Quilt Museum Opening Reception March 2017

New England Quilt Museum, Lowell, Massachusetts
Remarks by Allison Wilbur, Quilt for Change

Good, morning, it’s wonderful to see so many people here on what we are all hoping is the last really cold day of winter. I would like to start by thanking the New England Quilt Museum for hosting the Water is Life Exhibit. Nora Burchfield, Pam Weeks and all the staff here are so supportive of Quilt for Change and the spirit of the artists who participate in Quilt for Change exhibits. We deeply appreciate your support and this opportunity to share these quilts and raise awareness on a topic that is near and dear to so many of us. We would also like to thank the US Mission to the United Nations in Geneva and the American Exchange Rome, who are our partners in organizing this exhibit, and EQuilter and Aurafil who were our sponsors in Europe and at the Houston International Quilt Festival.

I would like to acknowledge the artists who are with us today. Joan Blade Johnson, Cathey LaBonte, Donette Cooper, and Lynn Miller – please stand up. I am sure there will be many viewers who are eager to hear more from you about your work today. Thank you all for joining us today.  In all 40 art quilters have contributed work for this exhibit. They come from the US, Canada and Europe and their quilts touch on the importance of water in these areas as well as in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Indeed access to clean water impacts women from around the world. Please take time to read the artists’ statements and you will learn that these quilts address the impact of water issues in a variety of different ways – from the basic necessity of clean water to support human life, to governance issues, pollution, food production, clean oceans, waterborne diseases, the effects of climate change on our planet, and the force of a tsunami. The fact that only 1% of all water on earth is fit for human consumption makes clear that all nations must work together to equitably ensure that the needs of all are balanced and that limited water resources are well managed.

This exhibit debuted in March 2016 at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva to commemorate the UN World Water Day under the auspices of the US Mission to the UN. The quilts then traveled to Rome, Italy where Curator Susan Fiorentino of American Exchange Rome organized an exhibit at the Frascati Gallery. Next they traveled to the Houston International Quilt Festival in Texas. From here, they will tour six cities in the United States with Mancuso Quilt Festivals.  If you would like to follow this exhibit as it travels or learn about future exhibits, please follow us on Facebook and check out our website, QuiltforChange.org.

This is the fourth quilt exhibit organized by Quilt for Change. The first was in support of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the second focused on Women, Peace and Security, and the third on Solar Sister, a non profit organization which trains women to be solar entrepreneurs in Africa.

Why use quilts to raise awareness, you might ask. My husband, Dick,  and I founded Quilt for Change in 2009 because we believe that quilts not only speak a universal language through the use of textiles and the tradition of stitching, but that art quilts are powerful story tellers, particularly when it comes to discussing the status of women. To be trite, a picture tells a thousand words, and as you can see in these quilts, the images portrayed here evoke very effectively the nuanced and vital role clean water plays in the lives of women around the world.

Some of the artists included in this exhibit have been using their quilts to raise awareness for many years.  For example, Hollis Chatelaine and Cherrie Hampton have focused on water issues in a number of their quilts. For others, participating in this exhibit opens a new way of thinking and creating. For viewers, art quilts often open doors to conversations that might be difficult or controversial. You might remember the Advocacy Quilt Exhibit on display here two years ago which included the Ahadi Quilt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  We were all drawn to the beauty of the quilt at a distance, but moved to see the personal and often violent story told in the quilt blocks by the women who embroidered the blocks, thus opening the possibility for a conversation about a difficult topic.

Many artists these days are turning to art to confront social justice issues they feel strongly about. Recently I have heard a small number of people react negatively to this trend with comments like, “Art should not be political.” I would remind these people that not only artists have used their medium for political expression, but that the tradition of women using quilting and stitching to speak out is a strong and long lived tradition. Women have been stitching voices of dissent into their quilts for centuries.

Organizing large fundraising fairs was a popular way for women to support the anti-slavery cause. The International Quilt Study Center in Nebraska has a quilt made in Massachusetts in 1835 which was is the earliest known fundraising quilt. The 8-pointed star crib quilt includes a poem by Quaker poet Elizabeth Margaret Chandler in its center block.

“Mother! when around your child

You clasp your arms in love,

And when with grateful joy you raise

Your eyes to God above,-

Think of the negro mother, when

Her child is torn away,

Sold for a little slave-oh then

For that poor mother pray!”

For women there were often only limited ways in which they could publicly express their political opinions or have their voices heard. No surprise that they committed these messages to a format in which they were most comfortable and which was close to their creative and expressive hearts.

I am a member of SAQA, the Studio Art Quilters Association.  SAQA has just announced a very interesting call for pieces that address the controversial issue of guns. The exhibit is titled, “Guns: A Loaded Conversation,” and will debut at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.  As the title implies, this exhibit calls for all views on the topic to be discussed in the hopes that a conversation on the topic of guns in our society can help identify policies which address the many complex aspects of this volatile issue. In the call for entry, the exhibit organizers note, “Truly valuable conversation requires looking at all sides of a subject, and considering those viewpoints will be essential in building a bridge over that divide.”

You may have heard that the New England Quilt Museum will debut “Threads of Resistance” this summer. Organized by a group of 10 artists from around the country, this exhibit invites artists to convey their passion, anger or sadness about any issue that concerns them in the current political climate, whether positive or negative. Initially, this theme met with a great deal of negative reaction, one might even say resistance, perhaps because it named the current president and thus tapped into the vitriolic tone of much of today’s political debate. And yet, with a great many artists, it has become a mode of expression in a time when they feel overwhelmed and emotional about the rapid changes being discussed and implemented in Washington.

Is it surprising to anyone that quilters are connecting their art with their passions, or using the art of quilting to inspire social change? That their quilts are about more than geometry and color? I know am an introvert.  Perhaps that is why I love the hours that I spend alone in my quilt studio. For sure, I do not like public speaking. I am most comfortable expressing myself through my art. I am passionate about civic engagement, and believe the voices of women around the world need to be heard in making decisions about their societies and their environment. And I have seen how quilters attempt to make the world a better place by stitching fabric together in so many ways for so many causes, whether it be in a quilt to warm a child battling cancer, to launch a young couple into married life, or commemorate a loved one lost to AIDS.

I invite you today to spend some times with these quilts, to read the artists statements and to understand why water issues affect all of us in all countries and why the basic right of access to clean water affects women and girls around the world. Water is the basis of all life, of good health, of abundant nutrition.

There is powerful quilt by Wendy Lexington Coulter from 1985 titled, “No Wife of Mine is Gonna Work.” The blocks are appliquéd snippets of a traditional wife’s daily chores – cooking, washing dishes, kneading bread, caring for a baby. All involve water. Traditional work of women centers around and is dependent on clean water. While the traditional delineation of roles in the home may be changing, clean water will always touch on key aspects of out lives and must be protected.

I’d like to turn the floor over to the artists who are here today to tell you about their work.

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