Quilt odyssey: Eliza Fernand travels the country collecting stories and stitches

The quilter's journey.

Perhaps this particular project can be traced back to a brightly colored, patchwork tent. Eliza Fernand already had a history of creating otherworldly sculptures and visual arts pieces out of unique fabrics and textures (pillowy raindrops, threaded waterfalls), but no real work in the specific craft of quilting when she began a now years-long endeavor. Under the umbrella term of Quilt Projects, she kicked off a tumble into the world of quilting with that pieced-together structure.

Though the precursor for what would eventually become Quilt Projects actually began in 2010 when she moved to Boise for an artist's residency in collaboration with Portland-based artist Anna Weber; they set up a sewing studio with public collaboration in mind, asking people to bring in sentimental clothing then offering to deconstruct the items and reconstruct them into quilts. It spurred something in her.

“Quilts easily embody ideas of everyday artwork - beautifying our surroundings, warmth and comfort, storytelling, community gathering, sentimentality, reuse of materials, and cultural traditions. I am interested in incorporating those themes into new structures, and researching that history from different angles.”

Often moving from one artist's residency to the next, one gallery showing to another, she crafted the aforementioned multi-color tent in early 2011 then brought it Portland, Ore. and Salt Lake City, and invited people to come inside, have a seat, and tell their quilt tales – this piece of the project would become known as Quilt Stories. These field recordings of oral histories, soon gathered in other cities as well, would later manifest into songs backed by vibrant, detailed installations, but this is jumping too far ahead.

Out on the road last year, Fernand crisscrossed the Midwest, the South, and the East Coast, collecting personal quilting stories on tape and, in addition to that, stitches on a group quilt. In the Amish tradition, she gathered pieces for an all-white quilt (though unlike the Amish, hers pops with pastel thread). The quilt is a circle, so the stitching moves from the middle out to the edges, and it's now at eight-feet wide. “It's nice because the circle of people working on it can get bigger and bigger,” Fernand says from her current residency at Real Time + Space in Oakland.

With her colorful tents (she added a second one), her group-effort white quilt, and a trusty recording device, Fernand traveled last summer, zigzagging from Boise to small towns in Washington State, Montana, Utah, Colorado, Indiana, Minneapolis, Wisconsin, and Michigan – where she grew up.

In the fall of 2011, Fernand collected stories and stitches in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. She visited elementary schools and all-ages punk venues, speaking to wide ranges and ages about their experiences with family quilts or quilt-making, and she also began lecturing on her own work.

“A big part of this project is research, field work, and learning through experience – I'm not a good book learner,” Fernand explains “Traveling is a way for me to learn.” Also mentioning, “I was happy to find that if I take the poles out, the tent fits in a carry-on bag.”

Back to the music; another element to the Quilt Stories arm of Quilt Projects, is the transition from spoken word to song. Fernand listened to the more 200 stories she collected last summer and fall – the final ones recorded in Benzonia, Mich., a town she holds dear from childhood – and cut them up then arranged bits into lyrics.

Working with a musician pal who lives in New York, she's so far created five songs and an instillation to back up the music: there are patchwork balloon structures, and a projection of Fernand dancing in an empty elementary school in Michigan. As open as she is as a visual and performance artist, singing is a somewhat newer undertaking, so during these performances she's usually half in a tent, or cloaked in a comfy security quilt.

In Oakland, at the residency center, she's hosting a weekly craft night-quilting circle to add to the Amish-inspired white quilt; it takes place every Sunday from 6 to 9 p.m. through March. During this two-month stay back in the Bay Area (she had a residency at Oakland's Lobot Gallery in 2009), she also will lecture on her work next week, and yes, she'll sing the words of quilters. She'll perform Quilt Stories at Shed Gallery on March 22, partially hidden in one of those colorful patchwork tents she's been lugging around the country.

Craft Night
Every Sunday until April, 6-9 p.m., free
Real Time + Space
125 10th St., Oakl.

Art Talk at Real Time + Space: Eliza Fernand & Amy Ho
Mon/20, 8 p.m., free
Real Time + Space
125 10th St., Oakl.

Quilt Stories performances
March 22, 8 p.m.
S.H.E.D. Projects
1917 Peralta, Oakl.

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