Quilting for Peace: An Interview with Art Quilter Lea McComas

22 Jun 2011

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It's no secret that quilters are willing to go the distance for their love of quilts and quilting.  So when I learned that June/July 2011 Quilting Arts artist Lea McComas traveled to Switzerland earlier this year to attend an art quilt opening at the United Nations in Geneva, I just had to know more.

Lea has lived all over the world and her art quilts have a deeply narrative quality that reflects both her extensive travels and her interest in social awareness. Read on to learn more about Lea's trip to Switzerland and her experience of how art quilters are using their craft to promote peace.

You recently traveled to Switzerland, can you tell us about your trip and what you were doing there?

My husband and I traveled to the United Nations headquarters for Europe, in Geneva, for the opening of an exhibition called "Peace Quilts."  My quilt, "The Mending," was included in the show. The trip was a gift from my husband for my 50th birthday. When Allison Wilbur, the exhibit curator, found out we were coming, she invited me to speak at the opening reception. Of course, I said yes immediately. She explained how several ambassadors would speak as well as a representative from the international YWCA, and then me. The full impact of that information hit me about two hours later, while driving down the highway at 70 MPH. I had to pull to the side of the road and have an anxiety attack. I vaguely recall grasping the steering wheel, and rocking back and forth while chanting, "What will I say? What will I wear? What have I done?"

art quilt, portrait quilt, quilting arts magazineCan you tell us a little more about the exhibition and how you got involved?

I found out about the exhibit from a friend on Facebook, who led me to a site called QuiltChallenge.org.  The challenge was to produce art quilts that would communicate a "call for solidarity of the women of the world to work together to defend and protect women in times of conflict and to empower women to be active agents in the peace process."  

My quilt began as a collage of photos collected over a decade of living, working, and traveling overseas.  Many of the photos are my own. A friend who has traveled extensively as a medical volunteer contributed others. The photos were printed onto fabric, pieced together with scraps, and quilted in a very traditional manner. The quilt was then torn, cut, burned, and shot; literally tearing families apart. Finally, a woman's hands were added to the top using fused appliqué and shown working to stop the destruction, mend the damage, and repair the vision.

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At the start of this project, I considered myself somewhat informed about issues of violence against women, but soon discovered that I was quite naive. In my speech I talked about reading accounts of acts against women that shocked and sickened me. At times I had to walk away from it. How fortunate for me that I had that option. I am now much more aware of the issues. It's as if I've been given sight, when I didn't realize I was blind.

While fortunate that this kind of violence doesn't exist in my life, I'm now painfully aware that it does exist in my lifetime. I have come to the realization that I am connected to these women who live daily with the threat of violence and the shame of having been violated.  These are my sisters, my mothers, my daughters. My actions on their behalf are not only important, but imperative. For me, attending the opening was a bit like putting salve on a wound.  I saw and felt the power of people coming together for a common good, heard stories of progress being made, and found a sense of hope to balance my despair.

Can you tell us more about the exhibit? Did you meet art quilters from different parts of the world?

There were only two other quilters able to attend the opening. Most of the artists were from North America and not able to make the trip. However, there are plans to bring the exhibit to Washington, D.C., and the United Nations building in New York City. When that happens I would hope that more of us can get together and share the experience. I had a chance to spend time talking with Allison Wilbur. She and her husband lived and worked in Geneva as part of the U.S. mission there. She was able to combine her connections at the United Nations with her love of quilting, and her commitment to social action, to put together this amazing collection of quilts.

In addition to the quilts by individual artists, there were a series of group quilts that were done by women in Columbia. These women survived brutal attacks on their villages and had created the quilts as a part of their recovery therapy. Together, they used quilting as a vehicle for telling their stories and healing emotionally. As I approached the first quilt I thought, "Oh, this is a bright, cheerful village scene showing various activities."  However, as I looked closer, I saw that it wasn't a group of people enjoying the shade of a tree, but a group of soldiers hanging someone. I saw that the people in river weren't swimming, but were drowning after being stabbed. And I saw that the group of people around the fire weren't cooking, but were preparing to burn the village. Of course, none of these women were able to attend, but their quilts told a powerful story.

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Do you think quilting helps bring people together across geographic distances? Is there a common message?

Absolutely, I believe that. Recently I was in Kansas City for the Machine Quilters Showcase and then the SAQA conference in Colorado. I'm making plans to attend the SDA conference in Minneapolis and the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, England in August. Fiber artists gather to learn new techniques, share ideas, find inspiration, and celebrate the act of creating.

There is a synergy when we come together that is immensely powerful and sustaining.  I love getting together with local artists, but when I go to a conference, I want to attend alone so that I'm in a better position to meet new people.  I think of it as arriving with an empty suitcase that I will fill with experiences, conversations, and new friendships with people from distant regions and foreign countries.  The exciting thing about the event in Geneva was that it combined quilting and social activism. Those same elements of ideas, inspiration, and action, were combined with hope.  We see it all the time, in local and international formats: Project Linus, Quilts of Valor, and Quilts for Japan. It seems that sometimes we come together to care for ourselves and  we end up caring for others.

To see more work by Lea, don't miss her article "Photo-Inspired Art Quilts" in the June/July 2011 issue of Quilting Arts Magazine.



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cryall wrote
on 27 Jun 2011 5:56 AM

This article made me think.  I spend my time with my friends enjoying making art. Perhaps I should be doing more to help women who don't have this luxury..

SuzanneG@5 wrote
on 8 Dec 2012 12:27 AM

Lea, you are an inspiration to me.  I promise to find a way to use my art, my creative voice to affect change.  If your speech was even nearly as touching as your answers to the questions above, I am certain you have inspired many who heard you speak.

Sincerely  Suzanne G in NC