‘Every piece fits’ at quilt exhibit

James Krause

DeKALB — The Pick Museum of Anthropology in Cole Hall opened its Quilts for Human Rights exhibit Tuesday evening, showing off how quilt making can serve as a form of expression.

The exhibit originated at Michigan State University Museum in 2008. Included in NIU’s exhibit are 28 of the original pieces from the display at Michigan State along with 15 new pieces in a variety of colors, sizes and messages.

The exhibit includes quilts meant to evoke discussion about topics like slavery, women’s rights, police brutality and other ideas related to modern and historical human rights. Acting President Lisa Freeman described the exhibit as a “timely, inspiring, and thought-provoking exhibition.”

“Showcased here are deeply personal, powerful perspectives from around the globe,” Freeman said during a speech at the event. “They speak to the need of equality, courage, hope and hard work that must continue to permanently improve our society.”

The opening ceremonies featured a presentation by museum officials about the meaning of the exhibit, followed by a keynote speech by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Jackson described his day in DeKalb as “inspiring” and said the quilt exhibit made him reflective of his life.

“I can’t express my thanks and delight for such an enduring and inspiring visit here today at this wonderful university; I think it’s one of the best kept secrets of our state,” Jackson said.

Jackson also led a group discussion with students 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Carl Sandburg Auditorium where panel members talked about a variety of topics, including Jackson’s history of activism.

Laura McDowell-Hopper, Pick Museum of Anthropology curator, was responsible for helping bring the exhibit to life and said the exhibit is unique in that it has an international and multicultural perspective.

“The quilt industry is stereotypically or traditionally dominated by older white women,” McDowell-Hopper said. “This exhibit features quilts from South Africa, by Indigenous people, by Haitians, from all over the world, so it speaks to a lot more issues than your typical quilt exhibit.”

For McDowell-Hopper, the quilts can be a way to find comfort, both in the use and making of them.

“The pieces in this exhibit demonstrate the power of both advocating and healing,” McDowell-Hopper said during her speech at the event. “As a quilt maker myself, I understand the deep healing power of quilting. I made my first quilt a couple years ago when my mother passed away.”

Sara Trail, a Chicago native and Jackson’s goddaughter, was a featured exhibitor, as her organization, Social Justice Sewing Academy, was a supporter of the project and loaned three quilts to the exhibit. Trail has been sewing since she was 4 years old and even wrote a book at 12 years old to teach readers how to sew. She started selling pattern designs at Jo-Ann Fabric stores across the country called Simplicity Designs.

What brought Trail to eventually pick up quilt making was a desire to introduce more people of color to sewing.

“The more I started teaching, I was like ‘There aren’t a lot of people of color who want to come and learn,’” Trail said. “And my mom kind of broke it down and said ‘Sara, it’s not that they don’t want to learn, your classes are expensive.’…So I came up with the idea that everyone can make art quilts.”

Trail held a workshop at the opening of the exhibit where she taught people how to make a quilt block focused upon social justice. Trail said it was the controversial killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin Feb. 26, 2012, that caused her to use her hobby to take a stand for human rights like her godfather.

“My initial background in sewing kind of set me up for loving sewing as a hobby, but it was really Trayvon’s murder that led me to infuse social justice into sewing,” Trail said.

The exhibit was eye opening for alumna Tiffany Adams, who said she felt it showed how social justice can be woven into art.

“It’s fascinating and informative,” Adams said. “I’ve never been to a quilt exhibit before.”

The exhibit is scheduled to be open until Feb. 24. Admission is free to the public.

“That’s what a quilt says — every piece fits,” Jackson said in his speech. “The intent [is] to make every piece fit everywhere.”


Correction: This story previously stated Sara Trail’s organization, Social Justice Sewing Academy, provided financial assistance to the exhibit through loans. This was incorrect. The story now correctly states how the organization loaned three quilts to the exhibit.