A Still Life – A Story Being Written

Patti gave us the wonderful challenge of “Still Life” for this week’s Lens-Artist Challenge. I know what a still life is, a picture of an apple and a pear and a vase with some dried flowers and maybe a book or two. I’ve seen lots of still life paintings in museums and even tried my hand at one or two with my camera. And of course I’ve moved an inanimate object or two to make a better composition.

Since Patti’s post I’ve been thinking about still life, still living, stilled lives and of course, my life. I’ve been thinking about our Florida rebuild project that feels like a “still life” from where I am sitting 2,000 miles north. And Spring in Michigan that is anything but “still” this April, having had about 6 different kinds of snow in three days. I’ve also been thinking about the quilt that my neighbor Chrissy showed me when I was at her house showing her how to thread her new sewing machine.

She gently unfolded it. It smelled, the batting had wadded and was falling out through holes and tears in the top layer, it was frayed and faded and looked very, very fragile. But it had a story. Chrissy’s grandmother and great-grandmother had made it. Chrissy’s father had grown up using it on his bed and gave it to her after they found it while cleaning out her grandfather’s home after he passed away. I was hooked. I told her I thought I could stabilize it and make it whole again so she could use it in her home. Daughter Bri has already said that she would like it someday.

Truth admission – I’ve never done this before, even though I’ve made many, many quilts. I follow blogger Rhonda Dort who loves to save old quilts she rescues from antique shops and other places so I’ve learned a thing or two from her; I feel confident I can do it. As we were talking I told her about how Ronda covers torn places with lace and asked if she had any old lace from her mom. She said no… but ran upstairs and returned with a bag containing pieces of her mother’s wedding dress and round lace flowers that had adorned it. I told her that they would be perfect if she wanted to integrate this important piece of her mother’s (and father’s) lives with her father’s treasured quilt. Both of us had tears in our eyes at this point, and we were also getting very excited.

It was a tied quilt so I showed Chrissy how to cut the ties off and take out stitching along the edges, take the backing off (it wasn’t bound) so we could save that and told her to clean out all the old stuffing (nasty job). I explained that I would stabilize it so she and her adult daughter could hand sew the lace flowers on and then we would tie it back on it’s backing with new batting.

It didn’t take Chrissy long to complete her work. When she brought it to my home we talked about how fragile it felt. The white muslin squares and some of the print strips were so thin from use and age that we were cautious when we moved it. It is literally falling apart.

The quilt lay on our living room carpet for many days as I thought about it. I knew I needed to stabilize the top and mulled over several options. My first thought was to stabilize it with the iron-on stabilizer used with machine embroidery but that would be horribly time consuming and from experience inconsistent in its adhesion. Besides I was afraid it would effect the softness and drape of the quilt. I also thought about using lawn because it is so light and thin but I don’t think it comes in wide widths so there would be a seam that would show through the very thin quilt top. I finally decided on unbleached muslin with a high thread count and in quilt backing width.

I’m currently hand basting the layers together as I am stabilizing some long seams for delicate machine stitching and securing the edges of holes and tears to the muslin. This has become an act of love as I am becoming acquainted with the quilt’s history. It is no longer a “still life,” but a living breathing entity telling its story, the history of its connections with the people it has shared a life with – also now including me. I have been listening to it and it is telling me what it needs.

Chrissy and I strongly agree that I should maintain the integrity of the quilt except when I need to add something to strengthen and preserve it. There are fabrics that faded to varying degrees and they will stay.

There are two strips that Chrissy and I thought might be plain muslin and wondered why they weren’t colored like the rest. When I explored the seam on the back I discovered they had been blue but faded into cream. There is even a little hole in the top fabric over the seam that allows a little of the original color to show through.

I also notice black dots and wondered what that story was about. They look like splattered ink so I would guess that Chrissy’s father was practicing penmanship or working on the final draft of an essay while sitting on his bed. Chrissy thinks this story fits as she remembers him telling her that his widowed father pushed the kids hard to do well in school.

Those blemishes will all stay as they are, they will not be hidden or taken out because that would silence the story the quilt is telling. This story is also about the people who cared about this quilt and the boy that it kept warm. I can see evidence that it was mended multiple times with different techniques. In some places the colored/printed strips are narrowed a bit and the fabric is drawn up just a little telling me that someone very carefully and neatly mended the seam that had torn along the stitch line. I will be doing the same but because the fabric has thinned so much and has unraveled I will be using a delicate decorative machine stitch that will catch and secure some fabric on each side of the seam and secure it to the unbleached muslin that I am using to stabilize it. These steps using modern techniques will now become a part of this quilt’s history/story.

Most of the quilt is made from grain or flour sacks with very low thread count. This bright floral print, however, is seersucker so maybe a sister had a beautiful summer dress of this fabric and there was a strip left for the quilt. I wonder if any of the other pieces were from clothing fabric.

As I am gently touching this quilt to press, mend and repair, as I am smoothing and shaping it to fit the new muslin, it is also touching me. I am relishing how it is sharing it’s secrets and triggering thoughts of my own grandmother and great-grandmother who made quilts that I now have.

I am thinking of the quilts I have made grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sometimes family members say they want to put my quilts away to keep forever and I urge them to use the quilts. I hope that some of my quilts will be “loved to pieces” as this quilt has been. I hope that someday someone will mend one of my quilts so that it can continue to give the love that I sewed into it as I chose the perfect fabrics, pieced and quilted it. No quilt should be a “still life.”

Personality of PEI from Stories

 

We were exploring the western side of Prince Edward Island and pulled off the main road into an area around a small fishing port. We have seen a lot of these on PEI and in Nova Scotia and they seem to be the backbone of the fishing industry that includes a fleet of independent fishermen who own their boats.

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I was taking photos of the boats and noticed this man going into the cabin of his boat so I thought I could sneak a photo, being obscurely hidden behind my camera. “Should I smile?” I laughed in acknowledgement and snapped a couple of photos. Then we started talking. I’ve read that portrait photographers should get to know their subjects first then ask, but that feels like I’m manipulating them. If people notice me I’ll ask if it is okay – but sometimes taking their photo seems to open the door for conversations for this introverted photographer.

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It was Sunday and I asked if he was going out today; he replied, “No, not today, but I’m getting ready for tomorrow morning.” I asked questions and he freely answered. He offered that he is third generation of fishermen, his father and grandfather fished. He added that he is doubly so, on both his father’s and mother’s sides. ┬áThe past couple of years have been good but he wasn’t happy with increasing regulations, the increased size requirements, and the lower price per pound.

He looked away as he said he wasn’t educated, and I responded that he seemed educated about the facts of fishing and the ways of the tides (this is Bay of Fundy area with very high tides). Deep in his soul I don’t think this knowledge counts because it is so common among his community. Everyone on PEI knows about fishing and lives by the tides.

He ended the conversation saying he had to get his work done because he has a family reunion to attend.

I walked on to other explorations and photographs but his story remained with me. How important personal stories are for understanding culture and locations, and of course the people who live there.

That night we were fixing supper and had CBC on the radio. They were talking about a PEI author who had died and about the stories he had written about growing up on the island. I was listening with interest but not working to remember who or where or when. Then they read one of his stories and I really listened. He started by saying that when he was growing up there was a norm that everyone had the right to enough food no matter what their personality or circumstances. The author remembers fishing down on the beach with his father and all the other men of the village. A young girl who they all knew would come and stand on the edge with a pan in her hand. After a while, his father would say, “Need a fish, Annie (I don’t remember name used)?” She nodded. He would pick out a good eating fish, clean it and put it in her pan. She said thank you but didn’t leave. After a while he said, “Need another fish, Annie?” He knew her family was big and one fish wouldn’t be enough. She nodded. He cleaned another and put it in her pan, she thanked him, and turned for home.

I was moved by the gentle, nonjudgmental nature of his words. This is the way his community lived, they watched out for each other. It seemed to confirm my observations of the day that I wrote about in this post, that there seems to be an equality among people on PEI, not extreme disparity of wealth that is evident in the U.S. Social values change very slowly, they are held and passed down through examples of daily living. They seem to become a part of our stable understanding of how our world works and what is good and bad. There may be people who have been treated unfairly in the past, probably their First Nation people. I know some of the religious and economic histories that make people judgmental and withholding of basic rights and needs, but I don’t understand why people choose to adopt hard-nosed thinking.

I will continue to be perplexed as I read arguments against universal health care (either single-payer or multi-) and now how disaster aid should be dispersed to Texas after the devastation of Harvey given Texan congressional leaders voted against aid for Hurricane Sandy victims on the east coast of the U.S. I just don’t understand why people aren’t willing to share for the common good.