Recently, JAC had the chance to speak with organizer, crafter, curator and community taught textile artist, Rachel Wallis. In her own words, Rachel writes: “I believe that traditional textile techniques, particularly quilting, can provide a fertile platform for creating dialog and understanding around complex ideas and issues.” From the Abolitionist Movement, to the Civil Rights Movement and AIDS activism, quilting has been a revolutionary medium for most of its history. Rachel’s work draws on this radical history to use quilts to explore, unpack, and organize around some of the most pressing issues of our political moment, including incarceration, white supremacy, and the climate crisis.
JAC: Tell us a bit about you, your history with art or craft, and how you came to where you are today?
RW: I’d like to say that I’m a community taught textile artist, I didn’t go art school, I didn’t get a BFA or anything like that. I came to art later in my life than many people. I come from a family of very talented visual artists. I was never one of those people who could draw things that looked like the things that they were trying to draw. So I always considered myself not an artist, but have always loved making things. I loved craft. It was only after a bad bike accident in my late 20s, early 30s, which limited the way I could engage in movements, that I really started investing in my art practice, and then thinking about how that could become a way to engage in activism that was different than the ways that I had engaged in the past.
I’m a quilter. I really love the history and community nature of quilts. They’ve been spaces that people have gathered around often for surprisingly radical purposes for a long time. A lot of my work has been using quilting to unpack complicated historical questions around incarceration, policing, but also race, power, economics more broadly… and using the slow practice of quilting as a way to get people to sit together and talk and think through complicated questions.
JAC: What about the nature of quilting brings people together in that way and creates that space in ways that other art forms aren’t able to?
RW: I think sewing is accessible in ways where if you ask someone to make a painting, they’ll be like, oh, I’m not a painter. I can’t paint. We’ve lived around sewing…so much of us have people in our families who did it, that I feel like the point of entry is a little lower. Also, quilting is really slow. You can’t rush it. In the best cases, it does well with a lot of hands. There’s a saying that many hands make a quilt. There are a lot of different ways that people can plug in. I just find that I talk more comfortably if I have something in my hands. It slows you down, it gives you time to really listen. Anytime that you’re in a room with people sewing, people open up and talk in a really vulnerable and honest way that they might not if they were in another setting. I love that across cultures, across communities, across generations, people have been getting together to sew for centuries. I like tapping into that power in my work.
JAC: What does collaborative practice look like in quilting as opposed to other mediums?
RW: For me, my biggest struggle was learning to make work on my own…I think because of my own insecurity, and not really feeling like an artist. Making collaborative work allowed me to shut down the self critical voice in my head, and say, “you know, this isn’t about judging my work. It’s about this thing that we’re all doing together.” I still believe that collaborative projects can be so much stronger than things you’ve come up with on your own.
But I had lived in Chicago for 12 years, and my work was really Chicago based. I had such a strong community there, that leaving Chicago really forced me to think about how collaboration could work differently? What would it mean, making work in a community where I didn’t have those deep relationships? That has been a big part of my growth.
I also think that people who see themselves as lone artists creating are maybe just not crediting the people in their lives. Even when I make things on my own, they’re so influenced by my partner, or my friends, or the people I talk to when I get stuck. Most good art probably involves more collaboration than people admit to.
JAC: Tell us about your experience with the Quilting Across Walls project? What inspired it?
RW: It actually started when I left Chicago. I moved to Portland…I didn’t know anything about Portland at all. Didn’t have any relationships with communities here. Didn’t have a history. I didn’t just want to parachute in with a project…So I started doing a lot of work on my own.
…I learned about a volunteer quilting program in the women’s prison outside of Portland called the Coffee Creek quilters. I ended up volunteering for a year. In some ways, it saved my sanity. I was so lonely and having someplace to go to chat with people and sew every week was really wonderful. I really appreciated my students who I got to work with there. It also opened my eyes. Anytime you talk about quilts with people, they talk about family. They talk about their grandma or their auntie or their mom who sewed, or a quilt that they had when they were a baby. The way the program worked, students donated their first two quilts, and then their third, they either got to keep or send out. Almost everybody was sending their quilts out to a family member.
