Stitching a Story Together

Do you remember a quilt or blanket you treasured when you were a young person (or maybe still do now)? The beautiful pieces of such detailed fabric provide a sense of warmth and security. Quilts not only make us feel nice and cozy but they are just plain wonderful to look at. I admire the way the patterns blend together to create such a meaningful design. 
Outside of the pleasantly arranged squares and lines there is so much history behind the creation of this piece of art. In many ways the making of a quilt is just as powerful as the way we feel when we are peacefully sleeping under its protection or admiring its beauty. I came to appreciate the history of quilt making in such an intriguing way when I attended an event at the Banneker Douglass Museum in January. Adrian, a VMC at the museum, joined my fellow RC, Katelyn, and I in a fascinating community project: the Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Public Viewing and Quilting Session. This quilt is one of many started by Dr. Joan Gaither, a local artist and educator.  She creates quilts with a particular theme using a multitude of supplies, including various types of fabric, photos, and beads. In the past she has created quilts on the subjects of President Obama’s journey to the White House and an homage to the gifts, philosophies, and heritage of Ed and Sylvia Brown. Community members donate personal mementos of their family and friends’ history and stories to construct these quilts. For this particular event, local students assisted with patching together pieces of the quilt. Dr. Gaither provided all of us not only with tips on how to sew but an interactive and self-reflective lecture on the history of this quilt and her journey of creating it.  
Katelyn and I originally signed up to be volunteers for this program with the assumption that we would be helping with facilitating this event. While we did get to help in that regard, we had more of a role in the actual construction of this quilt. The designs and types of fabric, photos, shells, lettering, and other miscellaneous materials of the quilt chronicle the history of African American watermen and Maryland maritime history. The collective images give life to a rich history of hard work, struggles, families, societal changes, and successes. I’ll be honest with you, blog readers, I was terrified to even touch the quilt. Even as an unfinished quilt it had such a presence that I did not want to destroy with my unskilled hands. My worries were unnecessary, though. Dr. Gaither was a patient teacher with a great way of communicating the skills needed to stitch in the most basic way. Through her guidance I felt like I could equally participate in creating this visual narrative.
I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Gaither throughout the process. I really admired her vision for this project and the poignant connection she has made to history and community. This single quilt has brought together the past and present to be preserved and respected for the future. This collaboration has provided a strong educational opportunity for individuals from many different backgrounds to learn about the achievements of those before them. In the room that day there were multiple generations present. It was refreshing to see so many young and older individuals work together. As a part of this team, you had to trust yourself with your ideas and skills to capture what you felt. While the participants developed this trust, Dr. Gaither had to put her own faith in strangers to add to a very personal piece that was her original vision. The components present in this activity-trust, vision, faith, and creativity – are all incredibly valuable in a community for growth and prosperity to be present. I could continue going on and on with this chain of connections but I will end it there. This quilt is a powerful representation of history and community and it will certainly be cherished indefinitely.

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