Memorials & Tributes
The Sensitive Creation of Memorial Quilts and Books
I have always been a memorialist.
When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a biography of one of my school mates, Kay Brown. I was attracted to her story because she had a sprawling and tightly knit family where mine was diminutive and loose. Her story was full of drama, with life and death a constant theme in the narrative and I was instantly hooked. This experience didn’t lead me directly to the New York Times Best Sellers list, but it did foretell my career in journalism. It spanned three decades as columnist and reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers. During that time, I moonlighted writing biographies for other individuals with large families. I organized their historic photos and important papers into leather bound books to hand down through the generations. It was slow but satisfying work and I was good at it.
I find myself at the exact same crossroads in my second career as a quilt artist. I am still passionate about making memorials but with a different set of tools. I use the infinite wisdom of stitches and cloth instead of the written word to create visual memorials. Each project is an emotional journey requiring sensitivity and respect and I am careful to leave as small a footprint as possible on the family topography. I gently step in and out again, leaving behind a beautiful art quilt or cloth book made from the clothes and personal effects of the person who has passed. It is slow but satisfying work and I am good at it.
Most families wait three years before contacting me, if they can find me. While I tell everybody who will listen that I make cloth memorials, I am still but a rumor in the stratosphere. The ways people find me defies all logic and makes me think that the Great Divine is in play. I have had people approach me, crying, asking if I know who it is that makes memorial art quilts.
It is me.
How it works
Cloth book celebrating the life of Barry Recht
The process begins when a family or family member comes to my studio with bags full of clothes, photos and papers, mementoes, cloth toys and/or jewelry. We talk at length and I take notes, learning as much as possible about the person who has passed. We sort through the clothes, while the family identifies the articles of clothing that are particularly evocative. I pay special attention to these pieces and try to use them prominently. Later, I document these possessions with a series of photographs that help me during the creation process. It takes many months to produce a single art quilt. That is because, in part, I must stabilize and restore old fabric such as silk neckties to make them strong enough to sew again, and in part because I am waiting for instructions, dropped from beyond like breadcrumbs in a fairy tale. I cannot explain this except to say that I feel most profoundly the presence of the person who has died.
After the initial interview, the family is can do nothing but sit back and wait. This is an exercise in trust, because I cannot tell the family anything about how the quilt will look since I have no idea myself. The best indicator of whether they have come to the right person (I know of no others who specialize in this service) is to look around my studio.
My most recent project, begun in late 2009, will be complete in 2011 when the last of a series of three memorial quilts and a cloth book is finally finished for the family of Barry Recht of Akron, Ohio. I have written extensively about this special project in my blog on this website and have included a lot of photos. Meanwhile, you can read about my first two projects in the following paragraphs.
Brooke’s Memorial, 2008
The large quilt pictured here was made for Beacon Journal reporter Kim McMahan in 2008 from the belongings of her beautiful daughter, Brooke, who died in 2004. I felt the presence of this talented young woman guiding me throughout the eight months it took to create, and during that time, my own mother died.
Making this quilt was an exercise in compassion, a meditation, a prayer, and when my grief was at its worst after my mother's death, Brooke and her quilt pulled me through a storm of misery. I came out the other side understanding things that I still can't articulate.
I set Brooke's quilt against a water background, because she was a swimmer. Her Special Olympics gold medal dangles from the zipper pull of the pocket at the center top. If you look closely, you'll see Brooke's photograph peeking out of the pocket. Her jewelry, class pin and buttons from her clothes are embedded in the piece, bright sparklies that call the viewer closer but don't show well in photographs.
Brooke loved the Titanic, so I made a photo transfer of a sign from the great ship and stitched it in. A piece of her swim towel, which says McMahan, floats along the right hand side. The three large pink squares began with three of her favorite T-shirts. The dogs and cupid and other motifs were cut from her clothes. The entire quilt was pieced, an engineering feat that requires special knowhow when combining fabrics of different weights and textures.
Brooke's mom told me that Brooke loved all of God's creatures, so I introduced other elements to express that, including fish and flowers. Abstract elements such as checkerboards were made from her favorite knits and cottons -- sweaters, dresses, parkas, blouses, skirts and other garments, some thin and stretchy, some thick and nubby, all combined in the finished piece. That is a feat of engineering that strikes fear in the hearts of many a stitcher.
Kim was emotionally overwhelmed when she came to pick up the finished work, which was roughly 3 x 5 feet. The art quilt hangs in her family room.
Clyde the barking clown, 2009
The memorial process is not limited to humans.
Clyde, a springer spaniel, and his mom, Maura, and I used to kick around in the local parks when we worked at the Akron Beacon Journal together before she moved to Boston a few years back. Maura and Clyde cut a sprightly sightly wherever they went: She wore a blue beret and Clyde paraded those handsome black spots on that sleek white body of his. Little did I know back then that I would one day be making Clyde's likeness -- using fabric from Maura’s favorite PJs to represent his spots.
I considered it an honor to be entrusted with Clyde’s memory. Maura mailed me her Clyde-like jammies, an evocative touch that made the piece more meaningful. Maura had often described Clyde as a clown, and that was the image I seized on when I began my work. Even so, the jester's collar he is wearing appeared like magic from a serendipitous technique I used to put him together. In the end, he really looked like he belonged under the Big Top.
Maura sent the following missive to Dr. Jon of Pet Place fame in an Internet conversation about pet art:
Dear Dr. Jon - My German Shorthair mix, Clyde was a work of art too. He's been gone for almost seven years now, but we still think of him daily.
I recently gave his photo to my very talented friend, Connie Bloom (of Akron, Ohio), and she produced this beautiful abstract quilted piece for me. What you can't see in this photo are hours of time she spent meditating about my animal and what he meant to me before she determined how best to portray him. I gave her little direction if any, as I wanted the end work to be a surprise. What I love most, and what you can't see are the dozens of the beautiful little jewels sewn into the piece, including a little beaded heart right above one of his eyes.
Connie specializes in memorial works, and animals are her favorites. I have copied her with the hopes she will share images of some of her other works with you and your readers.
Read all about the Barry Recht series of memorials here.