Behind the Mask Quilt: An Artifact of Community Care

31 August 2022
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During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Brenda Reid and their partner took to walking through their Kitchener, Ontario, neighbourhoods and noticed chalk drawings made on the sidewalks and signs in windows: physical gestures expressing warmth and connection, despite the enforced distancing of the pandemic, that individuals in the community were making towards those around them. Reid started to photograph and catalogue these artifacts of care, and to think about what a more permanent artifact of care might look like in their community.

At the same time, Reid was pursuing a Master of Architecture degree at the University of Waterloo. They were exploring how textiles in general, and quilts in particular, could fit within the discourse of architecture. Outside the Western academic tradition, textiles have long been part of architecture—think of tepees, yurts, or even curtains. Quilts can be thermal, and densely quilted fabric armour is highly protective. As Reid says, “Comfort, protection, and warmth are elements of dwellings.” To that extent, quilts are architectural!

These two ideas intertwined and birthed a project called From Behind the Mask: A Community Quilt of COVID-19 Stories. The project posed the question: “Since the pandemic began in March 2020, what has changed the most in your life?” Anyone who felt connected to Waterloo Region was invited to contribute a piece shaped like a mask to a giant community quilt.

Reid began work on the project in July, 2020, and by October had launched a public appeal for contributions. They placed a total of 1,600 kits (including donated fabric, thread, needles, yarn, and instructions) in community centres, shops, libraries, and so on. By April, 2021, they had received 569 mask blocks. Each contribution came back in two pieces: a front and a back. Then, Reid, their mother, and some volunteers (including me!) made fabric tape ties and seamed the blocks together with some stabilizing batting to turn them into individual mask-shaped pieces.

image description: a handmade face mask, appliqued with images of five people, two adults and three children

A detailed mask block contributed by Joyce Garofalo of Waterloo. Click to enlarge.

image image description: the reverse side of a handmade face mask, embroidered with the message "Everyone in our family wears a mask whenever we go out. Made by Joyce Garofalo, 2021-01, Waterloo"

The back of the mask block shown left/above. Click to enlarge.

By the end of May, Reid had gathered all the individual blocks and tied them together into one enormous installation. It was suspended from the swooping curve of a frame in the centre of the Homer Watson House & Gallery in Kitchener.

image description: a hanging display of many fabric face masks, tied together to suggest a quilt

Click to enlarge.

From a practical viewpoint, the modular nature of the quilt was essential during the pandemic, since getting together in person to create larger pieces together was not possible. But the meaning goes deeper for Reid. While the gaps between the pieces represent the distances imposed by the pandemic, both in terms of social distancing and travel restrictions, the spaces are bridged by the ties and the overall structure of the quilt comes from those connections that sustain us all in spite of everything.
image description: a hanging display of many fabric face masks, tied together to suggest a quilt

The back side of the quilt shows the backs of the blocks with participants’ messages, as well as the many ties involved. Photo credit: Mark Whitcombe. Click to enlarge.

One of the other striking things about the mask quilt is a particular combination of diversity of experience and a shared moment of togetherness. The project captured a very specific moment in time: after the initial rush to sew homemade personal protective equipment when anyone with a sewing machine felt the pressure to make masks, hospital gowns, and scrub caps, but before the bigger political rifts around masking, lockdowns, vaccinations, and “freedom” became fully cemented. In fact, only the very last blocks submitted to the project reference vaccination, as the project wrapped up just as vaccines became available in Canada.

Contributors to the quilt ranged from toddlers to seniors and came from groups as diverse as inmates at the local women’s prison, Mennonite quilters, elementary school groups, workers from Waterloo’s tech sector, and newcomers to Canada. The common experience of the lockdowns and the overwhelming fears of the early pandemic combine in this project to create a sense of care and cohesion.

From Behind The Mask Quilt Show 9
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A variety of contributions. Photo credits: Mark and Cathy Whitcombe. Click to enlarge.

Which, of course, brings us back to that notion of artifacts of care.

Reid’s conceptual work on this project drew inspiration and insight from the National AIDS Memorial quilt, the Witness Blanket honouring victims and survivors of Canada’s residential schools, and the quilts of Carla Hemlock, a Kahnawake Mohawk artist. Reid relates how Hemlock talks about her quilts as places to have conversations. “She was travelling around with a particular quilt about oil fracking, and the quilts made a comfortable space to have a conversation. That ingrained sense of comfort that the quilts made, as an architectural space, becomes a softer place of communication even though the subject matter may be really hard.”

image description: a handmade face mask embroidered with an Arabic letter

The front of this panel reads “أمل”. Click to enlarge.

image description: the rear of a handmade face mask, embroidered with the message "ل is Arabic for hope. It’s also my daughter’s name. She was born right before the pandemic & has been giving me hope ever since. Maram F, Waterloo, ON.”

The back of the panel reads, “أمل is Arabic for hope. It’s also my daughter’s name. She was born right before the pandemic & has been giving me hope ever since. Maram F, Waterloo, ON.” Click to enlarge.

Those difficult conversations return us to the notion of artifacts of care. In care, which can be a very local or personal thing, communication and maintenance are essential—a caring act might be well-meant but might not be beneficial to the recipient without communication, and one-off actions ending abruptly might create more problems than they solve.

Many actions undertaken during the pandemic, like wearing masks to protect others, isolating at home, working and learning remotely to “flatten the curve,” have been framed as actions of care. However, as the trucker convoys in Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada demonstrated, some groups did not experience those actions as caring. Depending on their priorities and backgrounds, while some people felt buoyed and supported, others felt imprisoned and disrespected. This is an example of how care without communication and maintenance between all parties can be a minefield.

However, there is little of that divide expressed in Reid’s quilt, a community art project that came together at a moment in time when the spirit of chalk drawings on sidewalks and clanging pots for healthcare workers was still front of mind for so many. When fear and loss were still looming large, the soft nature of the quilt itself created a venue for talking about difficult things in a safe and positive way.

Quilts as artifacts of care are not just objects, they are processes that document the relationships between the quilter and the recipient. Or, in the case of From Behind the Mask, between the many quilters, and everyone who experienced the quilt.

image description: a close up of a piece of black and white fabric, embroidered over in red, the stitches form a shape reminiscent of a close-up of a COVID virus molecule
My own mask block in progress, made from scrap fabric leftover from mask-making, and documenting a new achievement in my budding embroidery hobby (another pandemic project): figuring out French knots.

Click through the images below to see more of the quilt. 

All photos by Anne Blayney unless otherwise noted.

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Copyright © Anne Blayney except as indicated.
image description: a white woman stands in front of a hanging display of fabric face masks, joined together to form a loose quilt; she is pointing at one of the masks

About Anne Blayney

Anne Blayney is a conference planner and knitter based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. She is a former contributor and editor at Sewcialists.com.

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