Artists bring anti-rape Monument Quilt to Towson and Hopkins universities

Baltimore Messenger, Towson Times
The FORCE is with founders of Monument Quilt project to draw attention to rape and sexual violence.

"Stop, Dad, don't be mean."

Those words, written by a child identified only as Sophie, age 4, were sewn into one of about a dozen square quilts spread out on pallets on the floor of an art studio in Baltimore's Greenmount West neighborhood April 11. .

"I could not say no," had been written into another quilt.

"Ask first. I love my body," was on another.

Also, "We are here to listen when you are ready to talk" as well as, "We believe you. We care."

The quilts are being collected by the studio owners, Rebecca Nagle, of Charles Village, and Hanna Brancato, of Station North, as part of the Monument Quilt, a project they started in 2012 to draw attention to the issue of rape and sexual violence. The two artists co-founded the group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. In the past two years, they have solicited about 500 "stories" on 125 quilts and taken them to cities and colleges nationwide, including on a 13-city tour last summer.

The next stop is Towson University, where the quilts were scheduled to be displayed April 14-15 on the College of Liberal Arts lawn.

A visit to the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University is set for April 29 on the lawn outside the Eisenhower Library, rescheduled from last week due to bad weather, she said.

Collectively, the quilts stretch 250 feet by 250 feet.

"It's big," Nagle said, sitting in the studio at 1400 Greenmount Ave., on a day when the public was invited to walk in and help make quilts as well as attend a workshop called "Conversations About Consent."

Nagle, 28, and Brancato, 29, met in 2007, when both were working on art relating to sexual violence, Brancato as artist-in-residence at the House of Ruth and Nagle as a performance artist doing cabaret and a play.

"I was working through my own experiences," said Nagle, a survivor of child sexual abuse."

They founded FORCE as a collaboration on "creating through artwork a message that could have a much wider audience," Nagle said. "It incubated for a couple of years," and by late 2012, they were working on a national level, leading projects including projecting the words "Rape is rape" on the U.S. Capitol, and creating a "Pink Loves Consent" line of underwear and a parody website of the same name as part of "a culture jam" to spoof racy Victoria's Secret lingerie ads, which they felt send a wrong message to consumers.

In 2013, they raised $27,000 on the fundraising website Kickstarter and began leading quilt-making workshops at the Spiritual Empowerment Center in lower Charles Village.

In 2014, they launched http://www.themonumentquilt.org, "a crowd-sourced collection of thousands of stories from survivors of rape and abuse," according to the website. "By stitching our stories together, we are creating and demanding public space to heal," the home page says. "The Monument Quilt is a platform to not only tell our stories, but work together to forever change how Americans respond to rape. We are creating a new culture where survivors are publicly supported, rather than publicly shamed."

They rent the cavernous studio space for $1 a month from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, which owns the building and plans to redevelop it as an arts center. Once that happens, FORCE will move to the old Load of Fun space on North Avenue in Station North, Nagle said.

At the studio, about 20 plastic bins are piled, each containing quilts. When they take the Monument Quilt project on the road, they pile the bins into a rented, 15-seat van.

The quilt has traveled to cities including Des Moines, Iowa, Baton Rouge, La., Tulsa, Okla., Birmingham, Ala., Chicago, Ill, New York City and Jacksonville, Fla., the latter in solidarity with supporters of Melissa Alexander, a mother of three who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault after she fired a warning shot at her husband, who she said had threatened to kill her, according to published reports.

FORCE lines up "local partners" in each city, such as colleges, rape counseling centers, Indian tribal programs, art groups and groups that advocate abolishment of prisons.

"We don't just show up with the quilt," Nagle said.

FORCE's small, part-time staff includes studio manager Shanti Flagg, 22, of Charles Village, a native of Maine, who graduated from New York University last year with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Flagg said FORCE encourages people to make quilts that tell their own stories of sexual abuse, rather than on behalf of others.

"The idea is discussing how it affects you," she said, but added, "The guidelines are really as broad as we can make them."

Saturday's activities by FORCE also drew like-minded local groups and individuals, including Shameeka Smallings, 34, of Baltimore, a performance and healing artist who calls herself Shameeka Dream and whose various projects include the Good Music Good People Show, an online discussion group that she described as being "a safe space for art and healing conversations" on topics like, "How can I create a community where everybody feels safe?"

Also on hand was Leah Michaels, 24, of Guilford, co-director of Hollaback! Baltimore, a movement to end street harassment.

"Anti-Street Harassment Week is next week," Michaels said.

Although the event drew mostly women, some men attended, too, including Monument Quilt volunteer Matt Morgan, 30, of Millersville.

The computer programmer said he is not a victim of sexual violence, and in fact, "I've had nothing bad happen to me in my life."

But he said that after reading articles about sexual violence, he wanted to help.

""I'm just one of the ones who wants to step back and support other people who have better ideas," Morgan said.

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