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Finding a Common Thread: MICA’s Quilt Club

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When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the spring of 2020, The Quilt Club at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) was in full swing. Founded in 2015 by MICA faculty member Susie Brandt, the club is a place where people across MICA’s community—students, faculty, staff, alumni—and those not associated with the school can come together. Between May 2020 and May 2022, the group created 15 quilts. Quilting in the Age of the Pandemic, on view in MICA’s Meyerhoff Gallery, is the first time the quilts have been exhibited. 

Featuring 14 of the 15 quilts made during the pandemic as part of the MICA Raffle Quilt Project, these pieces were created remotely but collectively, when the club’s members were scattered across the country in their homes. The Quilt Project began as a fundraiser and raffled its work through the school’s winter Art Market. The first quilt raised over $1,000. 

Initially, Quilt Club went on break during the onset of the pandemic. But, as the semester ended, Brandt saw a need for something to continue into the summer. After a number of students expressed interest, the Club was back at it. Members met online for weekly meetings, and used the fabric they had on hand. Brandt carefully assembled packages for anyone in need, providing everything down to the needles. With 76 participants ranging in age from 10 to 82, membership includes people who had never sewn before alongside experienced quilters like Glenda Richardson and Rosalind Robinson, members of the African American Quilters of Baltimore. Although not part of the club herself, Joyce J. Scott introduced Richardson and Robinson to the MICA Quilt Club. 

 

Reginald F. Lewis Museum Story Quilt

The club raffles its creations, donating the proceeds to scholarship funds at MICA and other causes and organizations, including the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Two quilts still in progress and not included in the exhibition will benefit a Ukrainian refugee family. 

When the club started meeting virtually in May of 2020, Brandt chose techniques based on samples she had around—some of which she developed for a class she had just finished teaching at MICA. In that class, she had to transfer some of her lesson plans to hand-sewing as students no longer had access to school facilities. Brandt continued the focus on hand-sewing because not everyone in the club had sewing machines. 

Reginald F. Lewis Museum Story Quilt detail

Although Brandt founded the club and gave the first lessons, the group has a non-hierarchical structure. Themes and techniques are decided collectively, and participants share their skills with each other. Brandt describes it as “a big place of exchange.” Brandt is helped by many students, including Lowell Zelenka, who is a member of the MICA Student Quilt Club, and Dr. Leslie King Hammond. 

Over time, the club became a social lifeline and grew by word of mouth: People invited friends who were struggling to cope with isolation, and curious parents joined after overhearing their child on Zoom. The group is as much about coming together to learn and celebrate each other as it is about quilting. 

Quilting in the Age of the Pandemic opened on May 26th and was initially only scheduled for one night. For most club members, it was the first time they got to see the assembled quilts and the first time they got to meet each other in person. The opening was such a success that the show was extended through July 8th, and has plans to travel. (As of this writing, future sites for the exhibition are not yet finalized.)

 

Kawandi Quilt front

 

The quilts range in size from around four feet square to large enough to cover a king bed. One of the most impressive quilts in the exhibition is the “Kawandi Quilt.” The choice to use the technique was inspired by a talk the curator and art historian Lowery Stokes Sims gave on the patchwork quilts originally created by the Siddis, a group largely descending from enslaved Africans that live in southern India. Hung prominently in the space, the back of the “Kawandi Quilt” shows the intricate stitches required by the technique. 

As the quilts were made from scrap fabric people had around them, and were sent to a member to assemble. (Labels note that all the quilts were assembled by Brandt, Sarah Barnes, or the MICA student quilt club. One quilt was gifted to Brandt by the club, and was designed, organized, and quilted by Julia Racicot.), all sorts of hidden gems can be found—Bob Marley and a Minion appear in the “Kawandi Quilt,” for example. As rigorous as the quilts are, both in craft and concept, they are also humorous. The scraps of fabric hint at the history of their own origins. 

You can trace fabrics across the quilted surfaces, and you can follow individual hands from project to project. In some of the quilts, the vibrant surfaces are textured with store-bought patches, a handmade stuffed animal, and all the various fabrics. In the “Reginald F. Lewis Museum Story Quilt,” each square tells a story related to the local institution. In one square, Oletha DeVane told the story of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, and her square features a three-dimensional face sewn into the fabric. 

With only nine squares, “Hope & Gratitude Quilt, Part 3” is the smallest of the group, made using a reverse-applique technique. Each square features a heart, and the label notes that the proceeds will “benefit BiPoc students at MICA.” This quilt doesn’t engulf the viewer like the larger pieces do. Instead, it slowly welcomes you in and greets you. 

Oscillating between the micro and the macro—a single thread and an entire exhibition—Quilting in the Age of the Pandemic is emblematic of a time when no one knew what the next day would bring. Sometimes the only thing to do was focus on the smallest of details: a single stitch. 

 

Kawandi Quilt detail
Kawandi Quilt detail

Photos by the author

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