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.
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.
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.