self-Portrait, year 2: Beneath the surface


Hand-dyed cotton, fused, felt batting, machine quilted

68 x 94 inches


The idea for this quilt goes back to 2005/06, during the second year after Jeremy died. People expect that the first year after the death of a loved one it will be very difficult; but after a year, moving through one marker after another until the anniversary arrives, the expectation is that things will ease up. Indeed, that was my own experience after the death of both my parents in the winter of 2003. By the summer of 2004, I was feeling I could get back to the normal run of life. But then Jeremy died. A year passed, and still, the loss continued to dominate my inner life.


I carried out daily life, as one has to do. I taught my classes, attended meetings, laughed at jokes, and responded to friends. From the outside, the loss was invisible. But on the inside, I continued to be shaped by loss, grief, and regret. In an early attempt to express this feeling of disjunction between outer appearance and inner condition, I made a small maquette that put it in abstract form: a field of black patches in the bottom two-thirds of the rectangle, a lighter field at the top, and the two separated with a narrow band of lavender fabric that represented my external appearance of equanimity.

Only after choosing the color for the band did I learn from a friend that lavender was the Victorian color of mourning, allowed after black had been worn for a period of time. A sliver of red was inserted in the black field, representing the stab of anguish that can surface without warning. I liked this design, but did not feel a push to take it further into the making of an actual quilt.


I pursued another path, connected to the memory of the yellowish mud that covered Jeremy’s body after the accident, a memory that haunted me. I looked for fabric just that color, and after I learned to dye fabric, dyed many samples until I settled upon the hue close to my memory. In parallel, I thought about a statement that would reflect how my identity had changed since the loss of my son. I ended up with “I am a woman whose child is dead.” I searched for ways to inscribe the message in an obscured way, representing its invisibility to others.


An early plan was to appliqué large letters of the same fabric onto the mud-colored background; I also did trials just stitching letter patterns in the same color thread. At one point, in 2012, I was talking through the project with Bill Kerr. “I’ve been working on how to make the words only slightly visible,” I said to Bill, “to represent how invisible my state of agitation is to everyone around me. But sometimes I think the quilt should scream out how I feel—that I should proclaim it in bold black and white.” “Maybe you should make two quilts,” said Bill. These simple words of insight and affirmation were key to the development of the quilt. As Bill and I talked, we developed the idea of making two quilts, with the intent to show them at an exhibition in such a way that the “hidden message” quilt would be seen first, and then afterwards the bold quilt. I eventually changed the color of the first quilt from mud to lavender, pulling in the color from the strip of lavender in the earlier maquette. I dyed several versions of lavender, until I came up with precisely the dusky lavender that I had in my mind. I also moved from the idea of two quilts to one double-sided quilt, which was completed in 2014. The mud colored fabric was transferred to a quilt devoted to the accident itself (Accident).


I have shown this quilt in two other settings. In both cases, the quilt was shown with the black/white side forward. I am grateful for this opportunity to show the quilt as I originally intended. If you look closely, the words are just barely visible on the lavender side as the stitching around the letters on the other side.  The fact that they are faint, and also backwards, is a way of representing that the loss persists in the second year (and beyond), but it is difficult to perceive from the outside.  You have to be very close to see it. . .


This was a technically challenging quilt to make. Often, a final piece looks simple in design but is the result of many decisions on multiple fronts. Choosing what font to use for the message was one such decision. I am very satisfied with my final choice (Helvetica Neue Bold), but it came only after many weeks of trying out various fonts, reading about typography in general, and about Helvetica in particular. The size of font to use was another decision, and then figuring out how to print out letter templates that large. Tim Stedman of the Knox College Art Department and Bill Kerr helped with all things typographical.


How to lay out the eight words of the message was another decision. Should it be horizontal like a billboard, which I had in mind when choosing Helvetica; or should it be vertical? I chose vertical because it is closer to the human figure, and I think of this as a self-portrait. I also had to decide how many lines the message would be, and where the line breaks would fall. Many versions were printed out in small format on the computer until I came up with the one that felt best to me. I enjoy hand appliqué, and assumed I would use that for fixing the letters to the background, but I decided that crisp edges and corners were more important than the pleasure of handwork, so I fused on the letters instead. I tried out horizontal quilting lines, but decided on vertical, and then tried out various spacing for the vertical lines. I ended up with spacing just a little narrower than the width of the letter elements. I also tried out various battings, ending up with a layer of felt for the batting, as I wanted the quilt to be very flat.


When this quilt was shown in 2015 at QuiltCon (a national show for modern quilting), it created a stir, leading to two published interviews with me and many postings on social media.  I was humbled by the response, and gratified to know that my work could touch others deeply--both those who have suffered deep loss themselves, and those who haven't, but who appreciate this glimpse into the world of loss.


I look back through my notes and samples, done over a period of nine years, and marvel at the idea’s permutations. The measure of the quilt’s success for me is looking at it and knowing I would not change anything.