On Consent, and the Meaning of Quilts…

You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is? One thing. You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, so long as there is this one element. Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or four, however many are involved in the sex act, it’s perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police. But consent is the magic key to the left. –Rush Limbaugh (12 October 2016)

Every quilt is a gift, even when it is made for yourself. Beyond the cloth and thread, the batting and binding, it is a gesture, an offering of warmth both physical and emotional. A quilt brings with it a promise of a safe place, a reminder of an essential connectedness. Every quilts tells the story of those connections, whether it be parent to child, between friends, or from your present self to the person you might become. A quilt transforms even an empty bed into a site of living interconnections.

But underlying the fundamental understanding of quilts as gifts is consent. The decision to make and give a quilt, and the open acceptance of that gift can only exist within a covenant of consent. Indeed, when we sleep beneath our quilts we are in communion with the entirety of that quilt’s history, embraced by it. It is a relationship, an experience that can only be consensual.

The words Mr. Limbaugh has chosen, and the mindset they reflect – one that remains all too pervasive – are anathema to the very idea of quilts. Regardless of your feelings about the state of sexual mores in the 21st century, this must be an issue that the quilting community holds dear. Our views on same-sex relationships, polyamory, or sexual proclivities may diverge, but consent must be a core belief of the quilting community. Without consent our quilts mean nothing, and without consent there is no sex, only violence.

Two of Seven: Disrupted Wholecloth (2015)

Two of Seven: Disrupted Wholecloth (2015)

On this point there can be no dissent. On this point our voices must be united. The work we do is about transforming our most intimate spaces, our beds, into places of warmth and safety, security and meaning. Rape is a violation of everything we do, a rending of the compact we stitch together. Sexual assault depends on the attackers ability to isolate a victim and impose an extreme solitude by force. If we are indeed to be a community of quilters we must stand against the betrayal that lies at the root of rape, otherwise our practice means nothing, our quilts are no more than bits of cloth, worthless and hollow.

There is no rape police, only the police. But if there were a rape police, I would hope it would be us.


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On Rape and Beauty…

“So you’re saying that if your daughter were to walk around campus in a bikini and was later raped you wouldn’t blame her a little?”

Those were the words spoken to me about five years ago by a member of the Hamilton College board of trustees. We were at dinner with another faculty couple and three members of the board, an annual practice at the college during the on-campus meeting of the full board. The conversation had veered toward the topic of on-campus sexual assaults, and this board member was once again trotting out the usual platitudes about women somehow being culpable for the choices of their attackers. Until those words were spoken the conversation had been heated, but civil, but once I was asked to imagine Bee, then three years old, being raped, along with the suggestion that my only plausible reaction would be to blame her, well, let’s just say the evening did not end well.

That is the pathology of rape culture. It does not matter that my interlocutor that evening was a woman, because rape culture has so permeated our society that its permissive arguments cross gender lines. Its infection of our legal system facilitates leniency for rapists and transforms victims into suspects. On the back of rape culture we have created a reality where untold thousands of rapes go unreported, not because the crimes are not heinous, but because the barriers to prosecution are nearly insurmountable.

I walked out of that dinner party and just sat in my car crying with rage, not for myself but for the countless women who would be raped in the coming years at that college, and colleges around the country. I wept knowing full well that they would bear those scars for the rest of their lives while their attackers would likely still graduate on time with unblemished records. I wept as my wife, then untenured, suppressed her own rage, fearing the ways this all might have repercussions on her impending tenure application. I wept because I knew that the sociopathic norms of rape culture are omnipresent. And I wept because I knew I could not protect my daughter from it. Finally, I wept because the world was not weeping with me.

Excess (2013) 40” x 160

Excess (2013) 40” x 160” Each of the 1,600 blocks in this quilt represent a life lost to domestic violence each year; the finished quilt hangs over 13 feet long and the fact that it inevitably overflows onto the floor, signifies the terrible excess of each of those deaths. It is quilted with excerpts from the Violence Against Women Act.

It is now 6:45 on a Saturday morning and instead of being curled up under a pair of quilts with my wife I am at a nearby coffee shop vibrating with anger, no, with rage. I woke early this morning to the call of my daughter complaining she was cold. After checking on her and re-establishing her quilts’ placement on her bed rather than the floor I grabbed my phone to check in on the morning’s news to find the words of Donald Trump:

“Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” –Trump

That is assault. Period.

