Monday, July 6, 2009

The Life Quilt

I posted a photo today on my Facebook page of an art quilt of mine, one that I hope will be accepted for an upcoming fiber arts exhibition. Someone asked me about it, and there's no better explanation than the final few paragraphs of my dissertation, for which the piece was created:

Concluding Thoughts: The Life Quilt

The image for the final art piece, entitled “Life Quilt,” appeared relatively early in the dissertation process but refused to come into physical form. I started collecting materials for it, imagining its parts and layout, but was never able to begin the actual work. This puzzled me, because the image was so clear in my mind. It was not until the morning when I began to write this last section of the dissertation that I understood why this piece had to wait, and only at that moment was I able to begin to work on it.

The Life Quilt is created in homage to all the Ladies who collaborated with me in this work. It includes phototransferred images from the letters with which I began the journey, scraps of fabric and clothing from my own family and from pieces “found” in thrift shops and antique stores, and some small objects that represent stages in our lives as women. These bits and scraps are collaged, stitched, and quilted together; the edges are neither bound (though our lives have often been bounded) nor finished (as our lives are never neatly finished). The idea appeared about the time I first encountered my imaginal friend Ellen Janney:

I’m working today in the basement studio, selecting fabrics for a quilt piece. A quilt seems like a good thing for the Ladies and me to do together—a quilting bee! I sense several presences. One person I recognize—my mother’s mother, Hazel Comstock. She says, “My granny made quilts … like them crazy quilts.” Hazel so rarely speaks! But she’s interested, at least.

I’ve got some old, fragile laces and fine things; some battered dishtowels; a piece of one of my dad’s knitted cotton “guinea tees,” worn to shreds after Mom died. Pieces of Mom’s old damask tablecloths, who knows how old when she received them, but worn and threadbare in spots even when she gave them to me back in the ‘80s. I’m not being gentle with any of these things. Life isn’t gentle with us; Death, life’s other face, is not gentle. It rips our garments, our dreams, our lives, and leaves us standing, gaping at the sudden destruction, the jagged hole left in the fabric of our existence. Sometimes we’re able to mend the rent, but often it remains. Often, our lives are shredded like shattered silk....

I’ve never hand-quilted before, and I call on the Ladies: “Who’s the best quilter among us? I’ll need your hands to guide mine, please.” Then, in my mind’s eye, I see a little woman, probably in her sixties; small, frail, white-haired, and encased (the only possible word) in black silk with a white lace collar. Quaker? I wonder. Time period looks to be the 1880s, maybe, from the dress, though it’s an everyday dress and so it’s hard to say exactly. I see her with her head bent over something—a sewing machine, maybe? She knows I’m there, but doesn’t acknowledge me; she’s intent on what she’s doing. Then she pulls whatever it is off the table toward her, gives it a little shake, then looks up at me and smiles. I recognize her now—Mary Ann John Tomlinson, my great-great-grandmother, Ellen’s dearest friend. This is a thrill for me.

I wonder about the way I first saw Mary Ann just now—bent, as if over a sewing machine. I wonder if she actually had one, or if I’m seeing her that way because of the relationship fostered by our work here: almost like I’m seeing the part of her that lives on in me. However it is, it feels so right, and so warm: all of us Ladies, holding hands across the years and the generations, sharing our experiences....

The backing for the piece, onto which the fabric shapes are quilted in what at first seems a random pattern, is faintly imprinted with images of the Mandelbrot Set, representing the infinitely repeating, yet infinitely variable nature of women’s lives over the course of human history. The stitches that appear random from the front of the piece are actually caught up to points within that repeating pattern on the quilt back. Our lives are part of the archetypal pattern, whether we can see that or not.

On that morning when I began to write these concluding paragraphs, I realized that the reason the piece lay dormant for all these years is that it represents the dissertation itself. Parts of this finished work were actually written years ago, and have been incorporated almost untouched. They remained there in my files and in my mind, and I turned them over and over without being able to see how they fit into the overall pattern of the work. All I knew was that they were part of the work; like seeds in the winter soil, they needed to wait for the springtime to sprout, and for the summertime to flower.

The work on this dissertation followed the seasons; each spring it came to life again after a winter’s dormancy. As spring progressed into summer, ideas flowed and writing progressed. In full summer I admired the work’s progress, tended and watered and pruned and weeded. Then, in the fall, that period of work would come to a close and the seeds would fall to the ground; the cycle continued during the cold bleakness of winter. As I write this, spring is once more moving toward a summer during which I will weed and prune the draft and watch it flower into the final version. In the early fall I will defend the dissertation. I do not yet know what the fruits and seeds of this work will be, nor what new growth will sprout from it after the upcoming winter. But I know that the cycle is endless, and that my part in it continues. I am endlessly grateful.

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