Cross-country quilting for a cure

Traveling art exhibit and charity auction raise funds for Alzheimer's disease research

January 13, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Mary Matton was so touched by the traveling exhibit of 52 art quilts interpreting Alzheimer's disease that she decided she wanted to help.

Besides, the project involved two of her favorite things, charity and quilting, she said.

"I am always looking for a good cause to which I can donate quilts," said Matton, 61, of Davidsonville. "And I find Alzheimer's to be a very scary disease. It's scarier than cancer. You're here, but not mentally."

Matton and about 20 other members of the Annapolis Quilting Guild are participating in the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative, a grass-roots effort begun in January 2006 to increase awareness and fund research to help find a cure for Alzheimer's.

Founded by Ami Simms, a professional quilter from Flint, Mich., the project operates under the auspices of a new nonprofit organization and is divided into two parts.

The first is Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece, a traveling exhibit comprising 52 quilts that interpret the disease. The exhibit started in 2006 and will travel around the country through 2009.

The second part is Priority: Alzheimer's Quilts, a program for which quilts are made and then sold or auctioned to raise money for Alzheimer's research. The quilts are small enough to fit, unfolded, in a U.S. Postal Service priority envelope.

Simms started the program after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she said. Alzheimer's is a fatal disorder that destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior.

Alzheimer's is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States, and more than 5 million Americans live with the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association, which was established in 1980.

As Simms watched the disease's effect on her mother, she said, she became angry.

"I thought it would be a good idea to channel that anger into something good," said Simms, who travels across the country with the quilt exhibit, and gives speeches and lectures on quilting.

Simms set a three-year goal of raising $75,000. The response from quilters nationwide far exceeded her wildest expectations, she said.

More than $150,000 has been raised nationwide from the sale of the quilts since the inception of the program. They sell for $10 to $275 each, Simms said.

Until this month, all money raised went to the Alzheimer's Association. The program has grown so rapidly, however, that Simms plans to award $5,000 grants to research projects, she said.

"We don't want someone who calls in and says: `If you eat a lot of watermelon, you will not get Alzheimer's,'" she said.

Some of the 300 members of the Annapolis Quilt Guild are participating in the program through an initiative called the $1,000 Promise. The members have pledged to raise $1,000 for Alzheimer's through the sale or auction of the quilts that they make and then donate, Matton said.

Matton has met her $1,000 goal, having raised $1,085, but has continued to make the quilts, she said.

"Quilting is a medium you can put a lot of yourself into," she said. "In cross stitch, you use patterns that tell you the colors to use and you create something someone else designed. You use patterns for quilts, but you can make them more your own. You can use the colors and materials you want to use."

People also have a personal connection to quilts, said Matton, a docent for the Smithsonian Institution, where she lectures on the museum's quilt collection.

"Interest in quilts is increasing," Matton said. "Most people have a mother or a grandmother who quilted. So quilts are a piece of their past."

When Matton challenged other guild members to participate in the program, Ann Kelsall signed on.

"We make small quilts," said Kelsall, 74, of Mitchellville, whose quilts have mythological themes. "It's a great opportunity to try new techniques. You can take chances and see what happens. It doesn't matter if it works out or not, because you haven't invested a lot in it."

Kelsall said she makes her pieces very graphic, with high contrast. When they are placed on the Internet for the online auction, they are shown in 1-inch squares. She creates quilts that photograph well and show up in the small pictures, she said.

Dozens of quilters have registered more than 2,000 quilts during the past two years, Simms said. The project has grown so much that Simms is hiring someone to help, she said.

"This project is eating up my life," she said. "My business is in the toilet. And I spend about 25 hours a day thinking about it. But when I look and see what the disease has done to my mother, I get overwhelmed by all the quilters who open their hearts and create little masterpieces that turn into research dollars. It is so worth it."

The quilts made by the local group will be exhibited in the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt from Feb. 1 through the middle of March.

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