Stitching the Pandemic

Kissing Quilt
Amy E. Elkins
2020
Mixed media quilt (cyanotype, embroidery, indigo dyed fabrics)
39 ½ in. x 70 ½ in.

This year, I’ve been writing about how women writers use craft in their writing as a way to survive crises, work through trauma, express queer feelings, and resist oppressive systems of time, politics, racism, and gender. This quilt started as a response to the Covid-19 global pandemic and in the midst of a period of intense academic research. As I witnessed unprecedented cultural events unfold around me in new ways, I found myself increasingly fascinated by the role of craft now. Using the iconography of the mask, I wanted to explore the ideas of connection, intimacy, and beauty in the context of cultural crisis, thinking about what it means to care for others—to invest in our collective wellbeing—by embracing distance, by isolating and covering our faces. I found myself confronting selfish disregard for human life all around me, while also appreciating new forms of connection and feeling encouraged by innovation, the uplift of craft economies, and the human ability to nurture one another in new and powerful ways.

I pieced together indigo dyed fabrics (I dyed the light squares in Atlanta in 2014, and the darker blue squares are guinea brocade hand-dyed fabrics from Nigeria), which for me tie together the local and the global and speak to this moment of global connection, even as we must examine our own local responses to a range of issues, from medicine and healthcare to capitalism and community. Indigo comes from a plant, reminding me to connect to the wisdom of the natural world, an especially important reminder in 2020, when the environmental crisis has become so urgent. I made positive drawings of masked women—my superheroines, I call them—and printed them on cyanotype fabric. These figures, appliquéd to the quilt, mark the shift in visual culture, especially in the States where protective and preventative face coverings became almost instantly—and destructively—politicized. But they also celebrate the beauty and strength of communities of women during this time, which includes the healthcare workers who have worked tirelessly and under difficult circumstances since March.

As I turned my attention to the back of the quilt, I knew I wanted to use it as a page—to write a seasonal poem that tried, in some way, to account for the four seasons of 2020. I got the idea from Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet of novels, a four-year project culminating in 2020 that makes striking use of assemblage (a kind of quilt-in-pages), art history, feminist and queer ways of knowing, and political critique. In the middle of my quilting, Smith delivered a virtual, multimedia talk for the Hay Festival, and in it she puts forward “the opposite of hand grenades: it was an and grenade.” The maker’s hand, the intimacy of connection (that and joining two things together), and the violence of our cultural moment—these things resonated deeply with me. Therefore, my seasonal poem takes up Smith’s “& Grenade” bringing together a composite of lines from Pablo Neruda, Virginia Woolf (lines she wrote during the 1918 flu pandemic), Zadie Smith, and Toni Morrison. The black back fabric was purchased from a shop specializing in DIY mask-making supplies at a time when black fabric was in high demand and short supply. The quilt is quilted using a kiss stitch—little X’s that materialize kisses across the surface of the quilt and that mirror the figures kissing at the center of the quilt, my personal celebration of queer love and Pride.

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The poem, embroidered on the back of the quilt, reads:

& Grenade

I am a book of snow,
A spacious hand,

Spring blotted out, but one must
Sacrifice spring to the war.

Heavy—
With the last of the dying summer…

When I think of autumn, I think of somebody
With hands who does not want me to die.

The & Grenade: what might we blow up with our collective compassion, our new forms of radical connection? My composite poem meditates on the ethics of care at the center of the pandemic response, but it also encompasses the emergent uprising against racial injustice and police brutality—a cause gone viral, made global, in the first week of June as I worked to complete the quilt in the Twin Cities, the very place where George Floyd’s heartbreaking murder occurred near my home. The masked faces of the pandemic resonated in a new visual register as protestors took the streets to demonstrate. This quilt is a testament, a love letter, an elegy. Like the quilt as a medium, its complexity surprised me as the materials and meanings multiplied amidst the folds and frayed edges of 2020.

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