It says a lot that Trump’s first instinct was to issue a non-apology apology, to try to justify his words as simple locker room banter, but sexual assault, rape is not a joke. But that is the sociopathic nature of rape culture; it reveals an utter lack of empathy, and even worse a complete inability to see women as human beings. His words must be seen for what they are, not an expression of desire, but an insistence upon violent possession, dominance, and egoistic gratification. While his words are indeed symptomatic of rape culture, the pervasive permissiveness of sexual assault, we must not allow that to justify them, to excuse them. Rape culture is an accumulation of individual acts and choices, a horrific litany of subjection and subjugation that is normalized only by accepting it as inevitable. It is a reality supported by silence.

Perhaps more disturbing is the fact that Trump’s words are a confession of criminal intent in the guise of powerlessness:

“I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything” –Trump

And there is the excuse. Beautiful women are like a magnet; his desire, his need, is uncontrollable. He can’t help himself, and clearly cannot be blamed for biology. Or so he, and rape culture itself, would have us believe. The fact that legal history has endlessly permitted defenses along those lines, the pleas of “but she was wearing black,” or “she shouldn’t have been dressed like that,” or “she was just so beautiful,” supplies rapists with a vocabulary of coded justification appealing to some innate masculine imperative. But that is just shite; rape, assault, are choices, decisions made, violence willed into action.

Indeed, Trump himself admits his full knowledge of that reality in the final two sentences of his statement. He demonstrates that he is fully aware that he is utilizing his position, his power to take action. He knows full well the position victims are put in by their attackers (and they are attackers) and the reality that he can likely get away with actions he full well understands as unethical and violent. For him it is a matter of what he can get away with, the way a woman’s body can be used and abused. But he is devious, he still holds on to the analogy of the magnet, his primal justification: the ineluctable draw of the beautiful.

But Trump’s idea of beauty is ugly, crass. It is purely a mathematics of parts, of particular signals seen only as fodder for avaricious eyes. For him, and so many like him, beauty is consumed and is there for consummation. There is no person, only parts, inanimate and awaiting the animating action of his eyes, his hands, his body. And that is the essential derangement of Trump and rape culture as well: everything is subjected to the perpetrators economy of want. For him the beautiful is always already profane, defiled and awaiting defilement. For Trump there is no beauty, only commodity and value.

And for that I feel sorry for Trump. I do not feel empathy for him, nor do I excuse him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I pity him because it seems that he must live in a horrible world, a world of mere things, of crass objects, a world where beauty is forever foreign. But he does not elicit my sympathy because it is a world of his own construction, built of his choices. What he does not see, perhaps cannot see, is that beauty is a gift. Not one to be taken, but to be shared. Beauty is substantial, not superficial. Beauty emerges only in the totality, not through an aggregation of parts.

The most beautiful quilt in our house is one made for me by my wife’s grandmother in her waning years. It is a simple design of large red and blue squares, but it is not about the design. What matters is the materials. I was about to move to Iowa to teach, and she was worried that I would be cold, so she made me this quilt of double-knit polyester with wool batting, and tied rather than quilted it. Honestly, it is the heaviest quilt I have ever touched, so heavy that I need to keep the windows open to sleep under it even on the coldest nights. It is beautiful because it is a gesture, a statement. It was made to keep me safe because I was now part of the family. It was made despite with eyes grown dim and hands wracked with arthritis. It was made despite the pain tying those knots must have entailed because the gift mattered; the embrace of the quilt was embracing me as a part of the family, the community.

Red and Blue Quilt, 88˝ x 96˝, 2002, by Marie Combs of Letcher County, Kentucky

Red and Blue Quilt, 88˝ x 96˝, 2002, by Marie Combs of Letcher County, Kentucky

That is the nature of beauty, one inaccessible to rape culture, one seemingly unknown to Trump. Kindness is beautiful. Generosity is beautiful. Smart is beautiful, but more importantly curiousity and learning are beautiful. Passion and compassion are beautiful. Courage is beautiful, but so too are empathy and sympathy. My children are not beautiful because of the genetic circumstances that gifted them with cherubic faces and brilliant eyes. They are beautiful because of the wee people they are. The courage of my daughter as she grows to understand her atypical brain is beautiful. The worlds my son creates for hours at night in his crib before he can fall asleep are beautiful.

So yes, I pity Trump. But I do not forgive him. His words and actions are heinous, reflections of a vile human being, reflections of a vile culture. To put him in office is to accept the culture of rape, to permit its continued propagation across campuses and courts, upon the bodies of women, wives and daughters, sisters and mothers. It is a tacit endorsement of violence and subjugation as the norm, as inevitable. It is a choice to see the world as ugly and make it uglier still.


