A patchwork celebration TSU program explores timeless tradition of quilting

November 11, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

They are stitches in time, threads laced through the years by stitchers as far-flung as the pioneer woman struggling for survival in the new West and the modern-day mourner confronting the equally uncharted and brutal landscape of AIDS.

Quilts have proven timeless: The same medium that served as an expressive outlet for the 19th century woman is used today by artists, writers and activists for messages that are as modern as AIDS and divorce. That scope forms the backdrop of a wide-ranging program, "Quilts: A Continuing Tradition," that begins Friday at Towson State University and will include a musical play, a juried exhibit and a scholarly symposium.

"You're [seeing] bits and pieces of people's lives. That's what quilts are," said Katharine Brainard, a Bethesda artist who has "quilted" both her divorce and her subsequent suicidal feelings. "I think of the [pioneer] woman going out West -- she would make quilts, she would stitch in the love of her family, she'd cry and the tears would fall on the quilt. The emotions are the same today. That's the Zen of quilting."

Ms. Brainard's "Suicide Quilt" will be exhibited as part of the Towson State program, a celebration of quilts from both historic and current perspectives. In recent years, quilts have emerged as the chosen vehicle for any number of expressions: The AIDS Memorial Quilt, for example, has become a softer, more tactile version of the Vietnam Wall, each of the nearly 30,000 panels commemorating a life lost to the disease. Writers have discovered the quilt -- which is simultaneously utilitarian and artistic -- as an apt metaphor for their stories as well as a structural device for piecing together their narratives. And a growing body of scholarship sees them as icons of both feminist "herstory" and the patchwork diversity of America.

"Somehow, there's a connection people make with this art form," said Molly Newman, who wrote "Quilters," a musical play that will be performed at Towson State as part of its quilt program. "Quilts are decorative, but they also warm you and comfort you. They're meant to be touched."

Ms. Newman, a former actress who lives in upstate New York, wrote the play after her mother, herself a quilter, suggested that she use the oral histories of quilters from the past as audition material. She became fascinated by the tales, and directors, intrigued by hearing something besides Juliet balcony scenes in auditions, encouraged her to try to create an entire play around ++ the lives of the pioneer women and their quilts.

Appropriately for a play structured around the building of a quilt, Ms. Newman's play "evolved over time" from an experimental show that she presented in Denver in the early 1980s to its opening on Broadway in 1984. Since then, the musical has been performed by groups that often extend the quilting theme into audience participation.

"At the Kennedy Center, they set up a big quilt in the lobby and let people put in a few stitches and leave their mark on it. Another [group's] tickets were cloth, and when the people turned them in, they made a quilt out of them," Ms. Newman said. "Others raffle off the quilt that is used in the production."

The play is divided into scenes, each based on an actual quilt block that tells a story. Writer Whitney Otto similarly used the building-block metaphor for her novel, "How to Make an American Quilt," a story published last year about the intersecting lives of a group of women in a quilting bee.

"I knew nothing about quilting. I can't even sew buttons on clothes," said Ms. Otto, who lives in Portland, Ore. "But I was taken with the idea of quilting, and re-creating it in only words, so it would be a sort of verbal quilt."

While quilts have never actually gone away, their current revival reflects a recognition that history is not just what men have done and recorded.

"Until recently, women's history was invisible," said Dr. Elaine Hedges, a quilt historian and English professor who heads Towson State's Women's Studies Program. "History largely was written by men about public events. Women in the 19th century were not considered proper subjects for study."

Quilting became an "expressive outlet" for women, denied as they were the educational and professional training available to men, Dr. Hedges said.

"Women made far more quilts than they needed for bedding," she said. "They made them as ritual markers -- for weddings, for friendships, for deaths. And they also used their sewing for political expressions."

Women would embroider quilts with various slogans, of the abolitionist and suffragette movements for example, and sell them to raise money for those causes, Dr. Hedges said. Additionally, quilting bees -- in which women, often in church groups, joined forces to collaborate on quilts -- became a way for women to exchange news.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.