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
Can 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.
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.
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
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.
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.