The winding gravel walkway into Heather Gardens Nursery in West Tisbury led visitors to much more than the usual abundance of spring plants last Friday afternoon. Displayed on tables and racks among lush greens, potted shrubs, and gardening supplies was an array of art and crafts more vibrant than even the blossoms themselves. The benefit show was sponsored by PeaceQuilts, a Vineyard-based organization that supports Haitian women in producing exquisite crafts, aiming to “build better lives through art.” The group markets the goods on the Island and elsewhere, with proceeds going to the artists.
Patrons enjoyed light summer snacks, iced tea, and sangria as they browsed among art quilts, bags, jewelry, and more. The work was distinguished by brilliant colors, intricate designs, spontaneous mixes of prints and patterns, high-quality craftsmanship, and an overall sense of life and vitality.
There were small art quilts suitable for hanging or other decorative use. With a riot of color and detail, each depicted a unique scene of traditional Haitian life: trees, gardens, birds, and animals, villages, men and women working or relaxing together.
There were bags for every taste and need, from clutch purses and cosmetic pouches to roomy market totes and roomier beach bags. Many of the large styles were fashioned from jewel-tone fabric in bright quilt designs. Others were adorned with prints of a tree of life or elegant birds.
The versatile “Day and Night” shoulder bag is a lightweight cotton purse with three handy small interior pockets, a large outside pocket, and a handmade cow horn button. In small and medium sizes, the bag looked perfect for any outing, casual or dressy.
Placemats — new this year — and pillowcases bore the familiar block-print motifs, accented with bright patterned borders.
Festively packaged sets of three Christmas ornaments will be a holiday hit. Each ornament features a different fabric and shape, including fanciful trees, birds, and hearts.
Metalwork pieces by male artists in traditional Haitian motifs were shown. The men create the delicate art from recycled oil drums. Along with producing their own designs, the artisans carve block prints for the women to use on their fabric.
Carolyn Stoeber, PeaceQuilts U.S. program coordinator, chatted enthusiastically with visitors as she demonstrated fabric bead jewelry. The beads, molded from tiny fabric scraps, are strung into bracelets and necklaces. Their subtle hues and lightness on wrist or neck make these unique baubles perfect summertime accessories.
The beads show the artisans’ commitment to reusing even the smallest scraps of material. U.S. quilters donate much of the fabric that is put to good use, creatively recycled into art.
According to its literature, PeaceQuilts is a nonprofit organization establishing and supporting independent, self-managing sewing cooperatives in Haiti. These women produce art quilts and other textile products “reflecting Haiti’s rich artistic and cultural heritage. PeaceQuilts provides an opportunity for Haitian women to build their own businesses and earn a living wage.”
PeaceQuilts was featured at a Bennington Museum traveling exhibition from 2009 through 2011, and has been honored with an invitation to participate in the International Quilt Festival in Houston this November.
PeaceQuilts founder Jeanne Staples of Edgartown, a noted Vineyard painter, greeted guests, offering information on the merchandise and the program. Ms. Staples explained she developed PeaceQuilts after seeing tablecloths a friend brought from Haiti. With a longtime interest in quilts, Ms. Staples thought that the Haitian women could better use their skills making quilts that would be readily salable.
Although not a quilter, she learned the basics and traveled to Haiti, teaching the skills to a group of women. Now, 10 years later, six sewing cooperatives are thriving in several locations, with an estimated 80 to 100 women participating.
Ms. Staples described PeaceQuilts as an “economic development program,” empowering women to earn a living for themselves and their families. Rather than employing women, it supports them in creating their own businesses.
“As an artist I deeply felt there was a great untapped potential of creativity among the women,” Ms. Staples said about her motivation to begin the endeavor. “That is what touched me so much.”
Ms. Stoeber, also of Edgartown, became involved after an enjoyable visit to Haiti during 2002. Afterward, someone introduced her to Ms. Staples because of their shared interest in that country.
As U.S. program coordinator, Ms. Stoeber travels to Haiti three times a year. She works with the craftswomen on business and development matters to assist them in running their operations successfully. On Martha’s Vineyard, she works with Ms. Staples on direct and online sales and other marketing activities.
PeaceQuilts sales will continue through the summer at several venues. These include Mondays at the Federated Church in Edgartown, from July 11 through Aug. 15, 10 am to 2 pm, and at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, August 1, 22, and 29, from 10 am to 6 pm. PeaceQuilts will participate in the Harlem Fine Arts Show in August, and its products are sold at Chilmark Chocolates, at occasional retailers on- and off-Island, and online.
For more information call 508-274-1104, visit haitipeacequilts.org, or find them on Facebook.