A New Exhibition Takes on Gun Violence in an Unexpected Medium: Quilting

Anh-Minh Le | April 12, 2018 | Lifestyle Story Culture National

This story was originally published in the April issue of San Francisco magazine

Jill Kerttula never
considered herself an activist artist. Until those 12 minutes on October 1, 2017. That’s how long Stephen Paddock spent shooting up a crowd at a music festival in Las Vegas from his hotel room across the street. “It was inconceivable to me, and it was time to say something,” Kerttula says. The result is American Opportunity, the 30-by-40-inch quilt pictured above. Its 851 puncture holes echo the number of people injured that night in Las Vegas; an X is stitched over 58 of the holes to symbolize fatalities.

Kerttula, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is a member of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), admits that this isn’t a typical theme in her art, and that she’s not even antigun. “We’ve always had small-game rifles,” she says, “and my son is in the military and learned to shoot early on.” But the massacre in Las Vegas stirred something inside her. Making the quilt, she says, “gave me time to think over the whole thing and absorb what had happened.”

American Opportunity is one of 44 works that will be on display this month at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles in a new—and, sadly, all too timely—traveling exhibition, Guns: Loaded Conversations. While the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the subsequent debate over gun control measures have lent the show a sense of urgency and relevance, curator of exhibitions Amy DiPlacido says that the production was in fact nearly two years in the making. DiPlacido was still reeling from the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, when SAQA approached the 40-year-old museum about the exhibition. “I wanted the museum to tackle these social and political issues,” she says. “I also knew that I needed to take a risk. I figured if we had more relevant themes, perhaps a new audience would come in.”

Though using quilts as a medium for agitprop may seem discordant, in fact there’s a long tradition of textile artists confronting hot-button issues. In the first half of the 19th century, quilts were sold at fundraising fairs to support the abolitionist movement. Locally, and perhaps most memorably, gay rights activist Cleve Jones conceived of the Names Project and AIDS Memorial Quilt in the mid-1980s. “People have been turning to creativity for many, many years to work through difficult emotions,” says writer and crafter Betsy Greer, who is credited with popularizing the term craftivism. “That most of the work allows you to also sit with your thoughts helps process a lot of difficult, thorny issues like we’re seeing crop up in American politics today, even though many of them have been issues for decades, if not centuries.”

Guns includes 34 pieces made by SAQA members and chosen by the organization, plus another 10 chosen by DiPlacido. Not all are quilts, exactly—artist Modesto Covarrubias submitted a pistol encased in a crocheted cozy. Among the most striking is Alice Beasley’s 75-by-25-inch quilt Remembering Trayvon, portraying Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager fatally shot in 2012 by George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted in the killing. This is the third gun-themed work the Oakland artist has completed; the others addressed the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting and the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s pretty sad if I’ve got to make four, five, six, seven pieces of art about gun control,” Beasley says. “But artists are responsive to the moment in time. It’s our way of resisting.”

San Francisco artist Bren Ahearn’s contribution is part of his Active Shooter series. The 42-by-60-inch panel is a large-scale, embroidered version of an index card he received during an assembly at UC Davis seven years ago. The card provides instructions for what to do if there’s a gunman on campus. Ahearn remembers being at the assembly and thinking, “‘This is crazy. They’re giving us these cards, but they’re not really addressing the underlying problem in society.’ I was awestruck by the normalization of gun violence.”

Kerttula says that the current moment has served as an artistic call to action. “With times being what they are right now and politics being what it is, it’s getting to be more and more that you can’t avoid it—or shouldn’t avoid it.”

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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