Provocative Textile Art in San Jose Targets America's Tolerance for Mass Shootings

1 min
"Quilted Reimagined American Flag Series III: Don't Live Matter?" 2016 by Kelly Burke. The orange and yellow stripes signify caution. The fifty shades of red stars represent pain and suffering. Look closely and you can see the names of specific incidents written on the cloth. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

You've got one more week to check out Guns: Loaded Conversations at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. So go!

Few issues are so polarizing politically, but as the number of mass shootings mount, artists across the country are taking to their studios to comment, persuade and provoke.

"I had to use my platform as a curator," says Amy DiPlacido, who says one of her first priorities upon getting the job in San Jose was to do something in response to the shootings at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which left 49 dead and 53 wounded in 2016. But really, take your pick from a host of mass shootings before and after that.

DiPlacido collaborated with the nonprofit Studio Art Quilt Associates, adding local, Bay Area contributions to this international traveling exhibition addressing gun violence. The result is a comprehensive survey of emotion and politics in more than 40 works of textile art.

Most people think of quilts as folksy bed linens, but textile art has been political from the get-go. Think of Betsy Ross. Quilts were sold in the early 19th century to raise funds for the abolitionist movement. More recently, gay rights activist Cleve Jones conceived of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the mid-1980s.

“Nothing Much Happened Today (for Eric and Dylan),” 2009 by Noelle Mason.
“Nothing Much Happened Today (for Eric and Dylan),” 2009 by Noelle Mason. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

It’s hard to pick which piece is most affecting. For me, it might be Noelle Mason's “Nothing Much Happened Today (for Eric and Dylan),” a landscape-sized cross-stitch embroidery version of a still from security footage of the Columbine High School Massacre.

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It might be the disjuncture between this sedate art form, usually found on throw pillows and comfy beds, and the implied violence of the image -- not to mention our memories of it. There's no violence happening in the image itself, but I know the story, and so my throat clutches. The hair on the back of my neck rises.

I had a similar reaction to a real revolver covered in crochet, by the East Bay artist Modesto Covarrubias. He's done this thing a number of times with guns and grenades.

DiPlacido says, "You have something very hard underneath, which is the gun. And then you have this kind of soft embrace of textures over this piece, so it doesn’t look so threatening anymore."

This textile art may not be threatening, but it’s provocative.

"(The Value of) Happiness, (Silver I)" 2018 by Modesto Covarrubias. Part of an ongoing series of cozy-covered weapons.
"(The Value of) Happiness, (Silver I)" 2018 by Modesto Covarrubias. Part of an ongoing series of cozy-covered weapons. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Not all the art is anti-gun, but most of it is. Or to be fair, the art is anti-gun violence. "Honestly, there have been a couple of people who didn't like what we were presenting," acknowledges DiPlacido. "If that's happening, then you're doing something right. You have a fruitful conversation happening," she says.

The museum is also featuring a parallel exhibition by the Bay Area’s Social Justice Sewing Academy, featuring cross-stitch and quilting by young people around the Bay Area whose work focuses on social justice issues.

Angela Gleason of Santa Cruz came up to San Jose to see this exhibition. She’s a jeweler and she makes necklaces that bear the names of people shot in America. "I’m especially moved by the pieces that were made by children and by people incarcerated in the Bay Area. That's pretty powerful stuff."

It's not a given that the people who visit are all of one political opinion, either walking in or walking out. At the entrance, everyone is given a spent shell casing to cast a vote on whether gun control laws should be tighter — or not. One week out from the show's close, the leading choice by far is: “Civilians should only own firearms for hunting and shooting sports.” A distant second: “Only the military and law enforcement.”

"Mending Gold: When Will It Be Enough?" 2017 by Brooke Harris-Stevens. Each thread anchored into the brass casings signifies the number of mass shootings in an American city.
"Mending Gold: When Will It Be Enough?" 2017 by Brooke Harris-Stevens. Each thread anchored into the brass casings signifies the number of mass shootings in an American city. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

To close out the show, the museum will host a talk led by Stanford law Prof. John J. Donohue called “Bang! Bang! Discussing America’s Second Amendment,” on July 15.

Guns: Loaded Conversations” runs through July 15 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. For more information, click here.

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