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art grief

Grief, Guest Posts

Touch Trail Romper

June 3, 2024
romper

The bag of clothing sat where Oliver’s mother, Sarah, had set it on my worktable. I reached in and pulled out a white baby romper, its soft fabric sewn with tiny decorative pleats. I held it out in front of me and felt my knees go unsteady with sorrow.

In my imagination, Oliver came alive, wearing the romper as he toddled around, then, as he grew, wearing other clothes from the bag. His first pair of jeans at age five. The black shirt he wore in high school on days when he had a wrestling match. The timeline of his clothing ended there, at sixteen, when a single pill laced with fentanyl took him from the world.

I am a textile artist, specializing in memorial quilts made from the clothing of those who have died. After years of doing this work, I’ve developed, not distance, but equanimity. I see grief as a deep connector between human beings. My role is to listen, not internalize, these stories. I am only their temporary keeper and interpreter.

I came to this work as a textile designer, first for Nike Apparel, later as a freelancer. During that time, I was asked by a friend if I could make something out of a handful of her father’s neckties, her only keepsakes from him. I was not expecting how powerful and healing the resulting quilt would be for her. When I experienced my first profound loss a few years later and made my own memorial quilts out of my grandmother’s clothing, I felt firsthand the significance of the meeting point between grief, memory, and clothing.

But Oliver’s story infused into my bones. Was it because I have an only son who was born around the same time? Or because Oliver was a red head, like me? The fullness of Sarah’s grief was clear for me when she dropped the bag of her son’s clothes at my studio. Her palpable grief was in the air around her. When she hugged me, I felt it seep into my own body with that familiar grief-claustrophobia I’ve felt with my own losses, almost wanting to jump out of my skin and away from the truth, away from the finality of it.

There is something poignant about handling a garment worn by a person who has died. It’s like a touch trail or a talisman. A tracing of their energy. A connection to their spirit and history. I’m fascinated by the conversations I can have with people who are gone and whom I’ve never met. Establishing trust is paramount, especially with clients turning over keepsake material.

These quilts are not for the dead. They are one hundred percent for the survivors, shaped by the memories they choose to share with me. Oliver might have disagreed with his mom about which was his favorite shirt, but that is completely beside that point. What Sarah chooses to remember and how she remembers is the entire point. The quilt is her tableau.

The process by which I arrive at a quilt design from the grief stories people share is a bit of a mystery even to me. The tiniest observation can spark an idea. For Oliver’s quilt – the stories Sarah told me were so much about his boyish curiosity – I imagined a compass. Sarah loved the idea of a compass-like pattern with small squares and colors radiating out from the center. It was all I needed to create the quilt’s organizing principle.

Measure, count, cut, arrange…creating the quilt itself is like a dance. Ideas, feelings, fabrics, and colors swirl around. In piecing the story together, I must account for the fluidity and lack of chronology of memory. The quilt becomes an abstract vessel holding powerful hints and prompts, but never a literal scene.

Part of grief is the fear that we’ll forget the ones who are gone. Will we remember the sound of their voices? Or the particulars of their first days of school? With this quilt, Sarah will see the fabric from Oliver’s black shirt, even when it has ceased to “present” as a “shirt” within the quilt. She’ll be transported back to wrestling match day and remember Oliver’s face filled with pride as he competed, and more memories will cascade in.

That day when I picked up my scissors and cut into Oliver’s white romper, I didn’t hesitate. I rarely do, anymore, because after so many years, so many grief stories, so many quilts, I know it’s the first step in the transformation process. The idea of “white romper” will never go away but how it exists in the world is what will change.

The power of art lies in its ability to transform – viewer, maker, the living, and the dead. Memory quilts continue the kaleidoscope after our years walking the planet have ended. Oliver’s romper was so small it didn’t provide many fabric squares to use, but its significance was clearly mighty for Sarah, and her continuing work with grief is my inspiration. Hiding from it, we miss its gifts. Facing it, we are transformed. For that reason, I placed those bright white romper squares at the quilt’s very center. At the heart of Oliver’s story.

Lori Mason’s fine art memorial quilts, crafted from clothing of those who have passed away, are a healing gift, connecting grief, memory and transformational design. An award-winning, deeply empathic fine artist, Lori works with the bereaved to “piece together” a visual story of the one who has died. She has been a guest on Grief, Gratitude and Greatness podcast, the What’s Your Grief blog, and recently had a solo exhibition at The Dalles Art Center, with earlier inspiration appearing in the Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum Craft Shows. She lives in Portland, Oregon. See more at her website and on Instagram.

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Looking for your next book to read? Consider this…

Women, the exhilarating novella by Chloe Caldwell, is being reissued just in time to become your steamy summer read. The Los Angeles Review of books calls Caldwell “One of the most endearing and exciting writers of a generation.”  Cheryl Strayed says ‘Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.”  With a new afterward by the author, this reissue is one not to be missed.

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Our friends at Corporeal Writing continue to offer some of the best programming for writers, thinkers, humans. This summer they are offering Midsummer Nights Film Club: What Movies Teach Us About Narrative. Great films and a sliding scale to allow everyone the opportunity to participate. The conversation will be stellar! Tell them we sent you!

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