Tell Me a Patch: An Artistic Story Quilt Collaboration

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By Susie Wilde with Marguerite Jay “PEG” Gignoux and Julia Gignoux
Originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Children and Libraries (Vol. 6, no. 1)

Using art to foster writing, and vice versa, can create some wonderful results. At Hemphill Library in Greensboro, North Carolina, patrons can participate in innovative art programs.

Partnering with Greensboro’s Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art the library has an active art studio located just off the children’s room. The studio is staffed by Green Hill, a nonprofit art gallery that promotes visual artists of all media.

In 2006, Hemphill Library sponsored an eight week writing and illustration residency with teaching artist Susie Wilde and Peg Gignoux of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Here’s the inspiring tale of their creative Story Quilt, as told by Wilde.

“And the winner is—a storytelling chair!” Applause and cheers erupt at the proclamation. In a previous session, Hemphill Library patrons have compiled a list of original characters, discussed the potential of each, and voted on their favorites. Between sessions, I talked with Peg, the textile artist who will lead them in illustrating their tale. She has weighed in on their choices. “I think library furniture would be easy and fun to illustrate. This should be a blast.” That’s how a storytelling chair became the focal point of the library’s Story Quilt.

In summer 2006, I initiated a writing residency at the library, where I lead sixty-six energetic participants, ages four to sixty-four, in creating an original story representing their multicultural library. Then Peg took over, leading the families in designing a Story Quilt melding words and images in an illustration residency. We then turned the project over to book designer Julia Gignoux, who transformed the work into a picture book.

Peg and I formed TEXTile Partners in 2002, uniting our interests and experiences in leading collaborative adventures in the arts. In each of our previous seven Story Quilt projects, we’ve found that art and text make excellent partners. The story anchors the illustration process, providing novice artists with a focus and structure that helps them select meaningful design elements. This storytelling chair would open up a whole range of dramatic furniture characters that would translate marvelously in cloth. Creating pictures in fabric clarifies plot and further defines characters.

As in past projects, I knew the visual images would give this storytelling chair a personality stronger than words alone could provide. Peg and I have often noted how integrating text with visual art helps participants discover their voices. In addition, the experience builds their confidence as writers and visual thinkers. We have seen how this merging of word, picture, and collaboration unlocks stories and sparks lively discussions, turning a group of people into a community.

The Project Takes Root
The Greensboro Public Library System helped us realize a long-held dream. For years, Peg and I hoped to publish a picture book based on Story Quilts. Familiar with our work, the Greensboro Public Library System was intrigued and willing to work with our book designer, Julia, at Freedom Hill Design in Vermont. They believed a picture book would reach a wider audience, honor the collective talents of all the project’s participants, and create another bridge between art and literacy.

Story always leads. I had ten two-hour writing sessions to go from character creation to final story editing. I started by searching for compelling picture books that would captivate listeners and help them think like writers as we examined the importance of character, motivation, conflict, and resolution. After reading aloud and analysis, we applied the learning, starting down a playful path of wondering.

“What’s the chair’s name?” asked an eight-year-old boy.

“Where does the chair live?” said a six year-old girl.

“What does the chair want more than anything?” asked a dad.

Answering these and other questions, we teased out the story of Mahogany, a threadbare storytelling chair, and her shy pillow, Zigzag, who felt uncomfortable in a new library.

“Tell me a patch,” the nervous pillow would beg when library hours ended and the furniture erupted into wild antics. Zigzag knew that each patch symbolized a story from Mahogany’s well-traveled past and that these tales would lead to tranquility.

Children and adults work on the story quilt at Hemphill Library

Children and adults work on the
story quilt at Hemphill Library.

