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Camden FireWorks Tells a Story in Quilts

By Shen Shellenberger,

originally published: 04/18/2024

Camden FireWorks Tells a Story in Quilts

I love an "a-ha moment" – that point when timing, circumstance, and cognition meet – and within minutes of stepping into the opening reception for  Camden FireWorks' current exhibition, "Storytelling Quilts: Celebrating Communal Textile Traditions," I had one of those moments.

When I think about quilts, I see that covering on your grandmother’s bed or in a baby’s crib, or a vintage piece crafted by a long-ago family member and passed on to you. I clearly did not venture far outside the box with these views.

But my recent "a-ha" moment happened as I walked through the Camden Fireworks galleries, and I shared that experience with Camden FireWorks’ Artistic Manager, Lasha Stewart.

Camden FireWorks Tells a Story in Quilts

Cassandra Gunkel, Self-Liberator Kente.

As I told her, I had a narrow concept of quilts before the "quilt is so much more than a quilt" moment. True, they can be strictly utilitarian objects but, as Stewart and Camden FireWorks’ Executive Director Asiyah Kurtz told me, the range of styles, materials, designs, and inspiration is limitless. And, whether obviously or covertly, each quilt in this exhibition carries a visual interpretation or an account of some piece of life or history. 

"Some people draw a definite line between art and craft," Kurtz said. "We want to blur that line a little."

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"Storytelling Quilts" brings together works by 13 regional artists, and I asked Kurtz and Stewart how the concept for the show came about.

Camden FireWorks Tells a Story in Quilts

Sue Liedke and her Pre-K class, Pre-K Quilt.

"Two years ago, we received a grant from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) to start a quilting guild," Kurtz said. "We had three members, Renata Merrill and Barbara Hayes (who I call our founding members), and me."

Their objectives were two-fold. One goal was to offer something in the Camden community. "Camden sometimes gets a bad rap," Kurtz said. "One thing we are doing here is trying to rewrite the narrative." The other objective was to teach people creative skills. 

"We had these sewing machines and fabrics, and we wanted to offer an open and free place where people could learn to quilt," she said, "and, in turn, they could share the story of who they are."

Fast-forward two years. 

The Firehouse Quilters still meet monthly. "It’s a wonderful experience to see all these folks from different backgrounds come together," Kurtz said. "All of our work complements each other, and through this, we develop relationships."

"We get together on the first Saturday of every month. We talk, we laugh, and sometimes we make quilts," she said.

Camden FireWorks Tells a Story in Quilts

Vivian Lewis, The Journey.

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It seemed as if an exhibition might be the next step. Kurtz floated the idea to Stewart, and Stewart said, "I ran with it."

"A lot of artists had never had their work shown in a gallery," Stewart said. "We had six artists from the Firehouse Quilters. Then I put out an open call, which brought in another seven." 

As the work came in, Stewart was surprised, again and again, by the individuality of the works.

"People went in very different directions."

Take Cassandra Gunkel’s "Self-Liberator Kente," which began as a very large work and then was cut into two. "Denim is quite heavy, so I split my design into two parts just to handle it on my own," Gunkel said in the exhibition publication. "Both parts celebrate my heritage and my identity as a creator." Gunkel has a second work in the show, "In My Father’s House," that features wool from sheep she raises and dyes from foraged materials."

Camden FireWorks Tells a Story in Quilts

Nicole Duprée, Pieces of You.

Or Nicole Duprée’s "Pieces of You," which she began in 2013 before her children were born and it continues to evolve as time passes. Dozens of images represent the artist’s family, their surroundings, and bits from their life over the years. "I often tell my children stories of the inspiring, beautiful, wonderful, people, places, and ideas of the world I have come to know—all represented in the quilt," Dupree’s Artist Statement tells us. Other noteworthy aspects are the tree trunks, a result of Duprée’s first experiment with natural dyes, in this case, coffee, and the inclusion of conductive thread to make the streetlights glow."

"For Dupree, this is a visual record. Every time something new happens, it goes on the quilt,"

Stewart said. "It’s always in progress."

In the front gallery hangs what may be the most traditionally patterned piece, a brightly colored work conceived of by teaching artist Sue Liedke and created by her Pre-K class at Settlement Music School. The design was inspired by quilts from the Gee’s Bend, Alabama, community. "I think this shows that it (quilting) is available to everyone," Liedke said.


 Camden FireWorks Tells a Story in Quilts

Cheryl Patton Wu, Roundabout.

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Cheryl Patton Wu’s "Roundabout" is a free-standing collection of smaller pieces that evoke scenes from nature, and her piece "Mapping" is a strong nod to her love of the sea and sand. 

Julio Galvez, the sole (so far) male member of the group, created "Huipil" as a nod to his Guatemalan roots. A huipil is the top part of a woman’s traditional indigenous dress and is worn by the Mayan people of Guatemala as an expression of ethnic identity. Galvez uses burlap, linen, and cotton fabric to create symbols that connect to his heritage.

Other artists with work in the exhibition include Felicia Biles ("Down the Shore"), Anne Marie Gallagher ("Gallagher Family Quilt"), Barbara Hayes ("Peace"), Gina Jones ("Release These Chains"), Vivian Lewis ("The Journey" and "Welcome to My World"), Renata Merrill ("Roses Grow in My Daddy’s Garden"), Susan Ortiz ("Matrilineal"), and Jihan A. Thomas ("The Journey"). 

Camden FireWorks Tells a Story in Quilts

Felicia Biles, Down the Shore.

The exhibition is remarkable, not only for the work and the honest, heartfelt themes but for the way it invites you to be part of it. With so much change and upheaval in the world around us, it is comforting to know that there are places to go and ways to reach out that feel safe. 

"These days, people are wanting to connect in tactile ways," Kurtz said. "We turn to art and music and other ways that make us feel and connect in a way that looking at a screen can’t."

"These people could stay home and quilt," she said, "but they come out for the community." 

And it all began two years ago with the Quilting Guild. 

"The members have built deep relationships with each other, they have improved their quilting techniques, and now we are showing an exhibition of their work, as well as that of quilters in the area," she said. "It’s very exciting."

Learn more about the artists and their work at an Artist Talk on Sunday, May 5th, 2024 at 1:00 – 2:30 PM

Camden FireWorks, Camden, NJ | Through May 18th, 2024

About the author: Jersey Girl, music lover, and culture geek – Shen Shellenberger has made a career of her life-long love of the arts. From her jobs at WXPN-FM and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to her 25 years as a freelance writer, she instills her Jersey-born roots in all she does. Whether it’s the beauty of a classic painting, the dynamics of contemporary dance, or the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll, Shen brings her perspective to whatever she covers.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.



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