BY JESSICA GELT
LOS ANGELES TIMES (TNS)
LOS ANGELES—She found her inspiration in the overnight violence report sent every morning to her husband, a district leader for the Chicago public school system. It cataloged students who had been shot, stabbed and killed the night before.
Jacquie Gering said her husband wore that weight on his shoulders, and that they would watch the news, and the kids in those reports were never mentioned. She felt profoundly disturbed, so Gering did what she does best. She made a quilt.
It featured a 5-foot tall black handgun with blood dripping out of its muzzle and pooling beneath its trigger. She titled her quilt, “Bang You’re Dead.” She put the quilt on her blog and wrote that it was not meant to be humorous. It was meant to be final.
The finality of death, whether at the hands of a police officer or a rogue armed citizen, is at the heart of some striking quilts on display at QuiltCon West in Pasadena through Feb. 21. These quilts are a rarity at the show, where nearly 10,000 people from 49 states and 15 countries came largely to see more traditional designs. But work centered on racial inequality and the violence rooted in racism signals the strength of a modern quilt movement, which emphasizes individual feelings and experiences.
These quilt artists are using “their needle and thread to prick the consciousness of the people,” says Marsha MacDowell, professor at Michigan State University, curator of folk arts at MSU Museum and author of a forthcoming book about quilts and human rights.
MacDowell points out that textiles have long served this purpose. In the 19th century and early 20th century, quilting provided some women’s only voice, resulting in quilts that championed women’s suffrage and Fannie B. Shaw’s “Prosperity Is Just Around the Corner,” whose imagery depicted optimism at the height of the Great Depression. Decades later the massive AIDS Memorial Quilt made its statement in 1987 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Recently, however, heightened interest in the art of quilt making has mixed with nationwide protests over social injustice. Add the Internet and you’ve got explosive results.
Blogs with titles such as Subversive Stitchers and organizations like QuiltForChange.org are gaining traction, as are community-driven efforts, including the Lynch Quilts Project spearheaded by LaShawnda Crowe Storm. Its mission is to examine the “history and ramifications of racial violence in the United States,” and its quilts feature gut-punching images from some of America’s darkest days. In another sign of how much the quilting world has cracked open, last year the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles staged “Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters.”
“The quilting world can be conservative, politically speaking,” says quilter Chawne Kimber, 45, adding that the Internet brought powerfully diverse voices into the fold. Kimber’s QuiltCon offering is “The One for Eric” and features the tragic last words of Eric Garner, the African-American man killed on Staten Island by an apparent police chokehold. “I can’t breathe” is quilted over and over again, in white block letters on a black background.
When QuiltCon opened Feb. 18, “The One for Eric” won first prize in the improvisational piecing category. When Gering, who is chairwoman of the Modern Quilt Guild, announced the win, she could barely conceal her tears.
Message through fabric
An early retiree from the tech world, quilter Karen Maple stitched a quilt titled “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned with the word “Black” in all capital letters written backward over a Confederate flag after last summer’s church shooting in Charleston, S.C.
“The goal is to make that quilt’s message break through the fabric,” Maple says. “And what I like about being able to display it at a quilt show is that so many people are going who are not expecting it. If you affect one of those people with thoughts about racism, maybe it will touch their heart.”