Stitching Folklore: Quilts for Cause

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Quilting is a handicraft that celebrates community as well as artistic influences. As TMY gets ready to reflect on the traditions of AIDS activism (including the Red Ribbon and the NAMES Quilt Project), the Quilts Making a Difference exhibition will examine how the folk art of quilting helps document renewal and opens a window to creativity as well as social connectivity. BorderLore asked TMY co-curator Peggy Hazard to explain the folklore of AIDS, its Quilt Project and its place at Tucson Meet Yourself.

Is there really a folk community surrounding AIDS? What is its folklore?
The AIDS community has adapted the traditional craft of making quilts, which historically have contained social and personal meaning, to express their concern, grief and, indeed, hope in response to the crisis of the disease. The way I see it, the “culture” of AIDS is made evident in the actions and rituals of people and organizations who are affected by HIV/AIDS, providing moral and practical support to each other and, simultaneously, educating and inspiring all of us. Perhaps the best-known expression of this culture is the NAMES quilt, organized by its founders in 1987 in memory of the friends they lost to the vicious disease.

So the NAMES quilt is lovingly made as part of an artistic process that comforts community?
Over the past 25 years, practices have evolved around the manner in which the panels are displayed, particularly the reverence with which each panel is unfolded and the names on the quilt are read. Our exhibit at TMY will display the material culture of the local AIDS community in the form of artifacts and local quilts from the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing testing and care services for people in our region who are affected by HIV/AIDS. SAAF will share panels from the NAMES quilt and will ritually unfold them at the conclusion of the AIDSWALK at TMY on Sunday morning, October 14.

This photo is of Migrant Quilt, Tucson Sector 2005-2006. (Quilt creators are Suzanne Hesh, Peggy Hazard, Alice Vinson.) Photograph by Wilson Graham.
This photo is of Migrant Quilt, Tucson Sector 2005-2006.(Quilt creators are Suzanne Hesh, Peggy Hazard, Alice Vinson.)
Photograph by Wilson Graham.

Will you comment on social activism and how it is expressed in the universal folk art of quilting?
Historically, quilting and causes have gone hand in hand for over 150 years. In the mid-nineteenth century, quilts were made in support of the abolitionist, suffrage and temperance movements, the Red Cross, and other charities and causes near and dear to the hearts of women. Usually, quilts associated with social causes were made to raise funds; for example, Red Cross quilts typically were made with red crosses on a white field, and individuals could donate a certain amount of money to have their names inscribed on the arms of the crosses (the Arizona Historical Society has one in its collection; for more about the pattern, see http://www.womenfolk.com/quilt_notes/red_cross_quilt.htm). Sometimes the meaning of a quilt was not obvious, as in the T-shaped blocks of temperance quilts or the curved patches in the Drunkard’s Path block. Other times, the meaning was subversive, invisible except to the maker or those who knew the code contained in a particular quilt design such as so-called Underground Railroad quilts, believed to signal that a house was safe haven for escaped slaves.

Our complementary exhibits, Symbols and Traditions of AIDS, and Quilts Making a Difference together explore the use of the art of quilts to express the personal feelings and opinions of their makers or to raise consciousness about a social issue. Our exhibit at TMY, Quilts Making a Difference, will feature quilts made locally to raise awareness of a variety of crises. We will show several quilts from Quilt for a Cause, founded nine years ago by two Tucson women, that auctions and sells handmade quilts donated by quilters to fight breast and gynecological cancers in our community. Migrant Quilts, a project of the Los Desconocidos organization, document the names of the too-often unknown men, women and children who perished along the US/Mexico border and are made from recycled migrant clothes ftom layup sites in the Sonoran Desert. Quilts lovingly made to comfort children in the Child Protection Services system and to provide tactile experiences for people with vision loss also will be shown, as well as contemporary “art quilts” expressing the concerns of the artists who made them.

Thanks, Peggy. Perhaps no other textile is more descriptive of our lives than quilting.

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