Tapestries of Annapolis history to go on display

They sit hunched over a single needlepoint canvas that is bathed in astoundingly bright light, fingers flying.

"Where am I? My needle is under here," Joy Wiley of Lothian says to herself as she stops to examine her work while feeling around beneath the canvas for her dangling yarn and needle.

"We hate these tails," says Sheryn Blocher of Crownsville with a sigh, glaring at what look like weeds standing up from the canvas. She will imperceptibly secure the base of each wisp of yarn, or tail, before trimming it away.

Mary Ann Brown leans back, giving her eyes a rest, looking around the living room of her Edgewater home. The room has been eaten by this project — with its 84-inch-long frame that stretches the canvas, baskets and pallets of yarn piled everywhere, a large photo of the canvas occupying the sofa, and needlework tools all around, plus a gaggle of lamps.

The three women, part of a core group of about 10 needlepointers, are stitching the second of the three tapestries, each 3 feet by 6 1/2 feet, in a needlepoint project known as the Annapolis Tapestries.

When finished, the large tapestries, plus the three dozen smaller ones, will depict three centuries of Annapolis history.

That won't happen for another five years or so. But there's a milestone coming in late January:

The first big tapestry, which shows the first century of the city's charter government that began in 1708, will make its public debut, along with 10 of its smaller cousins, at the Historic Annapolis Museum. The exhibit will run through November. Meanwhile, the tapestries are being prepared for display.

"You can see Annapolis and significant events and people of the time," said Remy Agee of Crofton, who heads the project.

Visitors will see a homegrown blend of art and history, and a view of the very green Annapolis of the 1700s — before substantial development and the Naval Academy fleshed out the town. Punctuating the landscape are detailed images. Those include George Washington resigning his commission, the Liberty Tree under patriots gathered, and a Queen Anne loyalty pendant worn in the Colonies as well as in England to show allegiance to the queen for whom Annapolis is named.

The first large panel, completed in October 2010, took 39 shades of Persian yarn, 3,266 volunteer hours and about two years to complete.

Figuring out which shade to use can be a major challenge, requiring a group decision.

"We have blue-greens and spring-greens," Brown said, holding a cardboard palette of nine shades of green. "The difference between dark green and dark spring-green is barely detectable."

These women generally don't do the smaller tapestries, which show people and events that didn't make it onto the main canvas. Among those are Gov. Horatio Sharpe's racehorse, Othello, and four signers of the Declaration of Independence — Samuel Chase, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, William Paca and Thomas Stone, who historians say made Annapolis the only town in the country where all of a state's signers lived at one time or another.

Jean Russo, associate general editor of the Archives of Maryland online and staff historian for the Historic Annapolis Foundation, was among the experts who vetted designs for accuracy.

She's also a stitcher. Besides occasionally working on the large canvases, she's done two small ones being prepared for the exhibit.

"I worked on it at staff meetings, heritage area meetings — things that were history-related so they couldn't complain about me sitting there doing it," Russo said.

The exhibit will guide visitors through the creation of the tapestries on display. And it will continue a feature that's been part of the project all along: the community stitching of smaller pieces. Plans call for museum visitors to be able to add a few stitches to a small canvas in progress.

There have been hundreds of community stitchers. Some, like students at the Montessori International Children's House in Annapolis, have done entire pieces. But now word has gone out that anyone can help make history by putting in six stitches on a small canvas that women in the project take to area events.

Those who have seized this opportunity are as young as 3 and as old as 98. They are men and women, Brownies and book club members.

"It truly is supposed to be a project that engages all ages and all backgrounds," Agee said.

Inspiration came from Annapolis' sister city, Annapolis Royal, a seaside town in Nova Scotia, where heritage tapestries depict local history.

"I kept telling my husband we need to do this," said Agee. Bob Agee was then city administrator and part of the team planning the city's 300th anniversary. Remy Agee became the volunteer tapestry coordinator. That was in 2006.

Before a single stitch was made in 2008, organizers had to envision the project fully. They decided what people and events to depict, then vetted their canvases for historical correctness. They selected images to pull out as icons. They chose what to show on the smaller needlepoints. They sought the advice of historians and local needlepoint expert Hollis Minor.

And they had to raise funds.

So far, about $25,000 has been raised. That includes $2,500 toward the exhibit from Four Rivers: The Heritage Area of Annapolis, London Town & South County, as well as other grants. The group recently incorporated as a nonprofit in hopes of reaching $50,000 to complete the tapestries.

"When they're done, you'll be able to see the changes over time," Agee said. For example, the tapestry about to go on display shows a slave's shackled wrists to symbolize the slave trade in the 1700s. The one in progress depicts the shackles broken in a symbolic end of slavery in the 1800s.

Everyone on the project has been a volunteer, Agee said, except for artist Gail Bolden, who designed and handpainted the canvases.

The core stitching group now working on the 19th-century canvas usually gathers twice a week — but more than six showing up at once means elbow-room warfare. The quilting bee atmosphere alternates between silence and talk, about everything from family news to vacations. These people bond as they stitch. They've taken over Brown's kitchen for lunch and snacks, as no food is allowed near the canvas.

Note to needlepointers: Most of the stitching is basketweave, with continental used for detailed areas.

Note to non-needlepointers and people interested in community stitching: Tapestry needles are dull; there's no risk of bleeding on the canvas.


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