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Implicit Bias: The Doll Test…

I tried to watch the vice-presidential debate last night, but only lasted through the first hour before my body began sending the undeniable signals that continued consciousness would not be permitted. But before I pulled my bedraggled body off to the bedroom I was still there in front of the television to hear Gov. Pence use that most dangerous deflection of the reality of implicit bias, the notion that bias could not have been involved in the police shooting of Keith Scott in Charlotte because one of the officers was African-American.

Before getting to the deeper issues involved, the horrific truths of implicit bias at the institutional and societal societal levels, lets look at the historical context of that phrase. It goes right along with a history of white deflection of bigotry, with phrases like, “some of my best friends are black,” and “I just don’t see color,” as though those statements, even if consciously believed offered some sort of immunity from the effects of history. It is right there with the belief that private clubs admitting a small number of people of color somehow erases a legacy of bigotry, that having a black neighbor somehow inoculates a community from the practices and reality of economic discrimination. Indeed is part of a pattern of deflecting white guilt and complicity that only serves as psychological balms to those who do not bears the weight of discrimination.

But Gov. Pence’s assertion is perhaps far more dangerous, more ignorant, and more insipidly racist. Implicit bias is not simply another term of overt bigotry; it is not merely a bias against someone or something. It reveals itself most dangerously in the compounding of effects, a dual process of bias toward one thing and against another. We can see this so clearly in the classic study know as The Doll Test, in which young children, black and white, show a clear association of typically good characteristics (being good, smart, pretty, etc) with white dolls or drawings and of bad characteristics (bad, dumb, ugly) with dark-skinned dolls and drawings.

What this study reveals is just how ingrained these assumptions are at the societal level, which then clearly filters down and through every aspect of life in America. It also shows how early this process starts, how the constant stream of stereotypes and messages at every level produce very real life. From media messages to subtle cues (being called on less in class, rates of and types of punishment in school, disproportionate rates of traffic stops, and on and on) send very clear signals to people of all colors. This is implicit bias; it is a psychological effect that though unconscious is very real and plays itself out in the psyches of all of us regardless of race.

In Gov. Pence dismissing the notion of implicit bias by citing the fact that one of the officers involved in the Charlotte shooting he is not simply revealing his ignorance, he is not simply demonstrating his ignorance, quite possible a willful ignorance, he is giving license to white Americans to simply dismiss the very idea of systemic discrimination. With his words he offered a free pass to those who do not want to address the realities of American life, and even worse handed out a memo to those who actively endorse bigotry. In saying that a black officer (or teacher, or any other citizen) cannot carry the effects of institutional bias is yet another form of whitewashing, is to exploit the skin color and bodies of just those people who bear the burden of a bigoted society. In fact it is predicated on denying the essential humanity of people of color, to ignore the complex psychological realities that come with being African American today. In short, his words are exemplars of a profound racism.

It is that same deep racism that allows us all to justify the shooting of unarmed black men by the police by delving into the inner-thoughts of the shooters, what they may have felt or feared, while reducing the victims to mere bodies, the actions taken or not taken. It is just that dehumanizing bias that dismisses any thought to the fear felt when guns are pointed at you. It is just that dehumanization that permits a mistake, a misjudgment on the part of officers, but attributes blame to the slightest misstep (perceived or real) on the behalf of the victim.

And it is all of this that allows for an officer in a helicopter to assert that an unarmed African-American man looks like a “bad dude.” The effects of implicit and institutional bias are written out on the unconscious minds of all of us and lend a patina of intuitive truth to those who support more explicit acts of bigotry. But it is on the bodies and minds of people of color that the egregious effects are felt.


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On Race and Protest: The Whitewashing of Quilt History in the Quilt Industry…


You have no idea how important that word is to me. Without context almost everything will be misunderstood. Without context we are doomed to ignorance. Politics, media, education, even medicine have thrown context out of the window in search of concise, consumable solutions. We are virtually beset by information, yet have very little understanding. In many cases the fault lies with us, our curiosity, our openness to complexity is undeniably waning. But the fault is not entirely ours; all too often the deeper stories of our world are whitewashed, sanitized to feel more palatable.

The examples of this are nearly endless: the Texas history books that transform the evils of the slave trade into an “African migration,” the de-radicalization of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the near canonization of Ronald Reagan. The words and histories we share are important only when seen in context with all of the complexities; to tidy them up is not only a disservice to the truth, those transformations inevitable serve to erase the things we might not want to face, the sins we would rather not confess.

