BY Kathryn Clark | June 2, 2011
Quilts as Maps
From 1997 to 2004, I worked as an urban planner designing new urbanist neighborhoods across the United States. When foreclosures began to occur in 2007, I was acutely aware of how big an impact it would have on our cities and towns throughout the United States. However, the severity of the crisis wasn’t obvious in the day-to-day news. Entire blocks of homes have been razed in places like Detroit and Cleveland leaving dying cities in their wake. Today’s news reports generally offer only words and numbers with few visuals. The only way you can see an actual number of foreclosures is to pay to access maps on foreclosure websites such as RealtyTrac and Foreclosure.com. Looking at the sheer number of foreclosures on these sites has a much stronger impression than seeing graphs and numbers. I wanted to call attention to this crisis in my art, but it really needed to capture people’s attention.
As a former urban planner, it was obvious that making maps would be the best way to represent the crisis and as a medium, displaying the maps as quilts seemed an ironic solution. In the Deep South where I grew up, quilts are a common sight in most people’s homes. Some of the most beautiful quilts were made during times of hardship often using cloth leftover from cutting fabric to make clothing. There is often an endearing story behind each quilt. They act as a functional memory, an historical record of difficult times. I wanted to create some kind of endearing record to hold our attention around the staggering number of home losses. This is not the first time we’ve had a foreclosure crisis in the US but it seems that we forget the past too easily. Hopefully these quilts will remain long after the news has subsided.
The first quilts I made are of neighborhoods with some of the highest foreclosure rates in the United States. They are spread across the country to demonstrate that no region is immune. The quilts are pieced together using the patterns of actual block layouts seen in the chosen neighborhood. I reference the blocks to RealtyTrac to find foreclosed lot locations that have occurred over a span of nine to twelve months. Within these quilt blocks, foreclosed lots outlines are sewn with red thread. I then tear open holes within these lots to reveal the underlying layer of cloth, often a bold red to suggest the lots are ‘in the red’. The lot locations are completely random and yield an unexpected beauty when laid out on fabric. These torn holes question the protective nature of a quilt. They suggest that the situation is so dire that even a quilt can’t provide the security one needs. The neighborhoods shown are not an anomaly; they are a recurring pattern seen from coast to coast, urban to suburban neighborhoods across the US. The problem has not been solved; it is still occurring, just changing shape, affecting more of us.
Kathryn Clark is a full-time artist living in San Francisco, CA. Her work revolves around the wabi-sabi principles of simplicity and beauty in imperfection. She also writes a blog to inspire and inform other artists who work in the unique genre called Articraft: artists who use craft in their work and craftspeople who make art (www.kathrynclark.blogspot.com).