The Dear Irene Memorial Quilt

During the MFA residencies, in the spaces where public readings are held, audiences have the pleasure of viewing The Dear Irene Memorial Quilt.

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The “genre first”--a crazy quilt.    

A crazy quilt is a type of patchwork which lacks a repeating motif.  Pieced quilts are typically formed by the repetition of a block, itself designed from geometric shapes—squares, triangles or rectangles.  The coloration as well as the pattern of the block repeats, in a satisfying and rational way.  A crazy quilt forgoes geometry and symmetry.  Quilters stitch irregularly shaped patches onto a plain square, often approximately ten inches square background completely. A given block might sport patches of silk, brocade, velvet, wool and brocade, haphazardly and in conversation with one another; or it might be made of cottons, feedsacks, or deconstructed clothing—or any and all conjoined.  The quilter’s fancy, her imagination, her aesthetic, and what’s available to her govern how the patches are placed.

The quilter then decorates the seams with elaborate embroidery.The embellished patch now serves to frame the next creative element within the block:embroidered motifs, images, initials, words and messages, all of which can be seen in the Irene McKinney quilt.The variety of fabric, print, color and embroidery make for a lively quilt.No square is identical, yet the many squares cohere into an energetic, vibrant whole.The purpose of bed quilts is beauty and warmth.The purpose of crazy quilts is sensory delight and the discovery of treasures as the eye follows the colors and motifs while the fingers long to stroke the inviting fabrics.

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Crazy quilts were a Victorian fad, prompted, according to Judy Ann Breneman, by the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition and lasting until approximately 1910.  The Exposition introduced Americans to Japanese art and ceramics, which featured crazed glazes and asymmetrical designs.  Women responded with enthusiasm at the challenge of making a quilt freed from the constraints of repeating motifs.  “Creativity was wide open with women sewing asymmetrical pieces of fabric together in abstract arrangements,” states Breneman.  Throughout the twentieth century and into the present quilters continue regularly produce and prize crazy quilts.

The inspiration for the Dear Irene Memorial Quilt came to Barbara Weaner, as she examined boxes of vintage clothing Irene had collected from thrift stores and yard sales.  Recalling that “Irene encouraged creation.  In fact, it was one of the few things she truly believed in,” Barbara prepared a creative challenge for herself and others.  Each garment was torn into 25 pieces and placed into 25 stacks, so that each stack had some of each fabric.  She then asked 25 “friends and lovers of poetry” to make blocks for a memorial quilt.   Along with the fabric pieces Barbara Weaner sent a few guidelines.  “Include darks and lights.  Use what appeals to you.  Add a bit of your own if you want to.” 

The guidelines and the use of clothing that Irene had fancied remind me of the counsel Irene offered concerning list poems at a poetry session class she taught as part of May Term course in creative writing in 2005 or 2006, along with Devon McNamara and Richard Schmitt,  at the Mountain Institute in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.

As we sprawled on pillows on the floor, in the round, sunny center of the main yurt, Irene introduced the form of a list poem and told us to list items and topics that expressed our character or self or personhood.  We listed for a while.  Then she said, “Go deeper.  Go into dreams and memories, hopes.  Go for the scary and for the forbidden.”  We listed again.  I remember asking, “What if the list makes no sense when I read it over?”  I remember her saying, “Don’t worry.  It will make sense.  Everything on your list comes from you.  Your unconscious—not hers or his.  There’s a reason you have that facet, fact, or image in your soul.  Trust it.” 

I look at the Dear Irene Memorial Quilt and see Irene’s counsel and example embodied.  The fabrics she collected became patches that her friends held, played with, arranged, and fixed with stitching.  As Barbara Weaner puts it, “Each of the 25 creators worked independently, and revealed a collective dream.  What you see is a kaleidoscope of Irene.  May she live on, seeding goodness!”

All photos courtesy of Jessie van Eerden.

All photos courtesy of Jessie van Eerden.