Stitch by Stitch: Artist bonds women, community through quilt

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“There’s a hole in my finger from sewing,” Nedra Bonds announces. She’s seated at a long table inside the Women’s Center at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Stacked in front of her is a heap of colorful cloth squares, each about the size of a textbook. Arzie Umali, Women’s Center assistant director, nods at Bonds sympathetically. 

 

“It’s not your fault,” Bonds continues. “I just wanted you to know, I’ve really been on it.” 

 

This is an understatement. The project that Bonds pierced her finger to complete has been more than eight months in the making. 

 

Bonds is a textile artist. Her most well-known piece, Quindaro Story Quilt, tells the Civil War-era history of her birthplace. Quindaro in Kansas City, Kan., was a settlement where escaped slaves found freedom after crossing the frozen waters of the Missouri River. The sunflower-yellow Quindaro Story Quilt travels the world on exhibition like a rock star on tour. 

 

Earlier this year Bonds was asked to create a new quilt to commemorate the 40th anniversary of UMKC’s Women’s Center. The Women’s Equity Quilt, it would be called. 

 

At first, Bonds refused. She had a better idea.

 

“I wouldn’t make a quilt without involving the community,” Bonds says, “because if I made it, it would be mine. No, it’s necessary that everyone who wants to takes part. That way, it belongs to the Women’s Center.”

 

So in March, Bonds began teaching workshops to wanna-be quilters. Due to high demand, she continued the workshops throughout the summer. She provided materials from her own bottomless cache of fabrics. Then, Bonds enlisted the help of Sheryl Schleicher and the Modern Quilt Guild of Kansas City to run each piece through a long-arm sewing machine. The machine’s needle traces the contours of the design printed on the fabric, making the material truly “quilted.” 

 

By each workshop’s end, each participant had created their own 1-by-1-foot square of the Women’s Quilt. There are 100 pieces in all, Bonds estimates. And each piece has a story. 

 

“You let the fabric speak to you,” Bonds says. “I don’t know that anyone’s a natural at doing this, but everyone’s a natural at telling a story, if you can get your head right for telling it. And when it’s finished, that’s what it’s going to do–tell a story.” 

 

She holds up a square that depicts a woman shrouded in a burqua, regarding herself in a full-length mirror. Reflected back at her is an image of a curvy vixen in a red dress that hugs her like a second skin. 

 

Another quilter has woven a photo of herself and her son into the center of another piece, the image printed right on the fabric. How’d she do that? “Oh, it’ a secret,” Bonds says. 

 

Quilting, Bonds says, is a fine art with folk art roots. The craft was passed down, woman to woman, over generations. And as the women sewed, they talked, so that as a girl learned the skill of quilting, she also learned the story of her family’s history. 

 

One would assume that such intimacy couldn’t possibly be created in a room full of strangers in a quilting workshop. That’s what Bonds expected, anyway. She was as shocked as anybody to find that as the students sewed, they talked, too – about the sorts of things you wouldn’t normally discuss with strangers. 

 

“We got stories about incest,” Bonds says. “We got one (with the words) ‘He said it wasn’t rape because he was my boyfriend.’ There were stories about loss, stories about empowerment, stories about inspiration. Just stories about life, about women’s issues.” 

 

She pauses, adding, “But then, all issues are women’s issues.”  

 

Not all the quilters were women, either. Several men participated in creating the Women’s Equity Quilt. “There was a Nigerian boy, a student, who made this piece here.” Bonds pinches a fabric square printed with a Nigerian symbol. “He talked about his mother.”

 

At 100 square feet of fabric, the Women’s Equity Quilt threatened to be more beast than bedding. Bonds engineered a solution: she sewed on little hooks, attached to the back of each square, to make the pieces clip together bottom-to-top. Now, the entire quilt is convertible, and can be taken apart and displayed to fit the space, wherever it’s displayed. 

 

“Female on top,” Bonds says with a smile, pointing to the “female” end of a hook, which she sewed by hand. “That’s the only way I could remember.”

 

The Women’s Equity Quilt had an official unveiling in November during a private event at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The quilt’s permanent home will be at the Women’s Center. 

 

“Cloth takes over your world, it just really does,” Bonds says, and laughs.

 

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