Threads of connection for the causeKerry Cardozaon July 15, 2022 at 8:19 pm

Quilting has long been used as a tool of creative resistance. During the Civil War, abolitionists sold quilts to fundraise for their cause. Starting in 1965, the Alabama-based Freedom Quilting Bee Cooperative helped raise money for Black community members who lost income due to their involvement in the fight for civil rights. Today, artists like Chicago’s Dorothy Burge make quilts to memorialize “people who are being forgotten” and to preserve history.

The liberatory and healing powers of quilting are at the core of Stitch by Stitch, a three-day convening, organized by Rachel Wallis, Savneet Talwar, and Sharbreon Plummer, that takes place July 15-17.

“It’s a very, very important moment in which we’re having this conversation,” Talwar says. “It’s a really opportune moment to really speak about abolition and its intersection with art. What is the role of artists and how are we imagining new futures?”

Indeed abolition—the call for closing prisons and reimagining new structures of community support—has perhaps never been so popular. Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, Google searches for “Defund the police” grew by more than 5000 percent. In recent years, publications as varied as Vogue, the Nation, GQ, and the New York Times have run articles explaining the idea of abolition to their readers.

Wallis, an activist, artist, and longtime quilter, originally conceived of hosting an informal community quilting event at her home in 2020. The pandemic dashed those plans, but Wallis and Talwar, a professor in the art therapy and counseling department at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), stayed in conversation, and expanded the idea into a conference. Plummer, an artist, quilter, and independent consultant, is also an expert on craft-based practices and African American material and visual culture—bringing in a vast historical perspective. 

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“Quilting has a really incredible radical history,” Wallis says. “They were always this tool. They’re about extending care, about expressing love. And I think both then and now they’ve been a tool that movements have been able to use to expand that circle of care to people who have been excluded or marginalized from it in many parts of society. I think to us now, the appeal of quilts as an abolitionist tool is not only reaching back into that history, but also talking about these questions of love, of forgiveness, of care, of family, to people who have been made separate, who have been disappeared in many ways from a lot of our communities.”

“When you make a quilt you’re making it for someone,” Talwar adds. “Whether they are about memorializing someone, about a birth, or about a death, they’re invested in memory. The material memory piece of that is really critical.” 

The quilts made by Dorothy Burge, a longtime community activist who also works with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, are the perfect embodiment of that idea. In her series Won’t You Help to Sing These Songs of Freedom, she depicts people who were tortured by former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and who remain incarcerated.

For the conference organizers, Chicago was a perfect fit for such a conversation. “This conference couldn’t really have happened any place other than Chicago,” Wallis says. “Chicago has this rich—not only abolitionist tradition, but also arts tradition.”

Much of the three-day event will take place at SAIC (registration is required), with a keynote by Burge kicking things off on Friday. While the event features traditional conference elements, such as panel discussions and workshops—it is not solely rooted in academics. Presenters include scholars as well as early career artists and practitioners. And unlike many academic conferences, all presenters were paid, the fee to attend is sliding scale, and childcare is available for all participants, as is a self care room.

“We really wanted this to be a space where a lot of different people were in conversation with each other,” Wallis says. The organizers want there to be as few barriers to entry as possible. To that end, they are also offering off-site programming, open to anyone in the community. On Saturday night, an exhibition organized by Plummer will open at Weinberg/Newton Gallery. Building on the themes of the weekend convening, the show—which is up through August 11—will feature works by Burge, Lashawnda Crowe Storm, and students from Sally Hemings University Connecting Threads, among other artists. And on Sunday, Dorothy Burge will lead a collaborative, community quiltmaking session at the PO Box Collective in Rogers Park. All of these elements—holding off-site events, attending to the needs of participants, are meant to put into practice the sort of community care that’s fundamental to abolition.

“We’re not just talking about these concepts, we are really trying to live them as much as possible,” Wallis says.

Stitch By StitchFri 7/15-Sun 7/17, School of the Art Insitute of Chicago’s Neiman Center, 37 S. Wabash, conference is free but registration required at stitchingabolition.com.

The Fri 7/15 opening keynote address by Dorothy Burge will be followed by a panel discussion with members of the Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project. This starts at 6 PM at the Neiman Center and is open to the public.

“Stitch By Stitch” exhibition Opening reception Sat 7/16, 6 PM, Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 688 N. Milwaukee. Exhibition is on view through Thu 8/11: Thu-Fri 1-5 PM, Sat noon-4 PM, and by appointment; weinbergnewtongallery.com

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