PASADENA, Calif. — “SHUT UP and Listen,” proclaims a quilt in bold, red letters. It shows a muted American flag, hung upside down on its phantom flagpole. The aggressive “SHUT UP” is rendered in darker red fabric, like oxidized blood. But the message softens with the word “Listen,” looped in beautiful script, using sweeter reds and an assemblage of floral, plaid, and paisley fabrics. The quilt is willing to have a conversation if I’m willing to hold my tongue.
Jessica Wohl’s quilt was just one of many beckoning calls to action at QuiltCon 2018, the Modern Quilt Guild’s annual convention, held at the Pasadena Convention Center late February. The guild launched in 2009, after quilters making innovative, nontraditional works began forming connections online and realized they weren’t alone in their experimentation. The guild has established chapters internationally, in which quilters come together and show their work, workshop new techniques, and build a community.
Embedded in this year’s quilt show, which featured over 350 works, were acts of protest. They carried messages like “strong women taught us to quilt…and to fight,” “rise up, resist,” and simply, “oh no.” Others depicted difficult, but insightful, interpretations of mass incarceration, police brutality, school shootings, and acts of terror. The need quilters have felt to channel their frustrations into their craft during Trump’s America was palpable. But the members of the Modern Quilt Guild are also continuing a very old tradition of using the quilt as a tool for resistance.
Activist works utilizing textile arts, or “craftism,” is often cited as emerging in the 1980s, when Cleve Jones began the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt as a way to commemorate each life lost to the virus in the height of its outbreak. Protest quilts, however, have been traced to as early as the 18th century. Some were made during times of upheaval, such as Lucinda Ward Honstain’s “Reconciliation Quilt,” pieced in 1867, which depicts key moments of the Civil War and juxtaposes them with scenes from the artist’s family’s life in New York City. Other protest quilts were made as acts of defiance. Imprisoned after American forces overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii, Queen Liliʻuokalani sewed a quilt recording the events that led to Hawaii’s colonization. At the center of the block, she stitched “Imprisoned at Iolani Palace…we began the quilt here,” positioning the quilt as a historical marker, one that pushes against whitewashing and preserves Hawaii’s struggles under Queen Liliʻuokalani’s terms.
Many protest quilts take to storytelling, such as Faith Ringgold’s painted narrative quilts. She draws from her position as a Civil Rights leader and her childhood during the Harlem Renaissance to make quilts centered on African American history. One of her more political works is “Flag Story quilt” (1985), a hand-painted and -dyed American flag in which the stars are substituted with anonymous white faces. Embroidered into the alternating white stripes, she tells the story of a black quadriplegic Vietnam veteran falsely accused of the rape and murder of a white woman. In 2016, Ringgold’s provocative storytelling inspired a special exhibit of works at QuiltCon sewn by high schoolers who collaborated with the Social Justice Sewing Academy, a grassroots organization that fosters dialogues around issues like Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, sexual assault, and gun violence. The quilts did not shy away from depicting traumatic events like the murder of Eric Garner, or the mass shooting that took 58 lives at a country music festival in Las Vegas last October.
Back at the juried show, some quilters broke away from narrative quilts and used minimalist designs punctuated by questions and calls to action. They display feminist slogans, like “women’s rights are human rights,” and attempt to empower viewers with messages like “your words fucking matter” and “we must try.” The quilt that won the People’s Choice award, “She Was Warned” by Liz Harvatine, expertly embroiders “nevertheless, she persisted,” all throughout an American flag, and is ready to be worn over someone’s shoulders at the Women’s March, crowned with a hand-knitted pussy hat.
The quilts at the convention could be easily commercialized, and yet, these pieced-together phrases still combat the stereotype that quilting is an activity for your polite, but racist, grandmother left behind in flyover country. A feminist quilt still shocks — last March, two quilts at the Tucson Quilters Guild annual show — one anti-Trump, and one pro-immigration — were subjects of controversy. Some people asked that the pieces be removed, but the guild stood by the works. Modern quilters want us to know that the political landscape is changing, and they have joined the resistance.
At QuiltCon there were panels from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which now has over 96,000 blocks and continues to grow. Each panel towered over viewers, amplifying the magnitude of AIDS’ toll on life. Not far from this display was Juli Smith’s “B4U,” a tribute to Heather Heyer, the activist killed during the white supremacist march in Charlottesville last August. Seen so close together, it was not hard to imagine “B4U” added to a quilt commemorating the lives of activists. After all, the AIDS Memorial Quilt has inspired many other collaborative projects, like the Monument Quilt, which shares stories from survivors of rape and abuse, and Arts for Recovery’s Breast Cancer Quilt Project.
Though QuiltCon 2018 has wrapped, expect next year’s convention to carry similar narratives of social justice and stark rallying calls. Tensions remain high, and textile artists from all backgrounds won’t give up on centuries of making their voices heard through craft because, as Lysa Flower quilts, “you can’t you won’t and you don’t stop.”
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