Unstitched States: A Collaborative Quilt

The word “collaborate” has carried different meanings since the word emerged in the nineteenth century: from its more common connotation (“to work together”) to a lesser-known association in the mid-twentieth century (“to co-operate traitorously with the enemy”). At this historical moment, we have come together from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and geographies to collaborate on a humble statement of inclusivity and solidarity. Rather than striving for perfection, we have made an imperfect work: a collaborative quilt.  

As hate acts in communities have escalated around the country, needing active address at every turn, we have co-created this digital quilt as a testament of solidarity to the principles of equality and dignity. Given our geographic distance and short timeline, this quilt is digital to be easily sharable, hoping to represent more than the sum of its parts and to encourage community-building through the arts.

Quilting is an often overlooked craft, and not always considered an art. Quilting summons associations that make it an apt metaphor for this project: fostering community (through quilting circles/bees); reusing materials for functional reasons of necessity and warmth (often gifted); re-membering history and bequeathing a legacy; humility; co-creating and crafting new patterns; portable to take wherever you go (in this case across country and across borders); and often considered “women’s work." We looked to collections of community quilts as inspiration: from the quilts of Gee’s Bend in rural Alabama to the AIDS Memorial Quilt once spread across the National Mall.

For this collaborative quilt, we invited contributors to share a 5”x5” digital quilt square in response to current events. Since we wanted to launch the quilt on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this was a “quick-and-dirty” exercise, given its limited resources and short timeline. When we initially sent the invitation, we outlined much of the above background about the tradition of quilts, asking people to choose their own themes and reimagine the quilting tradition in their own languages, with their own materials, through their own backgrounds, using their own visions. We also encouraged considering some combination of “Share Your Hopes” and “Share Your Fears,” quoting L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT, who described the day after the 2016 presidential election: 

As I saw this afternoon, students have wrapped the six great columns in Lobby 7 with huge sheets of paper. Three ask that you “Share Your Hopes,” three to “Share Your Fears.” They are covered with handwritten responses. People are lingering to read and add their own. Many say they fear for the future of the country, some for their personal safety, for their civil rights or that “my values no longer matter.” Others fear that their peers will never take the time to understand why they voted for the winner. One hope struck me in particular: “I hope to understand the 48% of Americans who disagree with me.” Nearly all the writers express some kind of pain. Yet together they have created a wonderful example of mutual respect and civil dialogue.

Our project is titled “Unstitched States.” Like the United States, it can be summed up as US.

What ties us together from different parts of the country? The contributors here were all participants in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop on “The Art of Text” and “The Literary Hybrid/Book Arts,” co-taught by myself (Gretchen Henderson) and visual artist Ellen Sheffield during the summers 2013–2016. For this project, I invited one of our former participants, Allison Dalton (class of 2015), to be my co-quilter. Special thanks to Allison for sharing her artistry. The bios of contributors are included on this site as “Quilters,” hailing from around the country: Massachusetts, Wyoming, Michigan, California, Kentucky, New Mexico, Texas, and more. Each participant came to the workshop with a different expertise (fiction, poetry, nonfiction, cross-genre, theater, book arts, digital arts, and other arts, not to mention science writing, law, architecture) along with a “beginner’s mind,” willing and wanting to find new approaches to their writing and art, and to learn from others. Together in our studio in Gambier, Ohio, we worked alongside each other to move beyond our borders, artistically and otherwise. Thanks to each participant for embracing challenges and co-creating common ground across diverse backgrounds and practices.

Our collective contribution to this conversation is incomplete, bolstered by sentiments from other participants who couldn’t participate within the timeline but who expressed their support. We hope that, in some small way, this project encourages building more communities and engaging writing and arts in this process.

The contributors’ squares are laid out over a digital patchwork made from an actual hand-stitched crazy quilt, c. 1900s, belonging to Allison Dalton.

