Is the chill getting to you this May? Head to the Caribbean via the Vineyard Haven library to see the 12 festive Haitian quilts made by women who are the entrepreneurs and creators of their own co-ops, a project supported by the nonprofit PeaceQuilts here on Martha’s Vineyard.
Women in Haiti make the quilts, and PeaceQuilts helps to market them. The women get the lion’s share of the funds, and part goes back into the cooperative. PeaceQuilts is an assisting organization in economic development that helps the artisans set the cooperatives up as their own small businesses and provides them with the sewing and business skills they need to be successful.
Director of PeaceQuilts Jeanne Staples walked me through the show, helping to open my eyes to nuances I didn’t immediately notice. I learned that there has been a tradition of fine stitchery and colorful imagery in Haiti, traditionally done on tablecloths and other fabrics.
“They transferred these skills to quilts, which they weren’t originally familiar with,” Staples explained. “But now the women are having the opportunity to express something personal about their own experience and own lives and what they’re seeing. It is a real expression of who they are and an opportunity to say something about their own life, and feel the pride that comes from their own country.”
Walking through the exhibit on the lower level of the library is traveling through a kaleidoscope of shapes, color, beauty, and a lot of whimsy. Many of these quilts’ titles are Haitian proverbs. “In Haiti, proverbs are quite important. They’re life lessons, shared wisdom,” Staples says. “You hear people say them all the time. It’s part of the fabric of their culture and their lives. It’s really fun to see them expanding on those in a visual expression of what they mean.”
The proverb in the first piece is incorporated into the composition itself. Woven through the branches of a bare tree are the words in Haitian “Piti, piti zwazo yo nan nich/Little by little the bird builds its nest.” Staples says, “We frequently quote this proverb because so much of the development for these women in the co-ops and in the PeaceQuilts project have been in little steps. Things don’t happen quickly. But if you have this philosophy, you realize that every little step is moving you on this path to achieving something good for your life.”
A stark tree is smack-dab in the middle of a small quilt in another piece, and delightful multicolored birds with a fanciful quality to them perch almost like leaves on the bare branches. A woman to the left sits holding a bird in one hand, and on the right is a man with what appears to be a slingshot. “It’s not unusual, especially for little kids, to go out and kill a bird for food,” Staples told me. “It’s a reality of the poverty and challenges of everyday life. It might also be a statement about deforestation, which is a fact of life in Haiti.”
Staples pointed out how they have evolved a technique of echo quilting, in which you follow the form of the objects. “It brings additional movement and texture to the water, ripples and currents. In the hills it emphasizes the rolling terrain. The use of color is wonderful, sometimes guided by what they have on hand, and other times can be more selective,” she says.
Part of the charm of these folk art pieces is their directness and how personal the compositions are. “Se peyi Ayiti/My Land” may at first seem like a simple snapshot of various hills in Haiti’s landscape. But it also brings to mind another Haitian proverb: “Behind one hill is another,” which could refer to multiple obstacles to overcome, or that behind one opportunity lies another. In that quilt, three different techniques were used. The artist pieced the larger, framelike strips together on a treadle sewing machine, but all the decorative stitching is done by hand. Looking carefully, you can see the alternating lengths of the stitches that appliqué the individual hills to the background. Spaced evenly over the composition are little knots like delicate little birds flying over the entire scene.
Staples and I stood before the last piece, with enormous bulbous root vegetables in huge baskets. Entitled “Sa ki nan ke m sel kouto ki konnen I/Only a knife knows what is in the heart of a yam,” roughly meaning, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Staples tells me that we’re looking at “another fascinating aspect of the way they represent things. Very often things aren’t made to scale. Sometimes when they have particular importance, they might be shown bigger than they are in real life. These monster yams have a prominent place in their diet. They grow wild in the countryside, and the women bring them into the marketplace to sell.”
A presentation about the quilts is planned for May 30 at 7 pm at the library, and the exhibit will be up through the end of May.
PeaceQuilts, a 501(c)(3) economic development project, provides equipment, supplies, training, educational opportunities, and other support to help Haitian women establish small independent sewing cooperatives so they can earn a living wage — to feed their families, improve housing, and educate their children. For more information and to buy a quilt or make a donation, visit haitipeacequilts.org or call 508-274-1104.