The 10-week “UTEC Squared: Using Textiles, Expressing Challenges” project recently finished, and we can all rest on having created an amazing piece of public art. The project was a collaboration between the United Teen Equality Center and the American Textile History Museum. The goal was to have youth create a multimedia message board-like art piece using a variety of textile arts, and themed to promote nonviolence while also addressing the social challenges young people face today.
Working with young men and women associated with Lowell’s highly regarded United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) has been an amazing experience. We have enjoyed their good humor and energy, and have been struck by their depth of world experience and their desire to make the world better for the younger kids following in their footsteps. UTEC strives to make leaders within the Lowell youth community, and, we learned very soon how successful UTEC is at achieving this mission.
The Sun reporter who covered our first organizational meeting quipped as she saw these big, husky young men enter the building, “Here come the quilters.” We gave them our own moniker. “Here come the piecemakers,” we said, with the intended pun on the common term for quilters juxtaposed with the serious and heartfelt theme of the quilt they were there to create. Peace was their theme – in a community that was recently shaken by gun violence and the death of a young woman at a New Year’s Eve party in Lowell, a woman who was known personally by some of these young men.
In the coming weeks, with the help of UTEC staff member Jonathan Lunde and several UTEC street workers who connect so well with this community, the project took off. Our young men, with seriousness and purpose, considered how to design this quilt as a large public art piece commemorating the lives of those in our community who were too soon taken away. They considered their own lives and the violence they had witnessed, a fact of life prevalent for so many youth today. They gathered images of important leaders to them who represent peace, such as Gandhi and Buddhist monks, pictures of friends and family who were victims of violence, and pictures of their children who represent their hope for a bright and peaceful future.
The quilt was planned, assembled, and sewn under the guidance of Rhonda Galpern, an experienced quilter and sewer herself. Silk screening techniques, taught by Frances Killam, a local artist and Museum education staff member, were used to transfer words onto the fabric, such as the lyrics of an original rap song that urges men to treat their ladies well, which was written by one of our teens nicknamed “Turtle.” Nicknames were prevalent with this group! Frances liked her nickname “Easy Bake” given by the guys who watched her operate the Yudu silk screening machine that “baked” their designs onto the printing screens. The teens gave me the nickname of “Wonder Woman” for being the project organizer. Rhonda, though, changed her nickname from “the Trickster” – chosen since creating a quilt was seen as a “tricky” operation by the guys, to “the Magician” since creating these art works is “magical” – and the guys agreed.
The UTEC Peace Quilt will hang at ATHM initially, then will be displayed at the Lowell Quilt Show this August, and finally will reside in a place of honor at UTEC’s main location at 35 Hurd St. in Lowell. It may even travel. This project was grant funded through the generosity of the Lowell Cultural Council, which is a local agency funded through the Massachusetts Cultural Council. All involved hope this creative public art piece will serve as an ongoing reminder of the great price we pay for violence in our lives, but also as an indication that violence can be turned around for future generations, and this change can be led by the very people who know violence all too well.
We hope to continue this good work with UTEC on future projects. The next project, coming this fall, is a second session of silk screening T-shirts as an exercise in self expression.
Director of Museum Education