Seeing both the heartbreak of all of these families that were being divided by prison, and then also the ways that my students were using quilts to try and bridge that divide. I was like, there’s something really powerful here, and I want to think more about it.
JAC: How did this experience shape the project?
RW: I ended up going back to Chicago for an artist residency, and I was like, “Okay, this is what I want to work on.” I had been trying for a while to do a project down at Logan Correctional Center…but couldn’t get permission. So, we ended up proposing this as a project at Cook County Jail in Chicago. Because it was a jail and because of the short timeframe we had, we had to go in there with really pared down plans and expectations. What we ended up doing was a storytelling and quilt design workshop. We worked with students to tell stories of this question of inheritance: what did they inherit in their family? what would they want their children to inherit from them? And then [they would] design a quilt that could be passed down through the generations inspired by that theme.
My partners on this were two amazing therapists. I know a lot about quilting. But I also know that prison is an intensely traumatic place, people’s relationships with their families are really difficult, I didn’t want to go in there and bring up a lot of stuff I wasn’t prepared to help people deal with. Over the six weeks, students did writing exercises, they designed these quilts, and then we had quilters on the outside make their quilts and mail them to their intended recipients. It was a collaboration between the folks on the inside and the outside.
But at the same time, I always want to think about how my work is addressing systems? I’d like my work to do something more than raise questions. We produced quilts for about 20 people who are in jail and their family members. And that’s an awesome outcome in and of itself. But we also worked with community partners to organize quilting circles, and people on the outside could come embroider some of the writings that the students had made and talk about this question of family separation and incarceration.
I’m really glad I did it. I would do it so differently if I did it again. And that’s what life is about.
I don’t think it’s my most successful project. I’m really glad we did it. But, there wasn’t enough time to work with our students and really develop meaningful relationships. Jail is an intensely chaotic and traumatic place in a way that even having worked with people in prison, I wasn’t prepared for what jail is like… and everyone there is in a place of limbo, and doesn’t know how long they’re gonna be there [or] if they’re gonna end up going to prison. It became clear to me that it was not a great place for reflection…
My hope is that the work I’m doing with the Returning Artists’ Guild can be building on that. They’re a group of formerly incarcerated artists, and we’re coming in with zero agenda, we’re just gonna get together…start out making quilts and see what develops from that. To go into something with no timeline, with none of these restrictions… to go in with this goal of building relationships, and have it not be about my idea of what I thought a powerful project would be in this context…I feel really hopeful about that.
And I think about this…I’m obviously–because of what we’ve been conditioned to think about people who’ve been criminalized–expecting people to talk about trauma. But really, what people talked about was strength and love and resiliency…that was another thing I just really reflected my own short sightedness coming into the project about, you know, what kinds of stories my partners would want to tell.
JAC: Do you ever return to a quilt that you had felt finished with? Or, do you become at peace with leaving it at some point?
RW: “Gone, But Not Forgotten”, which was my first big project, about police killings… I’ve always said it’s unfinished, just because we didn’t know at the time how many people had been killed by the police and who they were. Even that knowledge is really incomplete. I thought about going back. But, I think acknowledging that it’s never done is more honest than trying to finish it. All of my work is informed by all of the work that came before in really significant ways as well.
JAC: What inspires you?
RW: What inspires me is the people around me. I just feel so lucky. Chicago is a really special city in a lot of ways. It’s a city full of brilliant, creative people, making incredible art and thinking really deeply about systems. It’s also a city that’s so generous in people willing to share their time and skills and knowledge with other people. I know that eventually I will find a community here that will hopefully be similar to this. I feel so inspired not just by artists, but by the writers and the organizers and the parents in my life, who are creating beautiful things in a really terrible time. Really thinking about them and thinking about who I want to be in the world and how I want to be here.