There is a reason for the term whitewashing in this country, beyond the self-evident material reference. Whitewashing is an effort to make history, and the present day, more comfortable for those who have historically held the levers of power, namely white America. The “African migrations” makes us partners with the millions we enslaved, ignoring the radical nature of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther Kings Jr’s protests allows us to sidestep the sins of our parents and grandparents, writing Reagan as a savior erases his manifold bigotries. And the quilt world is not immune to whitewashing; just look at the persistence of the mythology of Underground Railroad Quilts. The fact that this falsehood remains so alive lets us imagine our great-great-grandparents as freedom fighters rather than complicit bystanders.

This is perhaps the root of all of my concerns about the quilt industry, the way the things we now make have been so profoundly stripped of context. There are few phrases I dread more than Christmas in July. In the place of quilts that carry resonant connections to our lives, the vast energies of the quilt industry are so often unleashed to produce an endless march of seasonally appropriate appliqué projects.

In transforming quilting into a pursuit of technical mastery and aesthetic perfection we whitewash the deeper history of quilting, we erase the vital context that make quilts genuinely important. And that transformation has profound effects. Look around at your next quilt guild meeting, at the next quilt show you visit, the next time you stop by your local quilt shop, step back and just look at the people you see at Quilt Market. The quilt world is incredibly white and primarily middle class.

As the quilts ceased to be a material necessity with the rise of mass commodities following World War II quilting waned except in places of poverty, most commonly rural communities. But in the years after the American Quilt Revival a new possibility arose, the potential of quilting as a pastime, a hobby. But hobbies required two things: leisure time and disposable income, and that was the purview of the middle class, which was predominantly white just years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and it was within this reality that the present-day quilt industry was born. Please understand that I am not making any accusations of discriminatory intent; rather, that it came forth within the economic realities of the time. What I am saying, though, is that an implicit bias toward something, a group or particular perspective, can be just as dangerous as a bias against. And it is in seeking out markets in those early years that has set the industry on a course that is still felt profoundly today.

Technique and aesthetics are a marvelous means for selling things: the latest fabrics, the newest tools, the finest machines. Social context and meaning do not require frequent updates to ensure precision. Those transformations of the practice of quilting are perfectly logical, and in themselves appear perfectly benign, but those erasures of context have implications, just as silence in the face of injustice is nothing other than complicity.

You see, when I see the quilts of Gee’s Bend I don’t see an improvisational elegance so different from the geometric precision of the European tradition. I see the story of remnants, of the fabrics cast off, outside of the mythos of progress and production. I see quilts the gave voice to those remnants, and in doing so gave quilting one of its most important metaphors. I see the story of the Freedom Quilting Bee, the struggle for civil and economic justice, and the ways art dealers exploited their labor and their genius. I see protest, I see a refuse to conform to, to submit to the standards of a white hegemony and a refusal to silence essential stories and an extraordinary history.

Annie Mae Young, born 1928. "Bars," ca. 1965. Corduroy, denim, polyester knit, assorted synthetics, 81 x 79.

Annie Mae Young, born 1928. “Bars,” ca. 1965. Corduroy, denim, polyester knit, assorted synthetics, 81 x 79.

When I look at Amish quilts I do not see reductionist abstraction, a minimalist simplicity. I see a radical refusal of all that is unnecessary. I see an active protest in the face of modern excess, even if that modernity was that of the late nineteenth century. I see a commitment to austerity, family, and community. I see a spiritual devotion that can only be kept true in shunning the trappings of vanity. I see a genius that can only be understood in context, one that is desecrated through aesthetic adoration.

Amish Bar Quilt, c. 1890. Pennsylvania

Amish Bar Quilt, c. 1890. Pennsylvania

When I see Temperance quilts I do not see blocks designed to illustrate a movement, signatures added in exchange for a contribution for a nickel or a dime to fight the wickedness of libations. I see a profound struggle for justice in the face of abuse. I see women fighting for rights and survival in a time when men held extraordinary power and women were barely recognized as having standing in the courts. Alcohol was not simply an abstract sin; instead it fueled violence, abuse, rape, and untold horrors on women who had little legal recourse. I do not see the moral protest of prim teetotaler; I see a profound protest that is still being fought today.

The Crusade Quilt, 1876. Woman's Christian Temperance Union members, Hillsboro, OH

The Crusade Quilt, 1876. Woman’s Christian Temperance Union members, Hillsboro, OH

But these stories are not easy. These stories are not readily transformed into products. Yet these stories are essential to the understanding of quilts. It is in the whitewashing of this history that quilts become mere things. It is in the erasures of this heritage that quilting becomes a hobby, becomes a middle-class pastime, and becomes overwhelmingly white. And I cannot help but wonder about the effects of the contextual whitewashing of quilting, and what it will mean for the future of quilting.


