Orchestrated Across the Miles: Quilting in the Age of the Pandemic, at Praxis
As artists of all kinds navigated the pandemic, online communities became a thing—not only as a way to conduct business, but to keep in touch with collaborators, and even to bring art to the public. Online performances by orchestras, for example, became emblematic of the era: a matrix of individual frames on a computer screen, one musician in each frame playing their part, all together looking something like a quilt.
Those screens full of orchestral players are a good analog to an exhibit on view now—IRL, so to speak–at Praxis Fiber Workshop. Quilting in the Age of the Pandemic, on view February 3 through March 12, 2023 brings together ten quilts, created remotely and collectively, by members of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) Quilt Group. Founded by artist Susie Brandt, the group historically has created and raffled quilts to benefit a variety of causes. The pandemic, naturally, halted their meetings. So Brandt reconvened the group by Zoom, ultimately using the US Postal Service to gather the pieces each quilter created.
That’s when Praxis studio manager Will Grimm got involved. He graduated from the MICA Fiber Department in 2019, and shortly moved to Cleveland. He had Susie Brandt as a teacher, but only joined the Quilt Group in 2020, invited by Valeska Populoh, another MICA faculty and Quilt Group member, who saw that he was quilting a lot. Online programming has an element of disconnection, and plenty of drawbacks, but it has this advantage: geographic limitations of in-person meetings are wiped away. Grimm could participate with the Maryland-based group from Cleveland. He says Zoom took the group nationwide via friends’ connections, and that the bulk of members now come from outside MICA itself. Ultimately, 76 people from around the US got involved.
Grimm’s pandemic awakening to quilting as a practice reflects a familiar experience to artists: a job loss in March 2020 gave him the time to devote to–and fall in love with—something he had only touched on before. He subsequently made dozens of quilts, which he describes as “a much needed item of comfort in severely tumultuous times.”
The MICA group had an exhibit of quilts in Baltimore in Summer 2022, and during a weekly Zoom meeting, Brandt let participants know about another show in Lake George, New York. She joked about a travelling exhibition, since participants by then hailed from all over the country. Grimm took the idea to heart, and proposed the show at Praxis. A few months later, it was on the calendar. The exhibition at Praxis is a joyful shout of warm and vivid color, resulting from a collaboration in exuberant defiance of the bleak solitude imposed by the pandemic.
Quilts in the show have a mix of qualities that have been “woven” through quilting history. Some of the fabrics are scraps from other projects. Some are recycled from other post-consumer applications. Some were sent to participants to give finished quilts a cohesive look. Some quilts and panels were stitched by hand; others by machine. Grimm says they were designed to be done either way, to make it easy for people who have and use machines to participate, as well as people who do not. He says most were quilted on a long-arm machine by Susie Brandt and others who had access at MICA.
Didactics for the exhibition note some qualities that are inherent to, or at least built into the history of quilting: sustainability, thrift, color, pattern, etc. If someone doesn’t not have enough money to just go to the store and buy new blankets, they would have to stay warm by making their own. And if they don’t have enough money to buy yards of new fabric, they have no choice but to piece them together, often recycling clothes or using scraps. And that quality of piecing different fabrics together carries with it the challenge and opportunity to create patterns, juxtapose colors, and even tell stories or record personal or family history. The creation of all these, for example, record some history of the pandemic.
Some other noted ideas –race, gender, for example, are perhaps less obvious in their connections or manifestation. Grimm says those ideas are built into the craft of quilting as much as thrift, color, and pattern.
“Traditionally used by marginalized groups, quilting is inherently political and carries the weight of its history. Quilts have always served as a platform for the maker to express themselves, whether that be in the name of personal growth, community, activism, or economics (often all at once). The open-arm nature of our group created a beautiful amalgamation of souls from all walks of life. We had artists, non-artists, academics, hobbyists, theorists, and first time sewists working together to collectively unpack the changes we were all experiencing,” he said.
The quilts don’t take up those ideas in an expository or didactic way, but they don’t have to: created by a diverse group, the identities and histories of the creators are stitched into the fibers.
Each of the quilts has a prompt, which were mostly brainstormed during online meetings. Some of the prompts are conceptual, while others relate to quilting techniques. Among the conceptual prompts, visitors will find humor in a quilt titled Gift Baskets, which was prompted by the question, “What does an art student need in their basket to succeed?” Each panel features a basket with a different answer nestled inside. Some are text-based: “Follow your dreams” and “Follow your heart” offer frank, un-ironic advice. One artist suggested “Abundance,” with line breaks at each syllable to make it into three words: “ A Bun Dance.” Another suggested “Napzzzz,” with three of the “Z”s floating above a sleeping figure. One features a bicycle, with the advice to “ride into the future.” A few emphasize commitment and dedication: “True Grit,” and “Skin in the game.”
In the spirit of the MICA Group’s founding, one of the quilts—Afghan Log Cabin, hanging in the gallery’s front window, will be raffled on the closing day of the show. Proceeds will benefit Afghan resettlement efforts by Global Cleveland. Details and tickets are available here.
Also on the show’s closing date March 12, Susie Brandt and other members of the Quilt club will come to Cleveland as Praxis hosts an all-day Quilt-A-Thon. The session is open to anyone interested in participating, with no experience required. All materials will be provided, though participants are welcome to bring their own sewing machines and fabric, if they wish. Quilters will spend the day assembling quilts to be raffled off for a Praxis scholarship fund benefiting Collinwood residents, BIPOC, and Emerging Artists. They’ll begin at 9am in the Praxis gallery, and quilt “until [they are] tired.”
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