The Story of Penny Gold’s Quilt “Self-Portrait, Year 2”

“Self-Portrait, Year 2: Beneath the Surface” was one of the most memorable quilts on display at QuiltCon 2015 in Austin. A 68” x 94” conceptual piece, one side is a stark white with inky black letters that read, “I am a woman whose child is dead.” The other side is plain lavender with just the faint quilted outlines of the words visible.

Throughout the four days of the show this quilt created a constant stir. “I saw people talking about it, people bringing their friends over to see it, people shooting photos, people reading the label to find out the backstory,” recalled QuiltCon attendee Linzee McCray. “But I also saw people who were uncomfortable, who turned away.”

Although the quilt’s maker, Penny Gold, is grateful for the attention it got, she feels relieved that she was not there in person to witness the reactions. “I think it would have been hard,” she says. “It was better for me to take in the comments at a distance.”

Photo of Penny Gold by Peter Bailley/Knox College.

In the summer of 2004 Penny’s only son, Jeremy, was 18 years old and about to leave for college. Penny had begun quilting a few years before, and was making her first bed-sized quilt, a log cabin design Jeremy had selected for his dorm room bed. In July he was killed in a car accident.

At that time Penny was a history professor at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. She’d spent 30 years doing scholarly research and had authored four books when her life was suddenly shattered by Jeremy’s death.

Finding that she’d lost all interest in things that used to bring joy, such as reading and research, but not sure what to do to fill the excruciating void, she picked up some applique blocks and began to stitch. Quilting, she says, quickly took on a new role in her life.

“The sewing was a kind of analgesic, almost an anesthetic,” Gold recalls. “The process of making the quilts made it possible for me to live with the feelings of grief and guilt rather than have them be a spike in my heart.”

She began to think about the quilt she’d been making for Jeremy before he died. With just three blocks left to complete, she wasn’t sure what to do. “How could I finish it now that he was no longer here to receive it? But how could I discard this quilt I had been making for him?” With this idea as a guide, she altered the design of the final blocks, making them off center.

By disrupting the otherwise linear design she found a way to embed her grief within the quilt, and to express how her son’s life had so abruptly gone off-course. This was the beginning of what has now been over a decade of making quilts that express various aspects of living with loss. “I am not responding to the material world outside of me, but bringing out into the material world the world inside of me,” she explains.

Gold took courses in composition and color theory, beginning with two week-long design camp sessions with Bill Kerr and Weeks Ringle, in 2005 and 2006, which had a profound effect on her. It was there that she realized that an idea could guide a quilt’s design, rather than just color, shape, or pattern. Her quilt, “Loss,” came out of one of those workshops and Bill Kerr became her mentor and sounding board for the quilts that came next.

In the second year after her son’s death, Gold found mourning to be especially hard. “In the first year, because it’s been a short time, people are conscious of what has happened,” she explains. “After that, expressions of concern really drop off; I think people assume that after a year, life gets back to normal. And as time goes on you also start to interact with people who don’t even know it’s happened.” This feeling, that the mourning had to sink beneath the surface, became the guiding idea for a new quilt that would be a self-portrait of the second year of mourning.

She made a preliminary maquette for the quilt in 2006, and continued to sketch out various possibilities, but with several other projects in queue it didn’t get her full attention until 2012.

The concept she settled on was to write out the words “I am a woman whose child is dead” so that they would be obscured to the outside world. After months of experimentation, she took the plans for an obscured text to Bill Kerr for feedback. “I remember saying to him, ‘A part of me wants to scream it out in black and white.’” Bill suggested doing two quilts: the first with an obscured version of the message, and the second with it boldly stated.

Over time Gold combined both concepts into one. What she feels is the front of the quilt (but was displayed as the back at QuiltCon) is hand-dyed dusky lavender. The text on that side is only visible through its stitched outlines and is printed backward, representing hidden grief that is not clearly read by outsiders. The other side is the shout — a white field with black letters that seem to scream in pain.

Despite its apparent simplicity, every aspect of this quilt was painstakingly considered, including the wording. Early iterations included, “I am a woman whose son is dead,” “I am a woman whose child has died,” and “I am a person whose child is dead.” Eventually Gold settled on, “I am a woman whose child is dead,” a message Gold felt stated most directly the identity she was living with.

Months of research into typography led to the choice of Helvetica Neue Bold printed large. Although she’d originally envisioned attaching the letters with needle-turned applique, fusing was the best way to get a hard, crisp edge. The quilting goes around the edges of the text, using white thread on the front and lavender on the back, and then in precisely spaced vertical lines throughout, with clear thread on the front and lavender on the back. In place of batting she used felt to achieve a flat finish. To get an uninterrupted field without edges she chose to do a pillowcase binding which she describes as being quite challenging with a quilt this large.

Gold submitted three quilts to QuiltCon this year and two were juried in (the other is an improvisational piece playing with the idea of a flying geese block). “I was thinking if they accepted ‘Fuck Cancer’ and ‘Bang You’re Dead’ in 2013, there might be a place for this,” Gold says. “I’m a bit surprised the judges accepted it because it’s fused. It’s more of an art quilt. But I’m so grateful that it was included.”

Gold is hoping to have a solo show of her work and plans to display “Self-Portrait, Year 2: Beneath the Surface” suspended from the ceiling with the lavender side face front. “You’ll see that first,” she says, “and then on the way back you’ll take in the black text,” leading the viewer into the experience of mourning and the change in identity she felt after Jeremy’s death.

Penny Gold’s quilt represents in stitches and words a situation for which there are no words. Described by many as “moving,” “shocking,” and “courageous,” it was certainly a lasting memory of QuiltCon 2015. For Gold it is one quilt in an ongoing series of expressions of mourning for her only child.

“Am I a mother with him gone?” she asks. “The experience of being a mother is still part of me, but without a child I am not a mother.” Her quilts capture this piercing grief in a way that’s universal because, as she puts it, “So many around us hold beneath the surface some agony unknown to the rest of us. These quilts have helped me live with grief and guilt. They have helped me live as a person who has lost a child.“