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Voices and Choices…

For the past several years I have been a person divided, torn between two professional voices, only one of which actually reflecting the person that I am. Even as my quilts have grown increasingly direct in their advocacy for social justice, ever other aspect of my professional life has been carefully guarded, created and performed to stay within the unwritten rules of the quilting industry. With each passing month, and year, that duality has felt ever more untenable, unsustainable both professionally and personally.

As a quilter and artist I feel I have finally found my voice, a vocabulary for speaking out about the things I so deeply hold to be true. After two decades of searching for an artistic voice that truly resonated, I at last find myself in a place that feels simultaneously natural and uncomfortable. Natural in that the medium and the messages seem to gel, to come together in ways that are both provocative and intimate. Uncomfortable in that I regularly find myself pushing into solutions and results that ask demanding questions, open up onto conclusions that are not easy to confront. With each new quilt I find myself moving toward the goal of making work that truly matters, not just for myself or within the quilting community, but within the larger context of the world.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (2016)

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (2016)

At times I am amazed by the successes I am finding, the places the work is going, and the reception it is receiving, all the more so because I feel like I am truly putting my innermost self out there through the work. But with each step forward I make on that side of my professional self, I feel the disconnect from the other side of my professional life more acutely. As my quilts move into more and more museum settings, quilt and art museums alike, I still want to maintain my practice within the quilting industry, where this all started for me. I want to design fabrics again, to keep writing for magazines, and to publish more books, but that world has rules that are frequently at odds with my quilting goals.

The quilting industry is one of a perpetually cheery disposition, of uncontroversial topics, no place for social or political critique. Even a cursory glance at the quilting periodicals demonstrates just how essential this model is to the quilting world; it is a litany of joys and blessings, dreams fulfilled and amazement at the personal luck to be successful. The thing is that that simply isn’t my story; mine is one of loss and remorse, obsessive work strung out over decades of dedication. Certainly there are joys in my life, but the greatest impetus for the quilts I make is unbridled anger at the unjustness of the world.

My story, and my inspiration, is born of cycles of deep depression, physical anguish brought about by chronic illness, my personal anger over being forced to abandon my vocation, my horrors as the evils humanity endlessly inflicts, but that doesn’t sell. So for the past several years I have masked that reality as much as possible, limited my public persona to benign nerdiness and stories about my children. The esoteric side was allowed out, but only if accompanied by a heartwarming tale. The bouts of self-pity occasionally leaked out, but even that was disguised as a PSA opening a window into the realities of chronic illness. Trust me, the truth of even those posts was far darker, and liberally sprinkled with dark selfishness and resentment.
But I still had hopes of a new fabric contract, even as it became more and more evident that that side of the quilting industry saw me as untouchable, as difficult or unmarketable. But still I tried, even as I grew bitter over the thousands of bolts of cat fabric, of coffee fabric, of irredeemable holiday fabrics rolled out with each passing month. But still I persisted because, to be blunt, I need to find a path to economic solvency. So I painted on a smile and refined the narrative to fit the joyful headshots, the masks that the others wear as well.

So I censored my words, drew a sharp dividing line between my private being and my public persona. And with each passing month and year I grew to resent that public self ever more. In fact, I grew to dislike him, lost respect for that version of me. You see, silence is a political act too; to not speak out is to tacitly accept things as they are, to offer implicit endorsement of the status quo. In short, I have had not choice but to face my own hypocrisy; I hit a point where accepting that one or the other of my professional selves, the quilter or the fabric designer, was a façade entirely incompatible with the other.

Unequal: Pie Charts (2015)

Unequal: Pie Charts (2015)

So here I am, armed with the knowledge that this may be ill-advised for my prospects in the mainstream quilt industry. I cannot wear that mask anymore. I cannot hold my tongue in the face of bigotry. I cannot hide my antipathy to guns, weapons made for the sole purpose of killing. To sequester my professional voice, to accept that business trumps truth is not acceptable for me. If I am going to stand up and insist that quilts indeed matter, then how can I not insist that words matter as well. Silence is a form of speech, one for which I must hold myself accountable.

From abolition to temperance, civil rights to AIDS activism, quilters have been a part of this country’s most important social movements. So today is the day I take back my own voice, assert that my authentic self is indeed good enough and need not be painted over. Today is the day I assert that the business of quilts is one of being in the world, not an escape from it. Today is the day I declare that quilts and words matter, can make the world a better place. Today is the day that I wholly take my place following in the legacy of quilts and quilters standing up for justice, for equality, for human compassion.


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