Piecing Together Stories of the Past

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Piecing Together Stories of the Past

Often in the realm of visual art, the movements of the artist's hands in the process of art-making embodies the meaning of the artwork. For Jackson Pollock, it was in his stretching of monumentally-scaled canvases and his paint-splashing technique that defined his masculine persona and the epic of his struggle as an artist. The American installation artist Ann Hamilton makes mountains out of bread dough to raise the question of artists' labor in contemporary art.

For quilters, however, it's all about sewing and piecing images together. The experience of quilting is often corporeal in the sense that the process of gathering varied patches and piecing the blocks together parallels one's experience of collecting memories from the past. Quilting is much like creating a narrative or perhaps storytelling.

"There is a sense of comfort this old piece of cotton provides me when I am working on my quilting," says Kim Hea-sook, who currently manages "Happy Quilters," the quilt-artist collective based in Korea which consists of both amateur and professional quilters of various ethnicities.

"My father used to work as a social worker during the Korean War, and we used to live near the American Army garrison. And the quilt blanket was what I used to cover myself in winter," says Ms. Kim, referring to the group's first completed series, a Cancer Quilt project, which was created to promote breast cancer awareness. Happy Quilters recently exhibited their collaborative work in the Japanese Cultural Center along with other quilts by "Crazy Quilters," a Japan-based quilters' collective.

Most of the exchange between the quilters happens through the mail and through phone calls. It is the way many contemporary quilters involved in a group project choose to work, since modern urban life doesn't allow them the time or the space to sit together and sew in the same house. The Cancer Quilt Project was nevertheless meaningful for the group, even if the exchanges were not face-to-face, because the project was happening on an international scale. Quilters from 15 countries participated in the Cancer Quilt project. It is a potential fundraising project, which will be signed by celebrities and will tour the world.

Shirley MacGregor, author of a recently published quilt book, "Treasures Underfoot," coordinated the project locally by approaching its organizer in the United States. Ms. MacGregor discovered the project on the Internet, and managed to communicate with the quilters through electronic mail.

For the project, the Happy Quilters created 37 sets of three different block designs. Out of three, one shape displayed a Korean flag, another a traditional Korean cabinet and the last an Indiana puzzle. Most blocks in the project display traditional symbols representing the country of their origin, like Matryoshka dolls from Russia or a kangaroo from Australia. Though the images themselves may not be the most fashionable designs within the contemporary textile industry, they faithfully reflect the aesthetics of traditional group quilting. Perhaps the most important part of the tradition of American quilting, which was carried out internationally in the project, is this exchange of stories between the quilters in the group.

The completed blocks were eventually sent home, and the main organizer then evenly distributed them to all 37 participating quilters in the project. Once the quilters arranged and pieced the blocks together, the final works were displayed in a gallery in the Japanese Cultural Center.

For the members of the Happy Quilters, this process happened in rotation. One person would stretch the patterns and start appliqueing and the next quilter would complete piecing. The quilt is about 240 inches by 180 inches; some of the work was hand-pieced and some was done by machine.

"Sharing is the main part of the reason this group was formed," says Ms. MacGregor, who contributed largely in coordinating the group. "We have no leaders, shop-owners or teachers that control the group as most quilt groups in Korea do. It is open to anyone."

She also noted that there is very little awareness of breast cancer in Korea, which made the project all the more worthwhile. Ms. MacGregor was diagnosed with breast cancer herself a few years ago.

"In Korea, events like this are very unusual. When somebody raises interests in donation, people immediately feel a burden. They think all donations cost money and can't be in any other form," says Ms. MacGregor, who hopes that the event will be a chance to showcase the alternatives to Koreans.

Currently, there are about 70 registered members in the Happy Quilters. All of them joined through passing acquaintances or through word of mouth.

by Park Soo-mee

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