Monday, March 7, 2011


A few weeks ago Dr. Gaither's Trails Tracks Tarmac quilters reunited for an afternoon of quilting on the National Black Theater Festival quilt. This was the first time I had the privilege of being witness to one of these gatherings outside of a large-scale public quilting session. The last time I saw the TTT quilters come together was at the Grasonville, MD public quilting session when everyone worked on the Black Watermen quilt. For all of the quilters it was an afternoon of stitching, storytelling, and laughter. I want to dedicate this blog posting to the quilters who have worked with Dr. Gaither over the past 5 years.

Tonight I spoke with Dr. Gaither for over an hour about Trails Tracks Tarmac and how that quilt project came together. I was particularly interested in how the quilting sessions began and grew to include several quilters who continue to come and work on each of Dr. Gaither's quilts. She talked about the communal aspect of creating her works by recounting an anecdote one of the quilters told her. "Estella summed it up when her husband reminded her that she had retired from sewing and asked why she was now going to a gathering focused on sewing. She responded that it is not the same. It is very different - it’s the social aspect, the camaraderie, the spirit of the group, telling stories, and laughter."

Dr. Gaither continued by talking about the traditional communal aspect of quilting, commenting
"[Communal quilting] is in my mind - the sometimes not much thought of part of quilting. You did piecing inside in the winter and when the nicer weather arrived, women came together to share stories, news, discuss things to be done. Look at all we were able to take care during the short period of time. The quilters come with an open heart in hand to help finish the project. I was so happy to see everybody. I miss the joy and the energy and synergy that takes place when that group comes together. These are women who are so different in many ways and so similar in many ways, united through a sense of community and coming together that is an important aspect of what we do. It is for purely selfish reasons that I ask them to come back because I get such joy from the laughter as a story teller. Look at all the networking, connecting people to new ideas and projects in the community which leads to new work in the community."

In talking about the communal aspects of her work, especially the Trails Tracks Tarmac quilters, I inquired about how Dr. Gaither came to the decision to involve community quilters in her work. TTT is nicknamed "The Community Quilt" and was begun as part of a church and community history project started by Ms. Irene Hebron, the church historian at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Hanover, MD. It was the first quilt Dr. Gaither designed that incorporated quilters beyond Dr. Gaither and her immediate family. She talked about how artists use personal experiences in their work. She likened her working experience to a pebble being thrown into a pond. The artist is at the center, where the rock strikes the water. From that center, several circles break the surface of the water, each leading into the next, ebbing and flowing, affecting each other. Each of these circles represent a different community that makes a person and/or artist who they are. The circles are their family, friends, community, spiritual community, geographic community, etc.

TTT was the first quilt Dr. Gaither invited the community to work on. There were multiple reasons for this. Dr. Gaither was telling the story of African American communities in northern Anne Arundel County, Maryland as part of the documentation project undertaken by a group of community members. This project was a meeting of historians, researchers, and artists with the quilts being one of several outcomes. There were so many stories that no one person held them. It was through researching the quilt and bringing people together to document the history of the community which ultimately ended up in an exhibition that many stories and communities were uncovered and shared. Dr. Gaither needed these connections to occur in order to start to tell the story. She involved community members in the quilting process to teach them how to quilt and different techniques in order to get each of the quilters comfortable enough to go out and create several smaller quilts that tell the individual stories in detail.

When considering whether or not to involve the community members in the actual quilting process, Dr. Gaither admits that she had some concerns. She had designed the quilt and was beginning to work on this large scale quilt, but she was having issues with the large scale quilt taking its toll on her muscles. She needed help but was worried about whether or not it could still be considered her work. After talking with several colleagues, they convinced her that bringing in the community would be a great addition to her work, telling her the artisanship its not in only in the making, but in the ideas as well. Many artists bring people together. The sheer nature of quilting is not meant to be done as a solo project. She was further inspired by videos of the Gee’s Bend quilters, seeing everyone around the table. She loved the whole sense of community and how it can get people to come together and make the quilting session a whole social experience which in the process encourages others to tell their stories.

Once she made that realization, one thing led into another. She didn’t realize the sheer enormity of interest that was going to be there. She gave me a great quote that I think sums up everything the communal quilting process behind her artwork stands for. "As my grandmother said 'If you come together with good in your heart, others will join you.' This project has become that and is still growing. TTT is the jumping off point to tell the bigger story and it lets other people bring their stories to life. People believe in an idea and do what needs to be done."

Trails Tracks Tarmac Community Quilters

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