Every other week, Connie Berry reports on the news, events, and people at Martha’s Vineyard’s various places of worship.
Jeanne Staples’ art studio in Edgartown is filled with impressive paintings with extraordinary detail. It looks as if the people in the paintings could walk right off the canvas. But besides the paintings, she has mounds of artwork that make up another passion — quilts of every color, pattern, and size, made by the women who make up the quilting cooperative she set up in Haiti eight years ago, PeaceQuilts.
The faith community at Jeanne’s church, the Federated Church in Edgartown, has long been supportive of her efforts, with some members of the congregation traveling to Haiti with her. Next month, on Nov. 5, the Federated Church will host a special event, a celebrity spaghetti dinner, with proceeds benefiting the quilting co-op. The “celebrity” waiters and waitresses will serve the guests, with their “tips” all going to support PeaceQuilts. So far, the volunteer celebrities happen to be folks who will be impersonating some of their favorite personalities.
“In the past we’ve had Julia Child, Cher, Elizabeth Taylor — she dressed as Cleopatra — and we even had Sarah Palin,” Jeanne said. “Sometimes they get tips for singing and other times they get tips to stop singing; hilarity will ensue.”
Jeanne first became connected with Haiti through another program, the Martha’s Vineyard Fish Farm for Haiti Project. She saw the beautiful needlework created by the women in Haiti when the fishing project held its annual craft sales, but found that the tablecloths and other items weren’t selling as well as they could have. Her artist’s eye saw the potential in the women marketing their own uniquely Haitian creative designs with quilts. There was only one problem: Jeanne had never quilted, much less taught anyone else how to do it.
She said she couldn’t find a quilter from the Vineyard to go with her to Haiti, so she had quilter friends give her a crash course in the craft. Then Jeanne went to Haiti under the auspices of the fishing project, and in collaboration with a particular order of nuns who run several domestic arts schools in Haiti; her quilting workshops took off.
“They took to it immediately,” Jeanne said. “There’s tons of art in Haiti, but most of it is produced by men. The women are at home taking care of children.”
One of the quilts Jeanne showed me depicted an entire childhood story from the life of the woman who made it. There was a cart pulled by cattle, a mother bringing water into a sugarcane field, and a little girl (the quilter) standing on a winding road.
“The quilts are very expressive, narrative,” Jeanne said. “They design them themselves and they tell a story.”
Donations of fabric, rulers, pins, sewing needles, and other items needed to produce the quilts come from all over the world. Each quilt has a handmade label with a title, the date it was finished, and the name of the artist who made it. After the earthquake in 2010, Jeanne said the organization tried to come up with ways to branch out. “Not every woman can be an artist, so we began a new product line with bags and pillows,” she said. Some of the bags were sold at Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven. Products now include handmade ornaments for Christmas, many of them made from leftover fabric from the children’s school uniforms. There are bracelets and necklaces made from cloth beads, and even a book that tells the story of PeaceQuilts: “Patience to Raise the Sun: Art Quilts from Haiti and their Power to Change Women’s Lives.”
PeaceQuilts has grown into a 501(c)(3) with a board of directors and a crew of volunteers. Jeanne still travels to Haiti a few times a year, but said that one of the positive effects of the quilting co-op is that more experienced members can now train new members. Some of them gather together to work, and others, who may not be able to get to a job each day, work from home.
“It was a modest ambition, really,” Jeanne told me, “then we began to see how it was growing and evolving, and how the women embraced it.”
She said she will travel to Haiti next week to help another cooperative set up. “We’ll hire Haitians to build sewing tables, and we’ll set up the work space,” she said. Volunteers train the women in record keeping, bookkeeping, and communication systems so that they will have the fundamentals they need to keep the business going. “Then we can step back and become coaches instead of trainers,” Jeanne said.
She said life in Haiti can be very challenging, and she has watched some of the women earn enough money to build their own homes and send their children to school.
“It’s amazing when people have the power to express themselves, what they have to say,” Jeanne said.
Islanders can do their part to support PeaceQuilts by coming to the celebrity spaghetti dinner from 6 to 8 pm on Saturday, Nov. 5. There will be an extensive list of items to auction, and an all-you-can-eat dinner with all the trimmings. Cost is $15 per person, $10 for children, and $35 for families. To learn more about PeaceQuilts, visit haitipeacequilts.org. The website has a new link for donations to help cooperative members affected by Hurricane Matthew.
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