Richmond Art Center showcases the work of the Social Justice Sewing Academy

on March 8, 2019

Bright, colorful quilts adorned the hallways of the Richmond Art center last Saturday. It quickly became clear that the meticulously crafted works of art carry meaning in every thread.

A quilt embroidered with the image of a police officer choking a black person includes the stitched phrase ”I can’t breathe” on his face. Above the officer’s head hovers the question: Protect and Serve?

The quilts are part of an exhibit titled “Empowering Threads: Quilts from the Social Justice Sewing Academy.” The exhibit ran from January 15 to March 8. The academy is a Bay Area non-profit aimed at making sewing more accessible for young people of color. Last Saturday, its staff held a workshop, providing free materials to create social justice-themed designs.

The group’s founder, Bay Area native Sara Trail, started sewing when she was 4 years old, thanks to lessons from her grandmother that sparked a life-long love affair with the art form. Before starting the academy, sewing “was my art form, it was my craft,” she said. “I sewed pillows, I sewed tote bags, I made seats, I made prom dresses; I sewed because I enjoyed sewing.”

That all changed in 2012 when a Florida neighborhood watchman shot and killed 15-year-old Trayvon Martin.

At the time, Trail was busy working on a commissioned project, but she put it aside to create a piece in memory of Martin. “I realized that instead of doing them separately, I could use this art form to share what I was doing with the greater community,” Trail said.

At the exhibit, the quilt by Chloe Gorsky, age 18, was a memorial for individuals who lost their lives to police brutality. A giant police badge in the middle includes the words “protect and serve everyone.” Nearby were 30 toe tags with the names of people killed by police officers across the country.

Gorsky says her piece is interactive and people can add names to the quilt to because “not all of them get represented in the news or the media.”

She wants the list of the names updated so that police brutality isn’t dismissed or forgotten. “It’s so shocking to me that there are people like me, just because of my skin tone or age, that are being killed,” said Gorsky, who is African American. “Just to know that it could happen to anybody at any moment, just being pulled over, being confronted—it’s scary and I wanted to show that to everybody.”

Brian Robertson II, a freshman at UC Davis, also had his quilt featured in the exhibit. Robertson’s piece also touches on the themes police brutality and incarceration. It includes an image of a young black male with two guns pointed at both sides of his head. There are six bullet holes in his chest. Surrounding him, Robertson has stitched in the names Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin.

Robertson says the details on his quilt are meant to show “that it’s not just one person, everyone is being affected by police brutality.”

“It’s affected mostly on young black men, and the picture that I sewed [on the quilt] was my brother,” he said. His brother is currently incarcerated, he said, and Robertson thought of him when creating the design.

Quilt by Brian Robertson II

“I always had things I wanted to talk about, but I always just wrote it down and didn’t say anything,” said Robertson. “When I joined this class, Sara, she put me out there. It was eye-opening for me to have a way for me to get my words out and my thoughts out and just get where everyone else can feel and connect with me.”

The Social Justice Sewing Academy, founded in 2016, has two types of quilting programs. One is the full-time program for youth that is available during the summer or as an after-school program. The second is workshops at which attendees design quilt blocks—pieces of fabric that are combined to form an entire quilt.

The academy uses an inter-generational collaborative model to complete the quilts, working with people of all ages. The designers create a mock-up and then mail them to embroidery volunteers all over the United States who hand embroider each one. The academy’s staff do the final piecing together of the blocks.

Nancy Williams is one of the quilters who finishes off quilt block projects. “I get to take them [quilt blocks] once they’re pieced together, and I get to decide what designs to put on them, what messages to put on them, and how to finish it up,” Williams said.

She is also involved in the workshops, networking on behalf of the academy, and works frequently with Trail regarding the quilt design process. Williams, who does commissioned work on the side, offers her quilting services free of charge. “This particular organization allows me to combine the art that I do with something that makes a difference,” Williams said. “I am at this point able to do that, I like it and I think it’s a worthwhile cause.”

Williams said she was inspired by how young people coming from difficult environments have channeled those experiences into their quilting work. “It makes you say, ‘Here’s what I thought life was, and this is what they’re saying their life is.’ So, you know, I have to understand that and appreciate it,” Williams said.

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