Tompkins County Quilters Guild – Quilting through Trauma

Posted by  //  October 1, 2015  //  News

One evening in 2003 Aafke Steenhuis heard a loud bang in her front yard and went to investigate. A car had crashed into a large tree, killing two young people she’d known from her neighborhood. The crash and its aftermath were traumatic experiences for her, but they unleashed a torrent of art in the form of quilts.

A member of the Tompkins County Quilters Guild, she had been using traditional piecing patterns and methods in her quilts, but the accident unleashed a more abstract art form. “It just came pouring out of me,” she explains.

A series of operations on her wrist and a diagnosis of breast cancer evoked more abstract art quilts to communicate what she couldn’t with words: the pain and uncertainty of surgery and chemo. Her quilts have received interest and accolades from Houston to Syracuse and Auburn, and even from the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

“The creativity helps you cope,” says Steenhuis. Jane E. Hindman, professor of English at City University of New York and facilitator of writing and art-making groups for women with PTSD, agrees: “When people have traumatic experiences, the brain stores them nonverbally, as memories in the body. In order to process the trauma—to make it more manageable—the psyche is enormously compelled to tell the story and to be heard, to have others ‘bear witness’ to the story so it doesn’t haunt [them]. Doing nonverbal, meditative activities can allow [them] to be narrative without being verbal.”

Ruth White, another guild member and “cancer fighter,” also knows the therapeutic value of quilting. When she lived in College Station, Texas, the traditional work bees of her quilt group freed her to talk about and work through her depression and loneliness. “Talking through our issues together,” she says, “worked better than the drugs!”

A molecular biologist by trade, White uses the visual tools of science in her quilts, which depict nebulae, cells, petroglyphs, waves, and cancer. When she learned that she had advanced appendix cancer in 2009, “the scientific part of my brain kicked in, and I became curious,” she says. To make sense of her illness, she created a series of art quilts that she calls “the cancer series,” including C3: Infiltration.

“Making art and sewing,” says White, “let me work out some of my fears and worries about the cancer, to make something beautiful out of something ugly.”

Her quilts have now come full circle: This year’s Traditions and Beyond quilt show, the biennial event of the Tompkins County Quilters Guild, will include an exhibit of White’s works, curated by Sally Dutko, another guild member. “Ruth’s work is stunning,” says Dutko, “elegant, very precise, extraordinarily colorful, and even her black-and-white works are full of texture and gradations.”

Dutko says she chose White’s work “because of the large number of quality pieces with awards”—from the Professional Art Quilt Associates, the Lowell Quilt Festival, Old Forge, and NQA-judged shows. White’s quilts have also been selected for American Quilt Society, International Quilt Association, and Schweinfurth quilt exhibits.

Traditions and Beyond 2015 quilt show runs October 3 and 4 in the Tompkins Cortland Community College field house in Dryden, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. each day. The event includes hundreds of quilts, demos, vendors, a silent auction of small quilts, and more. For information, contact Kathy Carman at 607-272-5895.

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