Once we’d devised our plot, I divided the group into teams, each charged with developing ideas into a written story scene. The various ages proved a boon—with experience and youth fusing for inventive descriptions. A senior high school student who brought her young twin sisters came up with brilliant names (and later showed herself to be a wizard with textile patterns). A woman who brought her eight-year-old granddaughter contributed juicy verbs. Dynamic youngsters acted out characters to spawn sparkling dialogue. The humor of the rambunctious library furniture and the vulnerability of the fearful pillow gave the story whimsy and heart.

Story complete, the Hemphill writers became illustrators. Peg led them in transforming acres of white cloth into gorgeous lengths of color by dyeing cotton, linen, and silk in gallon-sized bags. Peg provided picture books and art history references to stimulate participants’ imaginations. Inspired by the work of Eric Carle, Faith Ringgold, and photographs of the painted houses of Ndebele women of South Africa, the group added simple geometric patterns to the cloth with textile inks. They cut, fused, and collaged these fabrics, creating distinctive yardage from which they fashioned the Story Quilt setting, characters, and details.

Referring to the story text, Peg invited the group to consider the personalities of each of the characters in visual terms. Shady, a bossy lamp, had a tilt to her shade, indicating her persuasive and bullying ways. Mahogany became a colorful patchwork of scraps. Patches embellished with patterns from many lands reflected the multicultural themes of the story.

Participants combined and refined their sketches, growing comfortable with sharing the materials and expressing awe at the way their collective energy moved the project forward. They formed friendships while ironing, cutting, and designing, and overcame language barriers as they sat together and sliced bright fabrics into rectangles that would become books for the quilt. They laughed as they fused cloth for Mahogany’s upholstered self and debated what shade of green Zigzag should be. Grandmothers, aunts, and dads helped young hands with beading and embroidery. People used the library for research, thumbing through books and analyzing Hemphill’s furniture while devising ideas about how to make a particular shape or form. The room buzzed with energy, enthusiasm, and happy determination.

After the residency, Peg returned to her studio and integrated the digitally printed text into the body of the two quilt panels. Inspired by children’s drawings, she mimicked their loose lines as she stitched down all the story elements.

Freedom Hill Design transformed the Story Quilt into a twenty-four-page picture book called Tell Me a Patch. Book designer Julia Gignoux, the newest member of TEXTile Partners, visited Hemphill Library in the early stages of the quilt design, where she and her seven-year-old daughter, Noelle, participated in several sessions.

Continuing the intergenerational collaboration that characterized the Story Quilt project, mother and daughter read the story aloud together, imagining where its page breaks might occur to create the kind of tension and suspense that makes readers turn pages. They also discussed what images a reader might want to see on each page—which character, moment, and perspective would add rhythm and drama to the story.

“I was armed with technical tools and skills to design and lay out Tell Me a Patch, but Noelle brought a pure sense of what was fun and engaging on the page,” Julia said.

On her computer, Julia graphically isolated characters and images from the quilt photographs and placed them onto the pages in a lively, playful way that would mirror the quilt’s tone. She also wanted to honor the meaningful moments she’d witnessed during the process. Julia highlighted a stunning series of patches imitating African Kente cloth, Indian mirror cloth, and Guatemalan embroidery that she’d seen several women stitch one afternoon. She emphasized a colorful stack of tables she’d watched one of the fathers fashion with a group of young boys. As the book design progressed, Noelle called out directions. “More lightning!” she said, responding to Julia’s representation of a stormy night. “Show the books flying!” she recommended.

When it was time for the book to be printed, Julia and Noelle approved the proofs, and the next day, Noelle presented a book to her school librarian with a proud explanation of why she had been absent the day before.

A Proud Project Realized
Nearly a year after the beginning of the project, the families returned to the library for a book signing. Sitting at a long line of tables, children and adults listened as I read the picture book aloud, striding around the room, brandishing the glorious illustrations. Then the author and illustrators, armed with pens, passed out copies and signed their books, exulting at the way their visions had blended into a celebration of collaboration, community, and creativity. To see more story quilts or contact the teaching artists, visit www.ingignouxity.com.

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