The art of remembrance
At Kara, people pay tribute to loved ones by creating memorial quilts
Faced with creating a quilt panel in memory of her late husband, Enrico, Zeina Daoud felt overwhelmed. How could she depict all that he was in one square?
"His sense of humor, his love of astronomy, his playfulness ... what aspect should I capture?" she said.
This was last fall at Kara, the grief-support organization in Palo Alto. Searching for ideas, Daoud rummaged through a big box of fabric brought in by youth and family services director Liz Powell, who was leading the quilt project. Her hand touched on just the right piece of material.
"I picked one that was very colorful, lots of blues and pastels. It seemed a very thin material, as though it had been a scarf," Daoud recalled. "That material was exactly what it was he had meant to me: the colors he brought into my life, the joyfulness."
As it happened, Daoud ended up making three squares in tribute to her husband. The first one depicted what he had meant to her; the second, which had a heart filled with "seeds of love," represented the gift he gave her in their children. And for the third, the kids wanted "something with astronomy," so Daoud created an image of Saturn.
Memorial quilts, like many art projects done by people grieving, can be healing. They can also be reassuring; their sense of permanence can make people feel that their loved ones won't be forgotten. Powell had both of these thoughts in mind when she came up with Kara's quilt project.
For Daoud, though, the main benefit was the warmth of togetherness. She would sit and work on her quilt squares during grief-group meetings, where other adults were doing the same.
"It was a sharing of community, the sense of 'we're in this together,'" she said. "We're all somehow knit together like that quilt."
Starting last fall, 75 people ages 5 and up came together to create the three quilts that are now on display at Kara's youth and family facility in the First Baptist Church at 305 N. California Ave. Powell and others at Kara brought in materials and fabric markers, encouraging clients — and staff and volunteers — to share memories and take part in groups while they made their squares. One child liked his square so much that he took it home and sewed it on his pillow.
Powell, who has a graphic-design background, arranged the squares. Then, over the holidays, she brought the squares home with her to her family in Kansas City, and she and her sister and niece spent many hours sewing, adding batting and backing. (Fortunately, the pins in the quilt didn't set off any airport metal detectors.)
Powell said the Kara community has been very pleased with the finished quilts. Other emotions came up, too. Daoud expressed some of the same feelings that people speak of when they first see the AIDS Memorial Quilt, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
"It was really a shock to be faced with all these squares," she said. "I know that all of us there shared that (a loss), but it was a big shock to just read name after name after name ... and to know how much people poured their hearts into these squares."
On a recent afternoon, Powell led a visitor from panel to panel, standing in front of the quilts and pointing out their fabric cut-out hearts, flowers, motorcycles, fish; handwritten words of love; names.
"Some people brought fabric that was meaningful, what the person wore," she said, pointing to a baby's bib with a picture of a teddy bear in a football helmet. "His dad brought this."
Powell added, "Little kids expressed their feelings directly about the loss," looking at a square scribbled with a heavy hand.
Powell made her own square, too: a vision of rolling purple and green hills in tribute to her brother Patrick. A small green sprig emerges in one corner. "He was the inspiration for a lot of growth in my life," she said.
Cyndy Ainsworth, Kara's executive director, was in the room as well. "We spent a few staff meetings making our squares," she said with a smile. Hers honors her mother, with the name "Olive," a cookie jar and a book beneath a starry sky.
Powell decided to do a quilt project in part because of her experiences some years ago as a child advocate in the courts. Whenever she had the children use yarn or fabric in a project, she found that they "went really deep into feelings."
Of quilts, she added: "They're soft; they're comforting; they remind us of our parents putting us to bed at night, tucking us in."
Powell also told children at Kara that quilts last, and that their tribute will endure. "There are quilts hundreds of years old in museums," she said.
Rod Tansimore, another Kara client, said in an interview that creating a long-lasting tribute appealed to him. He and his three sons often do art projects to remember mother and wife Lucy. "Most major holidays we'd go to the cemetery and leave art projects there," he said. "When you do it at the grave, you leave it in the weather. This is permanent."
One of Tansimore's sons chose to pay tribute to his mother's love of birds; he drew a pair of hummingbirds on his square. Tansimore wrote the name "Lucy" in cursive and drew a flower.
Quilting was new for some of the Kara participants, including Tansimore and Daoud. But many had already delved into art as a way of coping.
Daoud and her two children, who were in kindergarten when their father died, had also done a project on their own that they called "angry art." They would take pieces of paper and "scribble hard, crumple the paper, then flatten it, cut off pieces at random in the middle or on the sides of the paper," she said.
Kids at Kara have done many art projects, including ceramics and "body maps" in which children color different parts of the body to represent their various emotions. A child might feel "mad" in her tummy, or have sad feet.
A variety of art activities can help people work through the many emotions that swirl when they're grieving; it's not just about being sad, Powell said. "There can be happy memories, anger, numbness, grief. In doing art, there's the expressive means to show their feelings."
The new quilts also serve another purpose. Hanging on the walls, they make a meeting room feel cozy and perhaps more welcoming.
Powell looked up at the quilts again, reminiscing about the hours she spent with her family completing them. She recalled an enjoyable time that brought her relatives together — and got her thinking about living life more calmly.
"I had never hand-sewn a quilt," she said. "It is done at a pace that we no longer live at. Time unfolded in a very different way." She smiled. "We were there day after day, quietly stitching together."
Info: To make an appointment to see the quilts, call Kara's main number at 650-321-5272. More information about Kara's services, which also include counseling and crisis intervention, is at kara-grief.org.