Monday, September 12, 2011

Art and memory 2

I wrote yesterday about a long series of quilts that I made about the wars following 9/11.  But as that went on and on, I started to think less about the images of destruction and more about the people who were killed. 

Having lived in Kentucky for many years, I have been familiar with a famous quilt called the Kentucky Graveyard Quilt, which lives at the Kentucky Historical Society. It was made in 1843 and depicts a cemetery with coffins, each inscribed with the name of a member of the quilter's family. Some of the coffins wait outside the cemetery, apparently ready to be embroidered and moved inside when that person died.

Kentucky Graveyard Quilt, Elizabeth Mitchell, 1843
photo, Kentucky Historical Society 

In the summer of 2006 there was much public hoohah about the flag-draped coffins returning from the battle zones and whether it was appropriate to picture them in the media.  It occurred to me to update that quilt, and in my cemetery the coffins were flag-draped, each inscribed with the name of a Kentucky service member who had died in Iraq.

Kentucky Graveyard (Iraq), 2006, 60 x 71", detail below

As with the original, I left additional coffins outside the graveyard ready for future casualties.  Was it just a coincidence that I completed the quilt on 9/11/06?

The deaths continued to mount, and two years later I wanted to make another quilt to stand in witness.  By this time I had started making "postage stamp" quilts out of tiny bits of fabric held together in fragile grids, and had the idea to make the bits in the form of flags.

I needed a cutoff date to count my flags, because I didn't want it to be a work in (perpetual) progress, and thought of Memorial Day, when it's traditional to put flags on veterans' graves. 

As of Memorial Day 2008, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq stood at 4,083 and I made a little flag for each one.  Some of the flags came from a commercial fabric, but most of them were constructed out of whatever red-and-white-striped and navy-blue-with-white-dot fabrics I could find.  This quilt was accepted for Quilt National '09 and has not yet come home from its tour.

Postage 3: Memorial Day, 2008, 100 x 86", detail below

I haven't made a war quilt in the last three years.  Do I have it out of my system yet?  Maybe, now that it seems we're finally on the road to bringing our troops home.  But I still have lots of dyed and discharged fabrics left in the drawer that remind me of war and the World Trade Center, and a lot of red-and-white stripes.  I hope I don't have to use them again.


  1. 43 members of your extended family, that's a terrible toll. I hope too that you will not have to use your 'war' fabrics again.

  2. Julie -- I should have made clear that it was my extended family only metaphorically -- this was all the Kentucky soldiers who had died in Iraq up to that date. Sadly, there have been many more since I made the quilt.

  3. It made sense that you referred to them as your Kentucky family.... Thank you for honoring them -- we'd all rather be just thanking them.