by Suzanne Labry
Quilt of Belonging
Esther Bryan, the Canadian visionary who came up with what could be described as one of the most extraordinary collaborative quilt projects ever, is not a quilter. She is, however, the heart-and-soul force behind the Quilt of Belonging, a 120-foot long by 10.5-foot high quilt made up of 263 blocks that depict every nation in the world—70 representing all Aboriginal groups, 193 featuring all immigrant nationalities in Canada—at the turn of the 21st century.
Beginning in 1998, the Quilt took six-and-a-half years to make and involved thousands of people all across Canada working together. Although Bryan is not a quilter, she is a professional artist who has worked in a variety of media, including fiber.
It was this background that informed her choice of a quilt as the best means of expressing her idea of a symbolic representation of the complex human mosaic, and the interconnectedness and shared desire of all peoples to belong.
“I was looking for a way to include the variety of attributes and characteristics of different cultures and to directly involve people from those cultures. A quilt ended up being the perfect medium to incorporate the remarkably diverse aspects of the human experience,” Bryan explains.
“Textiles are a visual language that we all understand and fabrics are essential to human survival. Our threads record our history and reveal who we are as people. A quilt block provided the widest possible expression for incorporating different materials that represent our cultural and ethnic past as well as our present. Sewn together, they show how, though different from one another, we are connected.”
Bryan continues. “Each 11-inch block is a hexagon with a diamond insert; the hexagon represents the carbon molecule, which is the fundamental element of all life. The shape can be found in every culture throughout history, from the tile mosaics of the Middle East, to the six-pointed Jewish Star, to embroidery designs from the Balkans, and on and on. We invited participants to contribute their talents and ideas, reflected through the prism of their cultural backgrounds. Other than the basic parameters of size and shape, people were free to do whatever they felt best represented their particular culture and its traditions. The range of materials is astonishing, from sealskin to African mud-cloth, from embroidered silk to rabbit fur. Some pieces include family heirlooms that are up to 200-years old.”
The inspiration for Quilt of Belonging came in 1994, when Esther accompanied her father to Slovakia, the homeland from which he had immigrated 43 years earlier.
The trip was a watershed experience for Esther, making her realize the depth of the human desire to have a sense of place; to belong. She returned to Canada determined to create a collaborative art piece that showed there was a place for all in humanity.
Bringing such an all-encompassing goal to fruition was, as you might imagine, no easy task. How would one go about locating representatives from all nations of the world who had settled in Canada? Assuming those representatives could be found, how would one convince them to participate in such an unusual undertaking? Would anyone take the project seriously? Where would funding come from?
These obstacles and many more would have caused anyone less committed to abandon the idea from the start, but Esther knew that her faith would carry her through.
Using every resource she could think of, from newspapers, radio, television, immigration centers, embassies, churches, mosques, universities, Aboriginal groups, and even the United Nations, she built a cadre of contacts and volunteers.
Canada is a huge country and Esther and her volunteers traversed it from coast to coast and top to bottom, usually funded from their own pockets or private donations.
“It was all about building relationships,” she says. “It was an immense idea, one that didn’t fit in a box. Many people we met didn’t speak English and we’d have to work through interpreters. It was a miracle that it all came together, but it was an experience that none of us will never forget. It changed us.”
Eventually the idea caught on and throughout Canada enthusiasm grew. Quilt of Belonging became a non-profit corporation and a registered charity. Organizations, corporations, and grant agencies began to back the project and both the federal and provincial governments recognized the value of the effort.
The inaugural exhibition of the completed Quilt of Belonging took place in 2005 at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in the nation’s capital and the Quilt began a decade-long touring schedule that included a visit to the International Quilt Festival in Houston in 2007 and a first-of-its-kind, multi-venue exhibition trek across the Arctic.
The quilt was featured at the 2010 Olympic and Para Olympic Games in Vancouver and was chosen for display at the G20 Summit in Toronto. To date, an estimated 1.4 million visitors have seen the work. Quilt of Belonging is the basis for diversity education units in Canadian schools, and a book about the project is in its fourth printing.
This remarkable achievement is summed up by the Quilt of Belonging mission statement: “Quilt of Belonging is a collaborative work of art that recognizes Canada's diversity, celebrates our common humanity, and promotes harmony and compassion among people.”
As Esther says, there truly could be no better vehicle to carry those sentiments than a quilt.
All photos are courtesy of Esther Bryan, Quilt of Belonging.