Embracing the power of storytelling and collaboration, the Allentown Art Museum launched a community quilting project to build connections and celebrate difference.
In summer 2021, the Allentown Art Museum (AAM) hosted Roots: Sources for American Art and Design, an exhibition created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the Art Bridges Initiative. Featuring decorative arts, textiles, paintings, and works on paper, Roots raised questions on American art appropriation, inspiration, and identity-making that, in turn, informed their Learning & Engagement project supported by Art Bridges.
Inspired by the abstract quilts created by African American artists in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, the museum designed The Threads We Share, a quilting and oral history project. Partnering with Lehigh Valley organizations, Allentown hosted 17 onsite and virtual quilting circles that took place over the course of six weeks. People of all ages and abilities came together to learn quilting techniques taught by an artist-in-residence and worked with a storytelling facilitator to share their unique stories. Using fabric swatches of every color and texture, guests cut and sewed their individual squares in anticipation of creating a quilt to be displayed at AAM.
Further inspired by the long history of telling stories through textiles, AAM created The Threads We Share in hopes that participants would embrace the unique “threads” of everyone’s identity and experiences. Once all sessions were complete, AAM stitched each square together to create one larger quilt, accompanied by a montage of recorded participant stories. All guests were invited to an opening reception to celebrate the culmination of the project together. Shown in conjunction with Roots, AAM drew contemporary connections between both displays and gave all participants the experience of seeing their work in a museum.
One participant reflected on the therapeutic qualities of quilting: “In my early treatment at the Justice Center, I was trying to be happy and put up a mask when I was actually sad inside. My therapist saw through that mask, and I was encouraged to instead express happiness to feel happy. I want other kids to feel when they see my quilt square to remember that ‘tough times don’t last, tough people do’ and I hope to be an inspiration to others!”
Although a collaborative project, each square presented an opportunity to express oneself through a unique design and message. As such, the finished quilt was a true reflection of everyone who was part of The Threads We Share.
AAM partnered with seven different area organizations – Bradbury-Sullivan LGBTQ Center, Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley, Bloom Creative Studio, St. Luke’s University Hospital, the Neighborhood Center, Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center, and Moravian University – which was essential to the project’s success. By expanding community engagement beyond the museum, AAM served more than 150 participants virtually and in-person, demonstrating their impact beyond their walls. Among many positive outcomes, Threads provided a critical moment to grow well-established relationships while building new ones that will help expand the museum’s audiences in the coming years.
On the impactful experience the project provided, Director of Public Engagement Amanda Lovell noted:
“What we witnessed and heard throughout the circles was the joy of people being able to create together and engage with one another in a way that has been so difficult during the pandemic. It has been touching to see how proud the participants are of the work they contributed to the project.”
We love that the Allentown Museum of Art’s The Threads We Share project brought people across the county together and helped build connections during such a critical time, exemplifying the enduring power of art and storytelling to build community.