow an animal trail to food and water, or the “drunkard’s path” design might indicate if there are stalkers nearby. Don’t stay on a straight path.

Today, one of the biggest and most visible quilt projects in the world is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, or simply “The Quilt.” The Quilt was conceived in 1987 in San Francisco, as an artistic way to not only remember those who lost their lives to the AIDS epidemic but to help people realize the value of every life lost. The Quilt is preserved by the NAMES Project Foundation that uses the quilt to help “foster healing, heighten awareness, and inspire action in the struggle against HIV and AIDS.”

The Quilt is still growing today, and there are more than 1,000 displays hosted each year. The Quilt in its entirety has more than 50,000 panels, each representing a person who died of AIDS or related illnesses, and weighs more than 54 tons in its entirety. The NAMES Foundation has a database available online for people to search and view certain panels.

The artistic, social, and political impact of quilts has been so strong, the Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc. put together a nine-part PBS documentary series in 2011, Why Quilts Matter: History, Art, and Politics, talking about the history, process, and purpose of quilts from fine art to women’s empowerment.

When this series was made, it estimated more than 21 million people in the United States alone were quilting.

Whether for practicality or pleasure, projects like the AIDS Memorial Quilt invited people to look beyond the patterns at the purpose.

“With that seemingly simple act of love and defiance, the first panels of the Quilt were made,” NAMES Foundation CEO Julie Rhoad said of the quilt when it returned San Francisco to be displayed in the summer of 2019. “They made it impossible for the world to dismiss and deny AIDS, and made it impossible for us to look at this without looking at the human toll.”

Quilting might not be easy to learn in one afternoon, but you can create a quilt style collage that tells your story with whatever materials you can find.

The Project: Design Your Quilt Story

The actual quilting process is more than just sewing cloth together. On the Why Quilts Matter site, a “real” quilt is described as “a three-layer fabric sandwich sewn together and folded over a bed,” but it also says quilts can include an “amalgamation of fabric, photography, printmaking, and other media, and hangs on a gallery wall.” The possibilities and meanings are endless.

Even if you don’t know the process of quiltmaking, you can still tell a story through quilt design. In this project, we’ll make a four-panel “mock quilt” collage to help send a specific message.

First, choose your materials, and like the quilter’s of Gee’s Bend, use what is available. Use scraps of cloth or felt. Use construction or origami paper, or simply create a drawing on a single sheet of paper if nothing else is available. The message is the key to this project as much as the materials.

Paper, stickers, felt, or cloth are just some of the upcycled materials that can go into a quilt collage.

For the message, draw or cut four equal square blocks that will tell your story.

Now think of the message. Are you remembering or celebrating a person in your life? Is there a specific cause or event you want to talk about through art? Do you want to document your personal experiences in the recent quarantine or school year? Is there a story, movie, song, or poem you want to interpret? The message is entirely up to you.

With each block, add or draw some sort of border to help each panel stand out. These can be as plain, small, or wide as you want. Within each panel place a simple piece to define a piece of the story. It might be a cutout image from a magazine or comic or a piece of a news clipping.

If you want something people to look harder to interpret, create a shape. It might be something as obvious as an animal or something only certain people who see it will notice, like a symbol or logo from pop culture, politics, or your own life’s experiences.

If you need inspiration, Favequilts has a list of common quilt block designs and their meanings.

Start your story on a plain square or “block,” then add borders and your story images.

Once the four images are chosen, draw or paste them on panels. You don’t have to think in linear storytelling either. Sometimes four designs might symbolize or show a memory or experience without having to tell the start-to-finish tale. Once finished, place them all together on one surface to create a full four-block story panel.

In addition to a personal message or memory, try making a quilt story to give to someone else.

This summer, there are plenty of reasons to send or give some a special message, one they can figure out for themselves or one you can explain to them. It might be a hardship they are going through or a personal family celebration. It might also just be to let someone know their abilities, talents, beliefs, or actions haven’t gone unnoticed.

Our quilt stories: My 10-year-old’s DC Girl heroes and the places they are from, a journey through the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, and my teen’s events that were missed or altered during quarantine.

Quilters know the value of their work, which is more than just keeping a bed warm. One quilter named Sharon Tindall talked about being inspired by the Underground Railroad’s “quilt code” in an article for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage:

“When I’m creating a quilt, I’m focused on the purpose of the quilt,” she said. “I’m thankful I am able to create something of comfort.”

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