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Discussion Guide for Quilts in Women's Lives

An intergenerational guide by Paddy Bowman

Quilts in Women’s Lives

Running Time 15 minutes (excerpted from a 28 minute film). Copyright Date 1981

Filmmaker Pat Ferrero

Distributor New Day Films

Topics Quilts and quilting, visual art, art quilts, traditional quilts, women in the arts, resilience, creativity, heritage, heirlooms

Literary Links Tie a book or short story to the film, for example:
Batseson, Mary Catherine. Composing a Life. Grove Press, 2001.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use,” from In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. Harvest Books, 2003.

Related Folkstreams Films
The Painted Bride
Kathleen Ware
Fannie Bell Chapman: Gospel Singer

PROCEDURE FOR DISCUSSION LEADERS
Time Required
· Forty-five minutes for screening and discussion
· Forty-five minutes for related activities (optional)

Overview Outside the world of quilters, most people probably do not think much about the types of quilts people make and may assume only “little old ladies” quilt, but quilters and quilt scholars are fascinated by the diversity of quilts and quilters. Over 20 million Americans quilt, including men and young people as well as women of all ages. Quilts in Women’s Lives was a groundbreaking film used by folklorists, anthropologists, and historians of art and women’s history to present the lives, art, work, and philosophy of ordinary women in the days when few documentaries came from women filmmakers. The film won major awards for independent films after its release in 1981. Three women are portrayed in this excerpt from the longer film: Grace Earl, an art professor who took up quilting after retirement; Radka Donnell, a Bulgarian immigrant; and Nora Lee Condra, an African American quilter from Mississippi.

Nora Lee Condra is the only traditional quilter among three. The other two are what quilt scholars call art quilters. Although Grace Earl remembered her mother quilting, her fine arts training deeply influenced the quilts she began making after her retirement from the Art Institute of Chicago. Radka Donnell, also a fine artist, came to quilting as a painter.

Preparing
· Preview the film and review this guide and Resources.
· Choose how you want to open discussion.
· Find a quilt to bring to the screening (optional).
· Invite viewers to bring quilts to share after the screening (optional).
· Acquire index cards, colored pencils or markers, fabric squares, fabric markers, and notions for one of the activities below (optional).

Before Viewing
· Welcome the audience by introducing yourself and Folkstreams.net.
· Depending upon the size of the group, ask people to introduce themselves either to the people sitting near them or to the whole group.
· Ask viewers to conduct a self-inventory by taking an internal note of what they think the film will be about.

After Viewing
· Return to self-inventories. Did the film differ from what viewers expected? What surprised them?
· If people have brought quilts, ask them to take turns sharing what they know about the quilts and what the quilts mean to them. Are there any quilters in the group? How did they come to quilting?
· Use one of these quotations to spark conversation about quilts and quilting as well as the film:

“I always made things because Mother made things.”
“The thing is, every so often in order to have a restful area in this world you have to be quiet, right? Sit down and shut up.”
“I felt authentic and I spoke for myself in a new way, and I was listened to in a new way, so you could actually say I was getting my voice by staying with the quilts and living out the issues that they represented.”
“Touch is important to women because there is a lot of physical caring that they have to do and this makes them extremely sensitive.”
“And that’s three generations right there.”
“When you’re quilting and piecing quilts together, you get to know each other, and you’re more concerned about each other.”

Film Thoughts
Questions below offer various ways of discussing the film:

-Why do over 20 million Americans quilt? Who quilts in your community? Want to meet quilters? Want to take classes in quilting? Check the Internet and local Yellow Pages for quilt shops, which can lead you to quilters. Ask around, many people quilt!
-People around the world and across time have made quilts, so what makes quilts American icons?
-Which quilter in the film would you most want to interview? Why? What would you ask?

Interacting and Reflecting
Quilts are wonderful, multi-layered metaphors for life, telling a story, relaying history, expressing personal aesthetics, touching generations. Ask viewers how their personal histories resemble a quilt.

Mastery
As an art professor, Grace Earl felt productive and fulfilled. In the film she said, “I was happy and I made my students happy.” Retirement baffled her, but she found her way to quilting and carried over her visual arts techniques, making fabric her palette. She found a new medium to master. Ask people to share skills that they have mastered in life—don’t leave out the mastery of things we do in daily life. Who taught them? Whom have they taught?

Creativity
Ask viewers to make a “quilt square” from an index card on which they write an initial of their name and decorate by drawing with markers or colored pencils. Using light-colored fabric squares, fabric markers, and various notions, people may also make fabric squares. When finished, arrange the decorated cards or fabric squares in a “quilt” on the floor or a table and ask everyone to comment on the process of making their squares and seeing them in this temporary quilt.

Intergenerational Opportunities
Online guides to documenting quilts and quilters can help an intergenerational project get off the ground (see Resources below). Teens can help quilters by recording their stories, photographing their quilts, or learning quilt preservation techniques for workshops in the local library and at senior centers.

Optional Activities
Invite quilters to view the film with the group and then share their stories of how they learned to quilt, what they think makes a beautiful quilt, what quilts mean to them.

RESOURCES
Publications
Ferrero, Pat. Hearts and Hands: The Influence of Women and Quilts on American Society. Quilt Digest Press, 1987. See an excerpt from a film by the same title on the web site of the Alliance for American Quilts www.quiltalliance.org.
Freeman, Roland. A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories. Rutledge Hill Press, 1996.
Pryor, Anne and Nancy B. Blake, Quilting Circles, Learning Communities: Arts, Community, and Curriculum Guide Grades K-12 with accompanying CD-Rom. University of Wisconsin, 2006. Order for $35 from http://arts.state.wi.us/STATIC/folkartsed/spotlightonart.htm.

Web Sites
Alliance for American Quilts www.quiltalliance.org
American Memory, Quilts and Quiltmaking in America: 1978-1996
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/qlthtml/qlthome.html
PBS, The Art of Quilting and A Century of Quilts www.pbs.org/americaquilts
Quilt Index www.quiltindex.org

Acknowledgements to: Written by Paddy Bowman, funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services

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