The Memory Cloth Circle began at Lakeside Coffee House during the 2013 MMOCA Triennial. Each week people signed up to tell stories and embroider memories. The group was inspired by Amazwi Abesifazane, Voices of Women, in South Africa. Those courageous women began making Memory Cloths to tell their stories of Apartheid; they asked us to share their process in the U.S. We honor them in our work choosing our own stories and messages.
When the 2013 MMOCA exhibition ended many of the Circle participants, buoyed by the group’s energy and creativity, decided to continue gathering; we meet weekly to this day. Today the Memory Cloth Circle brings together 20+ professional and non-professional women artists from various backgrounds. All enjoy sharing ideas, narratives, and stories in stitches using vintage and repurposed fabrics through embroidery, applique, collage, and mixed media.
Since the pandemic halted in-person gatherings we have met weekly through Zoom, and we are delighted that this has allowed participation to include members in Oregon, Texas, Florida, Nova Scotia, and Tanzania.
Circle member Lisa Binkley has repurposed wooden cigar boxes in her mixed-media fiber art for years. Her father used to enjoy smoking cigars, and when she saw the beautiful boxes, he began saving them for her. He is delighted that they have been incorporated into her art as well as others’.
Many of us had a special box as a child that we used to hold treasured objects—found feathers and bones, shells and special beach pebbles, poems, old jewelry from a grandmother, and other gems. As our group considered possibilities for our 2020 exhibition at Blue Bar Quilts, we decided to tap into treasured memories and the idea of boxes to contain them. The boxes that are the foundation of works in this exhibition are cigar boxes from Lisa’s dad and a few other sources, wine boxes from his wine cellar, and a world of fabrics, threads, beads, photographs, jewelry, lots of hand stitches, and messages and memories. Enjoy.
Visiting the tide pools on the Oregon shoreline, plus a month-long trip to the Greek islands were the genesis of an ocean series I’ve been working on for several years. These environments and the creatures who inhabit them inspire me to retell my delight in experiencing them by hand stitching with a variety of fabrics, threads and beads. Using a cigar box as the stage for this piece challenged me to “think outside the box,” as I planned how to use the space. I was able to use the box open vertically to create a wave effect in the hand sewn fabric. The shoreline at the bottom spills out of the box edge while the deeper water is at the top. I made many crocheted pieces to add a dimensional effect.
Many things create memories that stay with us throughout our lives. Nature’s surprises are such things. The first time seeing a rainbow, watching a raccoon washing his food before eating it, and the cheerful and persistent song of a wren are some examples. We are sometimes struck with awe and wonder by nature.
One such experience for me is fairly recent. A few years ago was the first time I examined a milkweed pod. The variety of textures were interesting. The roughness of the outside of the pod contrasted with the soft white surface attached to the seeds. The surprise for me was when I picked one of the seeds free and the beautiful white silk attached to it fluffed out and more seeds and fluff followed, some floating in the air. I was delighted. Who would guess that all that fluff had been so tightly packed into the pod? How far would those delicate strands carry the seed? How many new plants would be started from one pod?
Nature provides us solace and relief from everyday responsibilities, but it also creates lasting memories of special moments and wonder.
Saris, hand-dyed embroidery floss, gold thread, cigar box from Lisa.
My daughter Riah and her husband came to visit for Spring Break. They were here to keep us safe during Shelter-in-Place. They went to the store and did all the cooking. They are excellent cooks and made wonderful dinners. They also rearranged the cupboards and ordered cooking equipment they liked. As I stayed out of their way, it brought up little frictions leading to irritations and memories of conflicts from her childhood.
I began stitching pillow covers for our sofa from several saris I’d bought in India. I used a repetitive running stitch called Kantha in India. It was soothing and meditative. I made nine.
The underlying tensions broke into a yelling fight in June. Kaylee, our younger daughter was visiting that week. She became the mediator. Riah and I sat on the couch (covered in sari pillows) on each side of her as she guided the conversation. Riah and I were able to finally recognize the patterns and issues of years-old conflict.
It was like a new dawn. Riah and I found a deeper understanding and let go of our misinterpretations and resentments. Kaylee was brilliant. Riah and I found resolution. It was transformative.
This was my most treasured moment from Covid Summer.
