I recently stumbled on an interesting quilt from Maine as I was looking through collection items in the presentation Quilts and Quilting in America 1978-1996. Quilts are usually made to cover beds and keep warm. They have beautiful designs. Art quilts may be made for beds or made to hang on the wall and are often meant to be decorative, though they may have serious subjects. This quilt certainly attracts my eye and I find it intriguing, but it gave me a disturbing feeling even at first glance. It was made for the Lands’ End All=American Quilt Contest in 1996 by Lori Chase of Deer Isle. It was the state winner that year. It is definitely an art quilt, but what is its message?
The design of the quilt caught my eye because it is among my favorite traditional designs. Storm at Sea is a clever design of triangles sewn to create curves that seem to move like waves. Color can be used to enhance the effect. My mother was from Maine and my family often visited the rocky north coast of the state in the summer when I was growing up. I know that Storm at Sea is a quilt design that has special meaning for coastal people, it speaks to their experience of the natural world.
Storm at Sea as shown in this quilt has the usual undulating pattern on the left side as viewed in the image but on the right it is broken up. The pattern of fabric pieces making up the blocks is exactly the same, but the visual pattern is altered by the use of light and dark colors in the “wrong” spots as the traditional design is made. It creates an unsettling feel.
The Lands End quilts are accompanied by short questionnaires given to the contestants when they enter their quilt in the contest, so this is the first place I looked to learn about the quilt. Lori Chase gave short answers to the questions and did not offer much in explanation about the meaning of the quilt. Like many artists she seems to have seen her work as self-explanatory. That leaves it to the viewers, you and me, to read the story of the quilt in the quilt itself. She did provide one broad hint in her answer to the question “What was your primary reason for entering the Lands’ End contest?” She wrote’ “Public awareness of issues as a politically motivated work.”
Each piece in the quilt has been printed in blue or in grey with photographs and text from newspapers. There are photos of fishermen, families, children, and protesters. Some headlines can be seen in the image we have of the quilt. I am sure some of the text of the articles could be read and more details of the photos could be seen if only we could view the quilt in person (the largest scan we have is made from color slide from the collection and can be downloaded at the link). Some of the slogans on the protest signs are disturbing: “The End,” “Abolish the Meat Count,” and “Save a Fisherman, Choke an Environmentalist.” The headlines help clarify what is going on: “What is Sustainability?” “Hook, Line, and Sink…” (headline cropped in making the quilt piece), and, more reassuringly, “Fishermen, Officials Review Restoration Plan.”
This quilt was made in 1994, in the midst of a crisis that had a lasting impact on fishing on the northern east cost of North America from New England through north eastern Canada as well as Greenland Iceland, and northern Europe. It changed the fish we eat and changed the way we think about seafood and sustainability. In the early 1990s the fisheries in the North Atlantic collapsed, with cod and haddock populations crashing so low that fishing in many of the former fisheries had to be drastically curtailed. The main cause is thought to have been over-fishing. The fishing industry supported many people’s lives, fishing crews, the people who prepared and packed fish for markets, restaurants, fish markets, and grocery stores. Such severe restrictions were made on fishing that it became difficult for fishermen to make a living. Also, restrictions on the size and age of
fish scallops caught were called the “meat count,” seen on the protest sign on one of the quilt squares in the lower right corner (enlarge the image to find this). At the time it seemed like the end of a way of life. Internationally, people wondered if the haddock and cod population of the fishing grounds, especially Grand Banks and George’s Bank would ever recover. The impact on fishing in the Gulf of Maine was of local concern to Maine fishermen. This quilt describes the turmoil of that time for the people of the east coast of Maine by documenting what was happening to a traditional way of life, the emotional reaction to the situation, and what protesters had to say about it as found in photos and news clippings.
The expression of turmoil is made not only with the photos and news articles, it is in the way the quilt is made. Looking at the quilt as a whole, it is on the broken up pattern of the right side of the quilt where the protest signs and newspaper headlines appear. One might read that, left to right, as past to present or present to future. Something is happening that breaks up the order of the quilt and so, symbolically, the order of the world. Since the pattern used is Storm at Sea, the symbolism also represents something wrong with the sea. The use of children in the photos also helps to the concern people had for their future and the end of a way of life. What did these events mean for the future of the children of people who’s livelihoods for generations had depended on the sea? A little boy is seen at the very center of the quilt. He is wearing a grown-up-looking work shirt and a cap, standing next to a hanging coil of rope — so perhaps on a boat or a dock.
The fish populations in the North Atlantic are monitored much more closely today with safeguards in place to prevent over-fishing. The haddock and cod populations have rebounded. But the future of fishing in the North Atlantic is still in question because of rising sea temperatures. The summer temperatures in the Gulf of Maine in particular have reached record highs, which will likely change the fish population there if it continues. So although Lori Chase’s quilt has to do with a crisis in a particular moment in history, the warning it holds for paying attention to the health fishing communities and the health of the seas is still current.
Hall, Stephanie, “Songs of the Abundant Ocean,” Folklife Today, June 8, 2014
Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978 to 1996 (online presentation of quilts and quilters from the Lands’ End All American Quilt Contest Collection and the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress)