The three quilts featured in these pages were produced as part of a global program by AP to allow people a creative outlet for their frustrations during the pandemic and lock-down. The program was launched in the late spring of 2020 and has generated over 200 powerful stories from the US, Kenya, Nepal and Zimbabwe as of writing (July 2021). With no end in sight to the pandemic, and infections rising in the Global South, we are still inviting submissions.
These quilts were made from 109 personal stories that were painted or sewn onto fabric by friends of the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina during the Fall of 2020 and early 2021. AP contributed $500 to offset some of the cost. The project was initiated by Bobbi Fitzsimmons, who coordinates AP’s quilting program and is active at the Museum. It was managed by Heather Wilson, deputy director at the Museum and by Georgia Mastroieni, Director of Outreach and Family Engagement.
Bobbi and Georgia put out the word in late 2020 and were surprised and delighted by the response. They then sent out packages with basic material (fabric and magic marker) to everyone who had applied. Bobbi assembled the stories into the three quilts in March and April.
The quilts capture the full range of emotions caused by the pandemic and indeed may serve as something of a time capsule in years to come. Connie Moser produced a simple blue heart in memory of her mother who passed away one day after being diagnosed with COVID. “Blue was her favorite color and many people feel very blue without her” she says.
Dr Kyle Horton used her block to celebrate the remarkable work of Open Source, a network of volunteer mask-makers in the Cape Fear area who produced an astounding 10,000 facemasks for use at medical centers during the height of the pandemic.
Sadie Thomas, 5, and her mother Dorothy (photo) used their block to describe their disappointment when Sadie’s 4th birthday party had to be cancelled and replaced by yet another Zoom meeting. They painted four candles and pictures of their Zoom invitees with blank faces. “We turned off the computer and it was just us,” says Dorothy.
Fritzi Huber, who is active at the Museum and has been making paper for over 40 years, depicted a toilet roll to remind herself of that time when the shelves were almost empty. She sees a silver lining in the pandemic: as well as causing tragedy for many, COVID-19 provided her with a license to hole up and pursue her passion.
Jean Lozada, originally from Venezuela, also works at the museum and used his block to create a “Mask Monster” in protest against the number of facemasks that are abandoned, creating a possible health hazard.
About 50 artists submitted captions, and none was more moving that the one from Amanda Cummings a nurse who treated many COVID patients at the local hospital and witnessed much suffering during the pandemic. Amanda used her design to describe the intense relationship between a sick patient and a nurse, and included a poem: “Patient: Forget me not; tell my family that I love them. Nurse: I will forget you not; I will hug my family a little tighter tonight. Patient: Thank you for all that you do. Nurse: I’m sorry I couldn’t do more. Family: They sent flowers for the memorial… they were Forget Me Nots.”
AP has interviewed several artists and all said that it had made them feel better to describe their feelings through painting and see their story featured alongside that of other pandemic sufferers. “We are really thankful to be able to make something that expresses what we went through,” said Dorothy. “It is kind of cathartic to look back at the picture and be like ‘Oh my gosh!’”
Bobbi Fitzsimmons, who inspired the project, agreed wholeheartedly. The pandemic struck North Carolina in March 2021 soon after Bobbi returned from a trip to Asia, and she found the sudden isolation deeply disturbing. But Bobbi is an expert quilter and after getting over the shock she began making masks, for nursing homes, friends and Dr Horton’s Open Source network of volunteer mask-makers.
So far Bobbi has made over 1,300 masks and asked her clients to show their gratitude by donating to good causes. “Sewing these masks gave me the purpose I needed to make me feel less helpless in the face of this pervasive enemy. Sewing these face masks gave me hope.”
The three Wilmington quilts were shown at the Cameron Art Museum on April 22 alongside the quilts from Zimbabwe, Nepal and Arlington and the event attracted a good turnout of local friends, including several artists. Anne Watson, who assembled the Nepal COVID quilt and herself came down with COVID at Christmas, spoke movingly about the expert medical care she had received – in stark contrast to the lack of facilities available in Nepal. Prabal Thapa, a Nepali Peace Fellow who has been working remotely for AP’s partners in Nepal from the US while his country struggles with a new lock-down, also attended.
Other visitors included Stephanie, Layla, Kate and Natalie from the Wakefield High School in Arlington Virginia. All four had contributed wonderful stories to The Arlington COVID quilt and enjoyed their first trip away from home in over a year. Layla and Stephanie – the two Wakefield coordinators – opened the event with a polished address.
The exhibition attracted local press coverage before and after. AP publicized the event through a news bulletin and during the first-ever digital exhibition of quilts, held on June 3. The event attracted over 90 visitors. AP has also produced a collage of video interviews with several artists and will include the Wilmington quilts in a catalogue of COVID stories later in the year.
The Wilmington exhibition was the first time that all COVID quilts could be physically displayed and marked a fitting end to the long months of lockdown and isolation. “What a nice way to welcome the spring!” said one visitor. “It could not have come sooner….”
The exhibition also underscored the importance of the Cameron Museum in raising morale during the dark months. The Museum stayed open throughout the pandemic, albeit with a greatly reduced staff, and organizers agreed that the COVID quilt project had given the Museum and its members a focus and something to look forward to. It was one more sign that museums are at the heart of community life. AP is proud to have helped.