My mother had a wonderful jewelry collection that had grown over time. As a child, I had spent hours (usually while waiting as my mother was getting ready to go out) sorting, inspecting, trying on and admiring her jewelry. She had great taste. Precious & semiprecious gems, gold & silver, trade beads, amber, vintage costume jewelry . . . she loved it all. About a month before I got married, I went home to visit my mother and sisters. So there I was once again looking through her jewelry boxes, waiting for her to finish dressing and asking her questions about her jewelry collection. I believe I was looking at her old nursing watch, which was extremely tiny, and her original, very modest wedding band, and was asking her a question about why these were so plain (jewelry serves as a certain kind of family history – this ring was your Grandmother’s, this pin belonged to your Aunt, this was the wedding ring from my first marriage). “Well,” she began, “you know that some Seventh Day Adventists consider jewelry prideful, a kind of sin . . .” [Now, I did know that, having been raised in the faith while young. I also knew that some Adventists exchange watches instead of rings when they get married because of that belief, but I had never really thought about jewelry as a sin in the context of my mother’s jewelry!] “So you see,” she continued, “those had to be modest, because I was getting married as an Adventist. But all my other jewelry? That’s my treasure box of little sins!” And that’s how I’ve thought of it ever since.
In Memory of my Father (1938-2020)Love is like the Ocean
I remember a time
when my legs were strong
and my heart had no fear.
I was able to walk in solitude and wonder for miles
all afternoon on a sunny fall day.
I remember a trail at Mauthe Lake, WI,
where I entered a forest rich in autumn colors.
I remember the surprise of evergreens
heady with the scent that
now I can only smell briefly on
my 20 minute walk past a
neighbor's pine tree
next to the sidewalk
near my home.
This box, created over several months, collected memories from my Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin garden of 19 years and bits from my gardens and garden collections. The end of the dining room table became the repository for all options and was a tableau in itself. From this I began to picture three panels that would embody the joy I get from my gardens.
I want you, a visitor to my garden memories, to be able to open the box and pull out the little hand stamped accordion book that holds my memories. The text, in case you do not feel comfortable doing this is:
Won’t you come into my garden?
I would like my flowers to meet you.
White picket fence garden is the smile of the house,
many birds and bird songs, Zinnia garden,
mailbox for tools, decorated compost bin, shade garden,
growing good soil, bottom garden, pollinator gardens,
Mary garden, meadow, beauty of the river, lavender,
Jeramiah the Bullfrog, peonies, the wishing frog,
Scented Geraniums, little library, Engelman Ivy,
gardens books, cut out pictures, seed catalogues,
plants from friends, kitten Zoe found in the garden,
Carol in the garden, the pond, goldfish, woodpeckers,
flood of 2008, rooster Victor and the girls, oxalis,
Great Horned owl at dusk in the lawn, the long view,
Sweet Annie, Quaker Bonnet lily, pollinator garden,
shade garden, Bird Girl, Monarch chrysalis, herbs,
Burr Oak seedling, Aries the goat, garden path, chimes,
destination benches, view of the bridge, fallen Mulberry.
I first went tent camping on my honeymoon (we were college students and it was cheap!) and I fell in love with it. We camped for the next 30 years or so taking our babies and as they grew into teens we often included their friends on our trips. It was an ideal vacation. Hiking, fishing, boating and swimming kept us all busy. Everyone helped with dinner prep and cleanup - cheerfully even - and nights were spent around a campfire. It was almost always quiet in the evening. Away from the city we could see the stars. On rainy nights we could listen to the downpour in the dry comfort of our tent playing games by the light of a lantern.
Though we no longer go up north to the woods, we often pitch our faithful tent in our backyard and camp with our granddaughters. For some reason breakfast never tastes as good as the ones made on the campstove. The kids call it "Camp Ama".
For the first several decades of my life my father’s parents lived in the woods of Wisconsin, and my mother’s parents lived on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park outside of Estes Park, Colorado. My grandpa’s sister lived “next door” to them (about ¼ mile away). We visited my father’s parents often and played alongside Honey Creek, in the fields, and in the woods. We visited my mother’s parents every summer for a week or two, and my two sisters and I loved climbing the huge rocks surrounding their home and spending as much time as possible outdoors.
