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quilting dynamics

September 14, 2011

Although I haven’t been keeping track, before last week I believe I only rarely dreamed about quilting. Since I visited the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, last week, I’ve dreamed about quilts and quilting every night.

From this morning I remember two dream fragments: (1) an abstracted meandering landscape, quilted in soft blues and greens; and (2) meeting author N.K. Jemisin, at first somehow mistaking her for Kate Elliott (whom I have never seen photographs of), and then telling her, N.K., how much I enjoyed the cultural and racial diversity of the books written by both her and Kate Elliott  [respectively, The Inheritance Trilogy; The Spiritwalker Trilogy].

Maybe pluralism is like a quilt? Because I’m wondering if a quilt is somehow a process more than a product. When you finish making a quilt, you see what you think of as “the end result”. But that quilt is not static — it lives and breathes, and changes over time. If certain elements on a quilt wore out (faster than other elements), might they be replaced? Added on to? Changed in some way? I hope so.

I like quilting more than tapestry weaving because quilting is more dynamic. Once you’ve finished weaving a tapestry, it’s done. I always imagine my tapestries as being tiny corners of landscapes always in flux but I would guess that is unusual. And that’s why I can’t bear to “finish” them, because it seems unavoidable that, once they are “finished”, they join history as an artifact, but they are no longer part of the process of making history.

I’ve been thinking a lot about evolution, and its tension with human desires for stability and permanence. Humans are always creating or redesigning things [innovation], but then some of us want to keep everything exactly the way it is (or was) forever more, which becomes not only tradition, but hostility to how our world actually works. As the expression goes, “Change is the new steady state”.

The more everyone contributes to figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and where and why, and trying all sorts of ideas, even ones that seem odd, dumb or ridiculous, the better off everyone is. That is just as true in an estuary like the Chesapeake Bay as it is in the linked human communities of the East Coast.

Urban areas are mixing zones, but non-urban areas can also be mixing zones (like Appalachia). Areas with high diversity, commonly called mosaics, patchworks, etc., produce more creative and more resilient individuals and communities but also cultures. Every person and every environment I encounter are ones who probably know something(s) I don’t. If I am respectful and cooperative and interested in learning about others, not only can I enrich my life with new music, new flavors, new words, but also unfamiliar ideas. And some of those ideas might work for me directly, or might be things I can combine with other things to create something new. Thus were created:

  1. American music forms – gospel, bluegrass, jazz, the blues, rock and roll, house music, hip-hop…
  2. American foods – pizza, Chicago hotdogs, hamburgers, barbecue, chili, clam chowder, gumbo, fried chicken, cornbread, fortune cookies, NY or Philly cheesecake, pumpkin pie…
  3. words coined in the Americas
  • Places of First Nations* origin: Mississippi, Quebec, Illinois, Chicago, Paducah…
  • Flora and fauna names of First Nations origin:
  1. Algonquian – caribou, chinquapin, moccasin, moose, muskrat, opossum, pecan, persimmon, pokeweed, raccoon, skunk, squash, terrapin, woodchuck…
  2. Nahuatl – avocado, cocoa, chili, chocolate, coyote, guacamole, ocelot, tomato…
  3. Quechua – condor, llama, puma, quinoa…
  4. Arawakan –cassava, guava, iguana, papaya, potato, tobacco…
  • other nouns of First Nations origin:
  1. Eskimo-Aleut languages – anorak, igloo, kayak, mukluk…
  2. Arawakan –  barbecue, canoe, hurricane…
  • nouns describing places: bayou (Louisiana French), bodega (American Spanish), boondocks (Tagalog)…

[everything from American foods on down from Wikipedia]

Okay that was a lot of fun, but it got me off track. My point was that people migrate, and as they get acquainted with their new environment (both nonhuman and human/social), they create new cultural responses as they seek to make better lives for themselves where they are at.

Which brings me to another source of tension and conflict: who gets to call themselves “native”? For instance, I was born in Chicagoland, so I’m native to northern Illinois, the Great Lakes, and possibly the Midwest. I have also lived in Oklahoma, upstate New York, Indiana, and now Maryland. I feel a strong affinity for the region of the Chesapeake Bay generally, and our little corner of northern Maryland specifically – something that I never felt even for Chicagoland – and yet, can I fairly call myself a native Marylander after only three years? Will I ever be able to call myself a native Marylander?

I lived in Indianapolis for 13-1/2 years, and not only did I never feel like a native, I never wanted to be a native. When people there asked me where I was from, I was always quick to say Chicagoland. But before I ever got to Indiana, I lived in upstate New York – for less than three months – and yet I felt like I could have belonged there, and, in time, “gone native”.

Mixing zones of whatever sort welcome people of goodwill no matter where they come from, and there is always the possibility that someone will want to learn from and with you. In my experience, those someones tend to be — people who have traveled with an open mind; people who came from somewhere else; people who speak more than one language; people with a lot of curiosity; creative people; people who sample a wide variety of ideas through books, music, cuisine, art, etc.; people who have lived unconventional lives.

Despite my best efforts, attempts to befriend people who do not fit the above categories have not prospered. When I am in an environment that is not just culturally homogenous, but heavily traditional and conformist, I cannot feel comfortable, I can never relax. I am always an alien, and therefore unwelcome in some sense.

That’s how I felt in central Indiana. And that’s how I generally feel while visiting Kentucky. Paducah, though, was a mixing zone, and not just because of the Ohio River, or the Four Rivers basin (although I’m sure that helped!). The National Quilt Museum attracts all sorts of people to western Kentucky who would never have gone there otherwise. Its presence has revitalized downtown, which gives visitors more reasons to stick around and learn something, before heading back to where ever they are from.

I have since talked about Paducah and the NQM with people I know who live in Cincinnati, Louisville, and now here on my blog, where anyone in the world might read about it.

One of those people in Cincinnati is a relative of Spouse, who himself is a quilter. Despite being older than my parents, he is quite active on Facebook and the Internet, and showed me how to use Skype.

Maybe the fact that he is a quilter (rather than some other sort of art or craft) is particularly pertinent in a way I have not yet figured out.

Quilting encourages:

  • recycling
  • improvisation
  • optimal use of resources
  • juxtaposing dissimilar (patterns of) fabrics
  • using unconventional materials, like paper, metal, found objects
  • incorporating further surface design techniques such as embroidery, beading, collage, painting

So quilting is inherently dynamic, and uses the same processes that evolution does. I need to think about this further…


*Used here in place of the more cumbersome “indigenous peoples of the Americas”

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