by Catherine West, Artist and Founder, Significant Seams CIC
I have led various community quilt projects for more than a decade. In my artistic practice, these are a key medium. It is my hope that more than a pretty wall hanging, my audiences will see people supporting one another, listening to one another, plucking up courage to tell their friends and neighbours what they see and feel – even if it is different or anomalous. I also hope that my approach will create inclusivity that overcomes hidden barriers. I am optimistic – I believe the art – in the process and the artwork – creates space, creates time, provokes thought, and can catalyse change.
As a pandemic rages, and uncertainty, inequity and fears become stark, I see a link: individual and collective mental health and wellbeing. The BLM movement, vast increases in domestic violence, the A-levels debacle, freelancers in freefall: We are feeling the distance, disconnect, and threats. We are longing for one another and a better way of being. Loneliness has new dimensions. We are crying out.
There is an immense correlation between one’s wellbeing and one’s sense of autonomy, ability to choose, and connect to others. Living through a pandemic can curtail all of these.
Why is a community quilt an agent for mental health inclusivity? I’ve gained some insight through the various community quilts I’ve had the privilege to lead.
Autonomy: Every participant chooses how to represent themself. Every participant gets the space they claim.
Privacy: The octogenarian raped at age 13 can tell those she selects about the underlying meaning of a patch without telling everyone. The woman still in hiding from a violent stalker – who happens to be related to her – can participate without revealing her identity or even attending an event. The number of people who have quietly told me they can not attend an event with roving picture-takers is likely to surprise many.
Safety: Honesty and transparency are socially valued, but for survivors of heavily stigmatised areas of community life this is exceptionally hard: incest survivors, ex-offenders, former addicts, mental health breakdown. Connectedness is often built from the trade in familiarity, stories others can identify with. The flip side is judgement can create distance, vulnerability and unintentional exclusion. The risks of judgement include real consequences, some which can be very harsh, and there is sense and wisdom, if sadness, in avoidance.
Invitation: Community Quilts invite participation. The artwork emerges from collective engagement. The artistic leads make themselves vulnerable from the first act: the artwork will be dependent on the engagement of others. The footing between the artist and the participants is more equalised than in other art forms. Mutual trust is tested and explored. I have been told many times, ‘I don’t think what I make will be good enough.’ I – and every artist I know – regularly suffer self doubt too. I want to see everyone experience the joy of self expression and creativity. I want them to feel included. I want our collective human experiences to unite us.
Universality: We all sleep – or rather need sleep. In the world of mental ill health, sleep is a common victim. For whatever reason, the media that is the quilt, whether we use a quilt, a duvet, or a hammock in the trees, evokes something of our common humanity. It also conveys aspirations of comfort, safety, and especially with patchwork, layered meaning.
In the early days of lockdown a fellow artist, someone with whom I’ve co-tutored for an NHS Recovery College, contacted me and asked, “Should we do something? Maybe a quilt?” With support from Arts Council England, Devon NHS Partnership Trust, and Devon Community Foundation, we are now leading a community quilt project about this period – as well as coordinating a network of projects using textiles: The Quarantine Quilt Project
People are invited to send patches which reflect their feelings and responses to the pandemic to any of the projects in the Significant Seams network, though please check for patch instructions and deadlines with the individual groups. All are linked at www.thequarantinequiltproject.org
Completed Quarantine Quilts will be part of an online exhibition in the first instance. Further plans are subject to evolving circumstances.