The photo is of a painting a friend made for my grandparents of their Colorado home. My grandpa built the playhouse for my sisters and me and for our cousins. We’d play house in there and sometimes camp out overnight. My grandma always had creative projects for us while we visited, especially making artistic notecards and building doll houses. She was an accomplished seamstress, embroiderer, and knitter, and she made these two outfits for my Barbie Dolls. She taught me to embroider.
My sisters and I loved to collect pieces of rose quartz we found around their property and in the crushed gravel roads connecting the rural cluster of homes near theirs. I remember being fascinated by the beauty of the quartz, the layers of mica we found embedded in rocks and in the road, the grey-green lichen growing on many rocks, including the rocks surrounding my great aunt’s fireplace (which she kept alive by periodically spraying them with beer!), the hummingbird feeders, the saltlick for deer, and the many elk antlers my grandpa found. He made buttons from some of them for a knitting shop in town.
Each visit to Colorado included a trip to Charlie Eagle Plume’s—a nearby shop and gallery/museum owned by Charles Eagle Plume, who was a college classmate of my great aunt’s. He was a kind and fascinating man, and I remember him giving my sisters and me arrowheads and once strung seed bead necklaces that we treasured.
One year our trip to Estes Park included a stay in Yellowstone National Park, where I saw the one and only moose I’ve seen in the wild. That and the colors inside of the geysers are my most vivid memories of Yellowstone.
As my sisters and I played outdoors in Colorado and in Wisconsin, we loved singing several songs we’d learned in Girl Scouts. One of our favorites was The Happy Wanderer (I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track / And as I go I love to sing, my knapsack on my back. Valderi, valdera, valderi, valdera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha Valderi, valdera, my knapsack on my back…) To this day, walking in woods, hills, and mountains, and along lakes and streams brings me immense peace and joy. I am still a happy wanderer.
As my grandparents aged, they began spending winters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I have wonderful memories of the colors, cultures, architecture, and art I got to experience on several visits there to see them.
Looking back now on all of these memories I am warmed by their beauty and fondness and immensely grateful to have had these treasured experiences.
This is a photo of the back porch of the house taken during my last visit there – after my dad had passed away in 2010 and we had cleared everything out to put it on the market.
To anyone else, it is just one in a row of typical suburban Chicago bungalows. To me, it is a place that was filled with books, learning, plants, animals, good food and love.
Early memories of time spent playing “dolls” on a blanket in the side yard, or making “pemmican” in the sandbox alongside my brother’s battlefields, or seeing who could swing the highest, or just taking some time to “go sit on the back porch”.
When I was young, my family lived on a street on the top of a river bluff. Whenever anything happened on the river, everyone from town gathered at the end of our street to watch.
April 18 was Easter. The bunny delivered eggs and my sisters and I dressed in our finery for church. I loved it that on that day our finery included hats, gloves, lace trimmed socks, and my favorite, black patent Mary Janes. After church we visited with family and friends and enjoyed my mother’s traditional ham dinner.
During a light supper in the evening, people were gathering at the end of our street. My mother rose from the table to go see what was going on. As she entered the crowd, she overheard someone say that Clifford Shedd and his wife drowned. When he realized my mother was standing there, he said, “I’m sorry, Alice, your brother, Helen, and your cousin Derwood went fishing. The boat overturned. Derwood is struggling down there to get to shore, but Helen and Clifford never surfaced.”
Mom ran home and told my dad. He bolted out the door and down the bluff paths all the way to the shore where a group of men had gathered. They were waiting for a boat that was coming and urging Derwood to keep swimming. Dad took one look at Derwood and plunged into the icy river, grabbing the last hand of the human chain that was forming. He grabbed Derwood’s arm and pulled him to shore. Many years later when I saw Derwood at a gathering, he told me my father saved his life that day. He could not swim anymore.
There was no sign of my aunt or uncle. The wardens put dragnets across the river the next town down for recovery of remains. Days went by. Every day we drove to a house near the nets in the next town seeking news, but there was nothing. A girl named Hazel lived in the house near the nets and I looked forward to playing with her every time we went there. It was a terrible time for my family. Days turned into weeks. After six weeks we had news from the wardens. My aunt’s body washed into the nets. There was a funeral and her family had closure.
