Editor’s Note: The following guest column was written by Joanne Hindman, publicity chair of “Traditions and Beyond 2015,” which is being sponsored by the Tompkins County Quilters Guild.
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Ithaca, NY — One evening in 2003, Aafke Steenhuis heard a loud bang in her front yard and went to investigate. A car had crashed into a large tree, killing two young people she’d known from her West Hill neighborhood. The crash and its aftermath were traumatic experiences for her, but they unleashed a torrent of art in the form of quilts.
“I know I went around the car and talked to the driver, but I have no visual memory of that,” she says. According to paramedics at the scene, she says, it was the worst they’d seen. Her method of making sense of the tragedy was to create an abstract representation of the wreckage—called 5:46, the time of the 911 call she placed—as an art quilt.
A member of the Tompkins County Quilters Guild, she had been learning to quilt, mostly using traditional piecing patterns and methods, but the accident unleashed a more abstract art form, and “It just came pouring out of me,” she explains.
Later she developed a large tumor in her wrist and underwent several surgeries to remove it and install a titanium joint. Again, she turned to quilting to represent what she couldn’t communicate in words: the pain and uncertainty, the frustration and impatience with the titanium joint. She’s made some 15 quilts about her wrist tumor, incorporating surgical gauze and holes to illustrate the cell types.
A diagnosis of breast cancer for Steenhuis evoked another series of abstract art quilts, this time depicting breast cancer cells and her surgical incision.
With the caring support and services of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes and her doctors, as well as the encouragement of the guild, she’s expressed herself through her art quilts, which she’s shown in Houston, at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, at the Schweinfurth in Auburn, and even with the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Unfortunately, material for inspiration continues: her brother-in-law’s recent death from lung cancer has inspired a large quilt-in-progress depicting that particular cancer.
“The creativity helps you cope,” says Steenhuis. She and so many others who have turned to the visual arts, writing, or music in all their various forms after traumatic experiences find their art therapeutic.
Jane E. Hindman, professor of English at City University of New York, author of several articles on embodied writing, and facilitator of writing and art-making groups for women with PTSD, agrees: “When people have traumatic experiences, the brain stores them nonverbally, as memories in the body. Sometimes a person’s body will ‘know’ the event even when her mind doesn’t remember. In order to process the trauma—to make it more manageable—the psyche is enormously compelled to tell the story and to be heard, that is, to have others ‘bear witness’ to the story.” Trauma victims are compelled “to bring [their story] out communicatively,” says Hindman, “to articulate it, to reprocess the experience—and preferably in a supportive group of similarly affected people who understand—so it doesn’t haunt [them] as much. Doing nonverbal, meditative activities can allow
[them] to be narrative without being verbal.”
Ruth White, another Tompkins County Quilters Guild member and “cancer fighter,” as she calls herself, discovered the therapeutic value of quilting almost as soon as she began. She had joined a quilting group while working in College Station, Texas, and the traditional work bees that her Texas quilt group organized freed her to talk about and work through personal issues, particularly her depression and loneliness. “The camaraderie around quilters, talking through our issues together,” she says, “worked better than the drugs!”
‘I always knew I wanted to make art quilts’
Even though her innate curiosity found many outlets in the world of science, quilting was her big hobby, and she knew she’d have “ready-made friends” in the Tompkins County Quilters Guild and the local quilt shop, Quilters Corner, before she moved to Ithaca in 2000. White reminisces about her father’s love of art and says, “I always knew I wanted to make art quilts,” and local classes and mentors helped her develop her original designs and even dye her own fabrics. She credits Quilt Divas, a local group of quilt artists, with particular support and encouragement.
A molecular biologist by trade—she works at the Boyce-Thompson Institute of Cornell—White uses the visual tools of science in her quilts, which depict nebulae, cells, lunar phases, petroglyphs, waves, Sudoku, and cancer. When she learned that she had advanced appendix cancer in 2009, “the scientific part of my brain kicked in, and I became curious,” she says. She turned to quilting again to make sense of her illness, creating a series of art quilts that she calls “the cancer series,” including C3: Infiltration, which she donated to the Studio Art Quilt Associates. Another cancer quilt, C8: Fatigue, “explores how chemo affects the patient’s energy levels and mood after a succession of chemo infusions,” she explains.
“Making art and sewing,” says White, “let me work out some of my fears and worries about the cancer, to make something beautiful out of something ugly.” Several of White’s quilts have been shown in art galleries and quilt shows, often winning awards.
The upcoming event
The camaraderie of TCQG and its relationship to the Cancer Resource Center isn’t lost on White. She credits the CRC and its staff with help in managing her illness, and cites many of her “sisters by choice” in the guild with above-and-beyond support in attending appointments and surgeries with her. Several accompanied her to her many doctor’s appointments, and even drove her to and from her appointments or surgeries in Pittsburgh. Her sisters in the guild also reached out to Pittsburgh quilters to connect with White, and she’s drawn inspiration from her many trips to the city and surrounding area.
Her abundance of quilts has now come full circle: This year’s Traditions and Beyond quilt show, the biennial event of the Tompkins County Quilters Guild, will include an exhibit of White’s works, curated by Sally Dutko, another guild member. “Ruth’s work is stunning,” says Dutko, “elegant, very precise, extraordinarily colorful, and even her black-and-white works are full of texture and gradations.”
This marks this first time that the guild will showcase one member’s work, and Dutko, tasked with curating the exhibit, says she chose White’s work “because of the large number of quality pieces with awards,” which have been recognized by the Professional Art Quilt Associates, the Lowell Quilt Festival, Old Forge, and NQA-judged shows. They have also been selected for American Quilt Society, International Quilt Association, and Schweinfurth quilt shows.
Traditions and Beyond 2015 quilt show runs October 3 and 4 in the Tompkins Cortland Community College field house in Dryden, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day. The event includes hundreds of quilts, wearable and dimensional art, demos, a vendors mall, and a silent auction of small quilts. For more information, contact Kathy Carman at 607-272-5895.
The Tompkins County Quilters Guild was founded in 1974 in Ithaca, New York. With over 100 members, two meetings a month, and a big quilt show every other year, the guild enthusiastically embraces all forms of quilting. Our community service and education activities provide assistance and spread our love of quilting.
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