While we were enjoying just another loud, merry family dinner one Saturday evening, our dog finished his bowl of Kibbles n’ Bits mixed with warm water and surveyed the possibilities in the room past the kitchen known as The Shed. There was the screen door that led to the backyard. There was the utility sink. There was the window sill where the cat silently challenged him to come closer. There was the washing machine. There was the dryer, which was nonchalantly humming. Oh, wait. There was something on top of the washing machine. A large mound of something. Very colorful. The dog regarded the sight with mouth-watering wonder. He needed to chew on something interesting. He jumped up on his hind legs and used his paw and mouth to grab an edge of some stiff fabric. Within seconds, he was jubilantly prancing around the shed, shaking his head rhythmically with a roll of plaid flannel clenched between his teeth. Next he confronted the denim. The doomed pile of clothing belonged to my sister’s soon-to-be husband. The dungarees and flannel shirts that he wore every week to his job as a carpenter were now tattered scraps of memories blended with dog saliva.
Mom, however, had an idea. Her eyes twinkled with joyful resolution as she explained to my sister how she was going to stitch all the unraveled remnants together to make a quilt for her future son-in-law. “It will be a quilt with quite a story!” she softly chuckled. “I hope he likes it. That’s what I’m going to do.” That was about 37 years ago.
This spring, in a workshop I led for middle school students and later in a classroom of preschoolers, we shared observations and connections in response to the narrative and art in Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach and Cassie’s Word Quilt. Both groups of learners, inspired by Ringgold’s story quilt motifs throughout the picture books, used water-soluble crayons to paint something that reflected their identity on a square of muslin. As they worked on their paintings, they engaged in lively discussion, like Ringgold’s Cassie, about what was meaningful to them, such as family, superheroes, growing peas in a grandmother’s garden, pizza, guitars, cats, dogs, fairy dust, science class, and hot lava. Next, in homage to Faith Ringgold’s work, they selected scraps of fabric and textured paper to create a border around their painting. Several children threaded wooden beads and sequins through their borders.
The middle schoolers created a communal spirit as they stood together at the end of the workshop and viewed their individual squares side by side on the floor, resembling one large quilt. Some were colorful. Some were quietly expressive. Some were whimsical. “I’ve never used crayons that you can dip in water,” remarked one participant. “I think we learned that Lizzie likes sequins,” shared one of Lizzie’s friends. “Our squares tell so many stories,” someone concluded.
Each of the preschool learners dictated stories about their quilt squares, and many of them reflected on the process. Here are some excerpts:
I like gardening, so I drew a flower.
I like the sunshine, so I drew the sun.
I like the blue sky, so I drew a light blue.
Once upon a time, there was a rectangle and it was a tow truck. I painted it pink. I made green. I don’t know what colors I mixed to make it.
A person is outside. He jumped over to the tornado. And then there was lava. He changed into a lava suit and lava boots so he could swim in the lava. I liked making the tornado. It was really fun because I got to spread it around everywhere. I liked putting strips and beads on the border.
Soon we hung each story square on the wall to make one colossal piece showing how many parts make a whole. A few weeks later, the preschool class invited their families to visit their story quilt exhibit in the classroom. Although the squares were finished, the process of experiencing them together was ongoing for the rest of the year. Children took agency in pointing out their assembled squares, sharing their story, and inviting questions or comments from the group. As artists and authors, they formed community.
I’ll have to ask my mom what happened to the denim and flannel quilt with quite a story. I have a snapshot in my memory of many family members sitting by the Christmas tree, sharing surprise, laughter, and a lot of admiration for my mom as my brother-in-law opened his gift from her.