Summer arrived and our vigil went on. The trips to the house by the nets were every three or four days now. My grandmother refused to give up hope that her son had survived. She would say that maybe Uncle Clifford hit his head and was wandering around in the wilderness on the other side of the river. It was sad and so hard for her.
September came and all the children on my street went to school except me. Now it was just mom and me driving to the house by the nets, maybe once a week. My new friend Hazel wasn’t there, she went to kindergarten. The leaves turned beautiful colors, then in November a trapper who was setting traps by the river found my uncle’s remains tangled in weeds near the riverbank. The ordeal of not knowing was over.
Clifford and Helen Smith Shedd were a handsome young couple married almost five years. They had just built a new home together. They loved the outdoors, fishing, and hunting, they were adventurers. They slipped away from us, beyond the veil, to the next realm and their next adventure together. Through my childhood, I always admired a lovely big picture of them in a special frame at my grandmother’s house.
April 18, 1954 was Easter Sunday the year I turned four.
This piece is about and dedicated to my mother, Fanne Phillips. She was a loving and bright woman, who in spite of limited means gave me a wonderful childhood and nurtured my imagination.
My mother was called Fanne, or Fagele* in Yiddish. She was the youngest of six children born to Jewish immigrants in 1908. She always wore hand-me-downs, and being one of the youngest in the extended family, the clothes were well worn by the time they reached her.
At twelve she and her sisters and mother took the ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan and then a bus to the Lower East Side to buy the very first dress that was just for her. It was a brown crushed velvet, and she treasured it. She loved it so much that for over 80 years she kept an ivory carved button from it. Then she handed the button down to me to keep in turn.
In her seventies, she became a writer, an artist, and a poet. In her poem “Mother” she remembers a time when, as a little girl, she heard her mother talk about remembering her own mother.
When I was a very young girl,
My mother told to me,
Shedding a tear or two,
That on this Purim ** day
It was forty years since her mother
Puzzled, I looked at her and thought,
How can she remember her after
all those years---so long ago?
Now it is forty years that
my mother is gone and
When I told my daughter---it seemed
I thought for a while.
I felt the joy I gave to her
and the love she gave to me
So long ago.
*Fagele means little bird in Yiddish
**Purim is an ancient Jewish holiday celebrating survival
The ceremony of solemn communion included rituals such as the renewal of baptismal promises, the lighting of candles and a consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. White clothing was worn as a symbol of innocence and purity. Children were given prayer books, rosaries and holy cards as well as a certificate of First Holy Communion.
Immaculate Heart of Mary
This memory box was created in honor of my grandmother Agnes VandenHeuvel.
My father and I were not close, so I really had to wrestle with my emotions surrounding this ritual garment. I envy people who were close to their fathers. It seems simpler (even if it isn’t). The few “stories” I summarize in the text above are vaguely understood half-truths, somehow passed down years ago, but they’re the truth about how I feel today. The text might read as wooden, heartless, and more on the rueful side but unfortunately that’s my recollection. My father was never mean, only indifferent in a way that reads as rejection to a child. I am the youngest of three siblings, and the one who traveled the world, while they stayed put, so how I came into possession of this dress is a mystery. My family has never been sentimental, and did not talk much, so I have no idea. Remarkable is also how the dress stayed in good condition after a century of being balled up in a plastic bag. I’m not happy with what I wrote, but I can always change it. In fact, I might start revising right now.
“Waridi Pads is the product which help girls to stay in schools the same days as boys; I wrote this memory with Riah Werner the Peace Corps Volunteer who worked with me here in Tanzania.
You make changes to girls, now they can; Make their own decision, Know their bodies changes, Know my bodies my choice, You keep them flying.
Many thanks to the founder Riah Werner and Catherine Njau.”
Catherine Njau has joined Memory Cloth Circle on zoom this year. She is a teacher and was concerned that girls missed school when they had their periods. She and Riah started a project for local women to sew washable menstrual pads, panties and bags to carry them. They even included soap with the bags. Catherine goes to schools to teach about menstrual health to boys, girls, male & female teachers. To make menstruation normal and to discuss the importance of education and delaying marriage and pregnancy. Last week she spoke to over 700 students and teachers.
We help support this project. Your contributions are welcome. -Leslee Nelson