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A Collective Artist’s Statement

Although the quilt is digital, each square began with the human hand. Squares grew from each writer’s or artist’s location, materials, and cultural context. For instance, at the heart of Amaris Ketcham’s contribution of A Hole in the Breast from New Mexico is a prickly pear (also known as the nopal or tenochtli in Nahuatl), a cactus that bears a bright magenta fruit, once compared by a sixteenth-century friar to the human heart. Amaris wrote, “It seemed poignant now, considering that the prickly pear grows across the Western U.S. (Lewis and Clark complained bitterly about them in Montana) and Mexico, defying borders and walls.” From Texas, for her contribution about Women’s Work, Margaret Bentley collected images of textiles from cultures that have contributed to the diversity of the United States, resting a heart-shaped, pin-pricked cushion from her grandmother (a quilter) alongside a cut-out of a Klan hood pinned by a single needle, implying that “every hand is a tool of agency, action, and choice.” From California, Kim Henderson took her cue from her teaching at a boarding arts high school that was founded after World War II with the mission to provide a place for people from all cultures and backgrounds to peacefully create art together. She wrote, “During difficult times I find refuge in the day-to-day work I do with my students, so I wanted to include them in this project somehow”—her contribution includes her students’ fingerprints.

Many contributions grew out of cultural and personal histories, addressing voices being silenced. From Connecticut, Monica Ong contributed a visual poem called The Glass Larynx from her recent book that investigated silences that shape the medical and cultural landscape of family diaspora (extending in her case from China to the Philippines to North America), as “an invitation for those with silenced bodies to speak, prompting a safe space to speak their truth.” From Ohio, Emily Troia contributed Mental Coordinates that grew out of her visualized writing about “the marginalization of people with mental illnesses” by “finding a voice in a society that wants to silence,” while Nanette Yanuzzi shared Venus Trapped as “a visual response to the ongoing attacks and dismantling of women’s reproductive healthcare in the United States.” From California, Kerry Tepperman Campbell contributed Refugee Camp based on her experience volunteering in a Syrian refugee camp in Greece at the start of 2016. From New York, Alison Stein contributed a “commonplace handkerchief,” embroidered with words that had been literally needling her since Election Day. “Especially as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors,” Alison wrote, “I’ve been connecting the anti-democratic statements with Nazi Germany. Embroidered handkerchiefs have a long history of clandestine or resistance communications—they were used by spies (for escape maps) and resistance fighters throughout history,” easily folded and concealed, and “the stitches could be removed if necessary.”

Contributors researched and re-searched through their materials. From Ohio, Sarah Minor contributed “a poetry comic that works like an erasure,” where her embroidered Portrait of a Woman, After Wislawa Szymborska (on a 1960s napkin and apron) “functions in the way graffiti sometimes can, by editing or defacing,” suggesting “the layering that happens as all new resistance movements use some parts of the old ones for scaffolding.” From Wyoming, Sue Sommers contributed a common object that she had overlooked: a double-ended spoon that “had lounged earnestly but pointlessly in my studio for years” until she saw it anew as Empathy Flower-Reciprocity Clock, as “a symbol that the hour of human solidarity is now and every hour.” From Illinois, David Marshall explored art as “a meditative process—in one sense, an escape from daily troubles and, in another, an opportunity for solitary and thoughtful attention to how to live deliberately, with empathy, kindness, and openness.” Back in Ohio, Ellen Sheffield shared a detail from her artist’s book Elemental Errors: Air with fragments of the poem “Personal Climate Change” by Philip Metres, embodying "the fear of suffocation due to slurs, fake news and lies now filling our airwaves." Darrell Ward contributed A Formula for the Universe derived from the message sent by Pope Paul VI for the World Day of Peace in 1972: “If you want peace, work for justice,” incorporating science by adapting a depiction of the solar system from the plaque carried by the Pioneer 10 spacecraft, launched that same year. From Massachusetts, Mireidys Garcia envisioned that “Astronomers believe I may exist in time” through her contribution of exIst: “In a period when the value of immigrant, colored, and gender non-conforming people is being questioned in the United States and abroad, this statement reads as a declaration that I (we) exist.”

There are more backstories for each square—like the overall quilt, these are left open-ended and unfinished. Many of us represented here have lived in multiple places over the course of our lifetimes and carry many homes inside of us: West, Midwest, and East; North and South; urban and rural; along with other labels that tend to group and divide communities in our country. In the spirit of stitching together divides, we have left blank spaces in our quilt to invite visitors to think about how they would contribute to this quilt, or even start a new quilt. However you define “community” and “quilt,” we invite you to stitch across the borders in your midst.

Add your square.