Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Creating an Art Quilt Collage about Agnes Chase

I am delighted my quilt Grass Made It Possible will be included in the new special exhibition, A Better World, premiering at the International Quilt Festival in Houston in October and traveling to several venues through 2022.

I'm eager to share the quilt with you, but also to share the story about how it came about.

The call for entry asked artists to make a quilt inspired by someone who made a positive impact in the world. Wonderful! I can get behind that... except I don't really make quilts about people. This would be a challenge to find and harness some seed of inspiration that would allow me to make a quilt that will fit my personal style, but also the requirements of the theme.

I began by doing some research and making notes about women scientists looking especially for someone who worked with plants since I like botanical imagery.

I came across Mary Agnes Chase who studied grass and was a suffragist. Aha, a good possibility.

I texted my daughter Claire for her thoughts.

I found tons of pictures and scans of her reports, journals and letters in the online archives of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

I copied this bit about the "mule with a most agonizing trot" that she rode while collecting grass in Brazil.

She traveled to several countries -- and was the worldwide expert on grass at the time.

She worked at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History into her 80s.

I continued searching online and found a book she authored that included several of her original sketches of grasses. I thought they might be perfect inspiration for a quilt, so I ordered the book.


My friend Helen contacted me about some upcoming classes I'd be teaching. She was eager to study with me. I told her I thought the Sacred Threads weekend would be perfect. She could take some workshops plus see a wonderful quilt show. She quickly signed up. I was delighted she'd be there!

We've been friends for a long time! Here we are in Sunday School together in about 1977. We're in the back row. I'm wearing the plaid dress and Helen is wearing the pink dress.

My mom and I attended Helen's graduation when she received her doctorate in Divinity recently.

In another email to Helen, I mentioned that I was also excited to be teaching in the DC area since my daughter Claire would be interning at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History this summer. Here's Claire with her advisor and some of the tiny flies she is researching.

Are you sitting down? Here's a bit of Helen's email response.


Can you believe it? Me neither. So of course, I had to make a quilt about Agnes.

I started by pinning lots of fabric to my design wall.

Using the sketches in Agnes' book for inspiration, I began creating patterns for grass shapes and cutting them out.

Here's the inspiration for the purple grass.

I didn't take many in-progress pictures along the way so here's the finished quilt.

Knowing the exhibition is really about raising awareness and celebrating people who have made a positive impact on the world, I wanted to be sure the quilt was really about Agnes... and not just beautiful grasses. So I included this panel describing some of the many things she did, including her connection to Helen (and to me).

The quilt is titled Grass Made It Possible which comes from Agnes' writings.

"Grass made it possible for the human race to abandon the cave life..." but it also made it possible for me to learn more about Helen. I learned about myself through the creative process too -- as I always do. I learned more about the botany department at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and had lots of fun conversations with Claire about her work there.

I am especially inspired by Agnes' dedication to connecting with other women scientists all over the world. Just as grass connects us to the earth, we are connected to each other in innumerable ways. It may seem this quilt is about grass, it's really about celebrating those connections.


Unknown said...

The grasses quilt is beautiful! The story behind the quilt is fascinating too! I love that your research about grasses were woven together through lifetime connections with you, Helen & Claire.

Nancy said...

What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

Janice Smith said...

Deborah, the coincidences in this story are truly amazing!!!

Gene Black said...

It is truly amazing how we are all connected. I have been doing some genealogy work and have discovered relationships to some friends and some "famous people" and even some ancient royalty.

Sarah Ann Smith said...

This may be my favorite quilt of all you've ever done....and the font you chose is absolution perfection--it helps make the quilt sing! I feel grateful my quilt is in, but now I also feel like such a piker and so unworthy. I need to shake up some bits of my creative process.