They are stitches in time, threads laced through the years by stitchers as far-flung as the pioneer woman struggling for survival in the new West and the modern-day mourner confronting the equally uncharted and brutal landscape of AIDS.
Quilts have proven timeless: The same medium that served as an expressive outlet for the 19th century woman is used today by artists, writers and activists for messages that are as modern as AIDS and divorce. That scope forms the backdrop of a wide-ranging program, "Quilts: A Continuing Tradition," that begins Friday at Towson State University and will include a musical play, a juried exhibit and a scholarly symposium.
"You're [seeing] bits and pieces of people's lives. That's what quilts are," said Katharine Brainard, a Bethesda artist who has "quilted" both her divorce and her subsequent suicidal feelings. "I think of the [pioneer] woman going out West -- she would make quilts, she would stitch in the love of her family, she'd cry and the tears would fall on the quilt. The emotions are the same today. That's the Zen of quilting."
Ms. Brainard's "Suicide Quilt" will be exhibited as part of the Towson State program, a celebration of quilts from both historic and current perspectives. In recent years, quilts have emerged as the chosen vehicle for any number of expressions: The AIDS Memorial Quilt, for example, has become a softer, more tactile version of the Vietnam Wall, each of the nearly 30,000 panels commemorating a life lost to the disease. Writers have discovered the quilt -- which is simultaneously utilitarian and artistic -- as an apt metaphor for their stories as well as a structural device for piecing together their narratives. And a growing body of scholarship sees them as icons of both feminist "herstory" and the patchwork diversity of America.
"Somehow, there's a connection people make with this art form," said Molly Newman, who wrote "Quilters," a musical play that will be performed at Towson State as part of its quilt program. "Quilts are decorative, but they also warm you and comfort you. They're meant to be touched."
Ms. Newman, a former actress who lives in upstate New York, wrote the play after her mother, herself a quilter, suggested that she use the oral histories of quilters from the past as audition material. She became fascinated by the tales, and directors, intrigued by hearing something besides Juliet balcony scenes in auditions, encouraged her to try to create an entire play around ++ the lives of the pioneer women and their quilts.
Appropriately for a play structured around the building of a quilt, Ms. Newman's play "evolved over time" from an experimental show that she presented in Denver in the early 1980s to its opening on Broadway in 1984. Since then, the musical has been performed by groups that often extend the quilting theme into audience participation.
"At the Kennedy Center, they set up a big quilt in the lobby and let people put in a few stitches and leave their mark on it. Another [group's] tickets were cloth, and when the people turned them in, they made a quilt out of them," Ms. Newman said. "Others raffle off the quilt that is used in the production."
The play is divided into scenes, each based on an actual quilt block that tells a story. Writer Whitney Otto similarly used the building-block metaphor for her novel, "How to Make an American Quilt," a story published last year about the intersecting lives of a group of women in a quilting bee.
"I knew nothing about quilting. I can't even sew buttons on clothes," said Ms. Otto, who lives in Portland, Ore. "But I was taken with the idea of quilting, and re-creating it in only words, so it would be a sort of verbal quilt."
While quilts have never actually gone away, their current revival reflects a recognition that history is not just what men have done and recorded.
"Until recently, women's history was invisible," said Dr. Elaine Hedges, a quilt historian and English professor who heads Towson State's Women's Studies Program. "History largely was written by men about public events. Women in the 19th century were not considered proper subjects for study."
Quilting became an "expressive outlet" for women, denied as they were the educational and professional training available to men, Dr. Hedges said.
"Women made far more quilts than they needed for bedding," she said. "They made them as ritual markers -- for weddings, for friendships, for deaths. And they also used their sewing for political expressions."
Women would embroider quilts with various slogans, of the abolitionist and suffragette movements for example, and sell them to raise money for those causes, Dr. Hedges said. Additionally, quilting bees -- in which women, often in church groups, joined forces to collaborate on quilts -- became a way for women to exchange news.
As such, quilts have become a sort of icon of feminism, symbolic of women's long-ignored role in history and society. And more recently, Dr. Hedges said, the quilt increasingly is used as a symbol of America's diversity -- its racial and ethnic groups as patches that form a quilt rather than as ingredients blended in a melting pot.
While quilting was brought to these shores by English and German settlers, it has become a uniquely American art form, Dr. Hedges said. No one is certain why American women were the ones who kept the tradition alive rather than, say, English or German women, she said.
And it was American AIDS activists who borrowed the form as a way to make sure that victims of acquired immune deficiency syndrome would not be lost to history. Cleve Jones, a longtime AIDS activist in San Francisco, came up with the idea in November 1985 after a candlelight march in which the mourners each wrote the names of loved ones who had died from AIDS on slips of paper that were taped to the walls of the city's federal building. The impromptu mosaic reminded him of a patchwork quilt, and, in June 1987, he and others organized the NAMES project that collects 3-feet-by-six-feet panels memorializing people who have died of AIDS.
"It has an immense amount of energy," said Ms. Brainard, the quilt artist, who saw the AIDS memorial during one of its displays in Washington. "It's real people. It can make you cry."
She began quilting about 10 years ago when her first son was born. "The mothering instinct kicked in," said Ms. Brainard, who was trained in graphic design. "Quilts are very accessible. Everyone understands them. They're safe. That's what I like about it as an art form."
Ms. Brainard gained some notoriety last year when she unveiled her "divorce quilt," a patchwork of rage against her ex-husband. It shows him alternately as a snake in the grass and a voodoo doll stuck with pins -- yes, including there. There's also a panel showing a cat crisscrossed with tire tracks, a reference to "the other woman," who is named "Kitty."
"My 8-year-old was embarrassed by it. But he did go with his dad to see it. He didn't want to see it because he said it would wake up feelings that were going to sleep," Ms. Brainard said. "It probably helped him -- it probably helped him deal with the fantasy that every child has, that his parents would get married again."
Perhaps even more disturbing is Ms. Brainard's "Suicide Quilt," a 9-foot-square quilt with images such as a slashed wrist and a small figure crying, "Help me." She hopes to sell the quilt for $30,000. Her "divorce quilt" sold for $5,000.
"I sort of killed myself in the quilt," said the blunt-spoken Ms. Brainard, "instead of in real life."
STITCH IN TIME
What: 'Quilts: A Continuing Tradition'
Where: Towson State University
When: Friday through Dec. 5
Friday events include a symposium on quilting, slide shows and a lecture. There will be a dinner at 6 p.m.; advance registration necessary.
An exhibit of 18 contemporary quilts opens Friday with a reception from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Holtzman Art Gallery in the Fine Arts Center. It runs through Dec. 5.
"Quilters, a musical play, will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., and Nov. 18-21, at the Mainstage Theatre in the Fine Arts Center.
For information, call (410) 830-2660. Price for the dinner, reception and play is $20. For just the show, tickets range from $4 to $9. Call (410) 830-ARTS.