I believe that artists have an important role to play in society. As a rule, artists are visionaries and have the ability to see things differently, to envision possibilities that can shift perceptions and sometimes even solve problems.
When I won the commission to make a quilt for Burnsville’s Town Center, I agonized for months over the design of the quilt. I wanted the mountain people who have been here for generations to like the quilt and fretted that making it out of photographs would offend them and further that they would reject it because I am considered an “outsider.” I fretted that the large art community that lives here would judge it and find it wanting…acceptance by one’s peers is important for many artists, and it certainly was important to me.
After I had the quilt designed, I shared the design with some local artists to get their input and it was all negative. At that point I had to decide whether to go with my idea or start over. I got cold feet after I had the fabric printed and did redesign the quilt, but I kept the basics of my idea and didn’t change the underlying design. When the quilt was unveiled, it was instantly well received, and now, many years later it is proving to be the enduring work I wanted it to be, with acceptance spreading exponentially. Indeed, it has become a tourist attraction. The notes people leave me about how this quilt has touched them have been priceless. One family brought their grandmother in to see the quilt who has Alzheimer’s disease and who had been totally non-communicative for many months. When she saw the quilt she started pointing to the various pictures and remembering moments from her life. It moved the family to tears and they were so grateful to hear the stories she shared and to see her respond like she did. Others have stood and pointed to various pictures and told their children or grandchildren the stories behind the event the picture captured or the place where the picture was taken. One couple who was visiting the area stood and looked at the quilt for more than an hour. Then they told the building manager that because of the quilt they were going to move to our county – that it represented exactly the kind of community they wanted to live in.
When I was making the commissioned quilts for McCreesh Place in Charlotte, (a home for men at risk of becoming homeless) I decided to give disposable digital cameras to the men who live there and have them shoots pictures of things that happened to them in their daily lives. I then used those pictures in the quilts. These men had never had a camera in their hands before and many of the pictures were of such common things that most of us would never have thought to photograph them: the bus stop, the bus shelter, a barbed wire fence, the menu board at the Pizza parlor, a view of traffic from a bridge walked across daily. I used at least one picture from every man in the quilt and then showed the men how to make pillows from their pictures, even having them use a sewing machine (a first for all of them) to make their pillow. The impact these quilts had on the men’s self esteem was enormous and very visible. They now live with those quilts on their walls as a daily reminder of their accomplishments. Their pride in their accomplishment has not faded and no one can take that away from them.
Art and the participation in the creation of it can change lives in profound and positive ways. Sometimes I lose track of this important fact when I am hunkered down in my studio working alone, wondering if it makes sense to be pouring my life energy into my work. But it is responses from the public to the work that is my reward. When I can see that lives have been changed or enriched because of something I created, then I know what I do is important and that it is OK to carry on. I like to make a difference, and I believe that creating art DOES make a difference. I believe everyone has something to contribute to the world. We need only make the opportunity for contribution possible.