Sunday, February 20, 2011

Watermen Favorites

Black Watermen of the
Chesapeake Bay, detail
(c) Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, 2009
Today I thought I would share some of the insider stories and favorite areas of the Black Watermen's quilt. The parts of the quilt listed below represent the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to creating one of Dr. Gaither's artworks. The inspiration for this posting comes from taking time looking at the quilt last week at the Maryland State Arts Council. It has been several months since I have seen the quilt, but when looking at it many of the memories of the marathon quilting sessions came back and I thought I would share.

1. Appropriating
The concept that Dr. Gaither is a master appropriator has been well documented here (see Tablecloths Beware! postings). Just a few days ago I had to stop her from asking a man at a local restaurant about his shirt, knowing full well where she wanted to go with her questioning. It went as far as me reminding her that the restaurant did have a no shirt no shoes no service policy. I will say, for all of her appropriating attempts, she has never actually been able to appropriate anything from me.

Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay, detail
(c) Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, 2009
The blue heron on the lower right hand corner of the quilt is the result of one of her appropriations. When quilt completion deadlines approach, Dr. Gaither's quilting community rallies around her and gathers to help get the quilt finished. This was never more evident than in November and December 2009 as the Watermen's quilt deadline neared. Every evening at least 4 quilters came to Dr. Gaither's workspace to assist with the quilt, sometimes with the number of quilters nearing 10-12. On one particular evening, one of the quilter's family members came over to see the progress of the quilt and take part in the action. During the time they were there, Dr. Gaither happened to notice the quilter's husband was wearing a sweatshirt with a blue heron on it and the wheels started turning in her head. After a few minutes, she went over to talk with him and suddenly everyone in the room was aware of what she was up to. When Dr. Gaither finally coyly asked for the shirt, the quilter exclaimed "Joan! You are not going to take the shirt off my husband's back!" Immediately after, her husband took the sweatshirt off and handed it to her. She promptly picked up the scissors and cut the shirt up in case there was a change of heart. Now that the quilt is finished, this story is one of the Gaither legends which is told over and over again.

Black Watermen of the
Chesapeake Bay, detail
Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, 2009
2. Life jackets
The light houses at the bottom of the quilt are some of the most vibrant pieces on the quilt and rightfully so. Just as light houses are used as beacons to help ships safely on their journey, the light houses on the quilt have life saving properties as they are made from a life jacket that was used to help the person wearing it on their journey. The light houses started off as a donated jacket from a friend of Dr. Gaither's neighbor. It isn't an unusual occurrence for people to donate all sorts of items to Dr. Gaither for her to use on her quilts. The life jacket was an intriguing donation that Dr. Gaither wanted to use, but had no idea how. The life jacket itself was too large to go on the quilt as it was and she didn't really know how to reduce it. The idea to use it as two lighthouses was inspired by images of lighthouses already on the quilt and the shape of the front portion of the jacket.

Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay, detail
Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, 2009
Dr. Gaither cut the life jacket apart but left the straps on, using them to link the two lighthouses together. The fastener that normally goes around the wearer's waist now fastens across the waist of the angel in the middle of the quilt, seemingly securing her. This is rather appropriate since the words "Saved by Grace" are embroidered across her. Dr. Gaither created the lighthouses and placed images on and around them that help to tell the story of the quilt, both content and creation-wise. It is on one of these lighthouses that Dr. Gaither decided to have a little fun with me. As the quilt neared completion, I was working with her on site every day. One day I had company in town and brought them over to show them the quilt and Dr. Gaither met us at the door smiling like a Cheshire Cat, making me both suspicious and nervous. She talked about some of the changes and additions she made since the last time I was there and casually referenced that she had placed me on the quilt. After some looking, I finally saw it. There, on one of the light houses was a picture of her mother, sister, and myself as seen through the screen on my camera with Dr. Gaither's great niece playing photographer. The picture was taken one night while working on the quilt. Dr. Gaither finally got her "revenge" on me for taking pictures of her and putting them in a public context. I suppose I can't be too terribly upset. Do unto others....

3. Driving to distraction
Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay, detail
Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, 2009
Throughout the quilting process, Dr. Gaither encounters certain components of her quilt that turn into brainstorming issues. Many ideas come into her head, but not all of them translate easily when moving from the mental to the physical. Other times, ideas that worked well at the beginning of the design process turn out to be less than ideal. On the Watermen's quilt, one of the biggest problems was the Bay Bridge. In real life, the Bay Bridge is a feat of engineering, a suspension bridge that spans the Eastern and Western Shores of Maryland running from Annapolis in Anne Arundel County and over to Kent Island and Queen Anne's County. The bridge on the quilt was an engineering issue all its own.

Black Watermen of the Chesapeake Bay, detail
Dr. Joan M. E. Gaither, 2009
When I first saw the Bay Bridge interpreted on the quilt, I didn't even realize what it was. The bridge was small and almost appeared like a white cap rather than a bridge. A few times, I found myself thinking it looked like the underside of the whale in Disney's Pinocchio when it is breaching. I don't really know why that visual came to mind, but it did. I didn't say anything as I thought Dr. Gaither was rather pleased with it but after a few weeks, I discovered she wasn't liking the bridge either. The bridge went through several sizes and designs as Dr. Gaither tried to resolve the problem. Every time, the bridge looked out of proportion, blended in, or stood out too much. The Bay Bridge issue was finally resolved while Dr. Gaither and I traveled to the Grasonville, MD public quilting session, almost at the expense of my car. To travel to Grasonville, Dr. Gaither and I had to drive over the Bay Bridge. As I drove up to the bridge's toll booth, Dr Gaither got quiet. When we started driving across, she started yelling, "I've got it! Slow down, slow down!" Slowing down on the Bay Bridge is never an option given the amount of traffic and need to keep moving to avoid accidents. She pulled out her camera and started photographing the bridge as we drove over. Lo and behold, she did indeed finally resolve the issue with the final version of the Bay Bridge going on the quilt (on top of one of the previous attempts) a few days later. To this day, any time I go over a bridge with her or cross the Bay Bridge I can't help but exclaim "slow down, slow down!"

There you have a few of the favorite and frequently recounted stories behind the Black Watermen quilt I hope you enjoyed the anecdotes. I know I got a smile from the memories.

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