To Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, a quilt is much more than an item of comfort or protection. She sleeps under each quilt she makes at least once, but her main objective is to display important memories, events, people and items on these large works of art.
Almost two dozen of these intricate documentary-style quilts adorned the walls of the Hodson Gallery at the Tatem Arts Center at Hood College. The exhibit opened Jan. 19. Gaither, who has made 172 quilts since 2000, brought a small part of her handmade collection to Hood as a part of her show “I AM: Identity — A Shared History,” which is part of the college’s colloquium series, “Narrative at the Edge of the World.”
The artist, a Baltimore native and former professor and chair of undergraduate art education at the Maryland Institute College of Art, has previously displayed her quilts at several museums, including the Walters Art Museum and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore.
Some quilts tower from the high ceiling almost to the floor, measuring approximately 10 feet by 10 feet. Others are smaller, more akin to the size of a quilt that would fit on a bed.
However, unlike typical geometric-patterned bed quilts, Gaither’s quilts are a collage of national and personal history, family, pop culture, and defining moments. These quilts encompass what could be in a history documentary, a personal diary, and a family scrapbook combined.
Each quilt is reminiscent of an ‘I SPY’ book: composed of a variety of elements and materials that all flow together. To find every tiny detail, one must examine the quilts from top to bottom. Gaither said that she encourages this ‘I SPY’ aesthetic and wants viewers to enjoy searching for tiny details.
With closer inspection of the quilts, viewers realize that fabric is far from the only medium used. Gaither uses fabric as the base of her quilt, but combines materials such as buttons, beads, family heirlooms and jewelry, dolls, pins, and other knickknacks that she finds relevant to the theme of each quilt.
She admits that she loves hunting for materials, and “eventually it all comes together.”
For example, she used Maryland flag lanyards as borders between different sections of one of her quilts. Another quilt holds a piece of family jewelry. Others display personal effects she has collected throughout the years.
‘Quilting from the soul’
During the opening reception the evening of Jan. 19, guests milled about the gallery in awe of the quilts, making multiple laps around the walkway to catch a glimpse of a detail they previously missed. Some stood at a single quilt for minutes on end, poring over the details until they were satisfied enough to move on.
During a brief chat with guests at the opening reception, Gaither summarized her quilting experiences, spoke about personal and historical events that influenced her designs and compared the costs of her quilting materials when she first began in the early 2000s to now.
“As artists, we contribute to the community and the economy,” she said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
“Beware, it’s a life commitment,” she said with a smile, before adding that the art of quilting looks more complicated than it actually is.
“I’ve amazed myself,” she admitted.
She explained her hobby as “quilting from the soul,” and said that with quilting, she tells a story that needs to be told, “that only the teller can tell.”
Hood College will host Gaither again the evening of Feb. 17 in a public event, where she will present an artist talk and speak more about her quilts.
‘Not just an item of comfort’
One of her quilts, which represents the years 2000-2015, features Barack Obama as the centerpiece with other nods to trending topics over the years. With a closer look, one might notice that the artist attached her own asthma inhalers across the quilt as well.
Gaither explained that asthma was such a large part of her life during that time, that it seemed obvious that she should include her inhalers on the quilt meant to represent some of the most recent years.
All of the displayed quilts have writing on them, either handwritten in marker by Gaither, printed on fabric sheets, stenciled, or spelled out with letter beads. One quilt displays a fabric printout of an old gas pump with Gaither’s hand lettering over it, reading proudly: “Dad drove a FORD” and “15 (cents) per gallon”.
One of her quilts, the Sesquicentennial 1864 Slave Emancipation Quilt, is dedicated to each county of Maryland, plus Baltimore City. It is laid out like the Maryland flag and focuses on the events and people working towards emancipation and the end of slavery, both on the state and national level. Some of the reoccurring themes on this quilt are United States Colored Troops (USCT), Frederick Douglas, and churches.
According to Gaither, 426 people across all Maryland counties participated in the making of this quilt, adding imagery relevant to their own county on each square. The quilt will travel the state for the next five years.
“Quilts are not just an item of comfort,” Gaither concluded. “I believe it can hold a memory, or a story, a place, or a thing.”
A shared history
If you look closely, you might find a reoccurring theme on many of the quilts. Gaither puts an angel on almost every quilt she has made since a friend began making the angels for her a decade ago.
“Many people think about quilts as protection,” Gaither said, explaining that the angels represent a spiritual protector, or even God’s protection.
This theme is displayed prominently on the Sesquicentennial quilt: an angel crafted out of a Maryland flag.
“I believe quilts can hold not just a memory, but a whole story,” she said. “It’s my story, my life, but it’s within the context of our shared history.”
Gaither said that she wants others to look at her quilts and think: “This is my story, too.”
“These are my babies, my children,” she said, gesturing lovingly towards her colorful creations.