Artists have long used their crafts to help them come to terms with grief and sorrow. The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s searing remembrance of his dying sister Sophie in The Sick Child comes to mind. Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, composed by the Estonian Arvo Part, is a soulful dirge punctuated by tolling bells and darkly colored by Part’s experience of Soviet oppression. These artists, and many more, have made their pain palpable to viewers and listeners through their creative work.
Expressions of grief surface likewise in quilts. In post-mortem photos common during the Victorian era, for example, quilts sometimes wrap children’s bodies, as emblems of familial love and protection. In times of conflict, quilts could help their makers cope, show support, or memorialize. The NAMES Project’s enormous trove of quilts commemorates the lives of thousands of victims of the AIDS epidemic, and the grassroots Home of the Brave Quilt Project honors military lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ambiguity and Enigma: Recent Quilts by Michael James includes what may be this artist’s most cohesive and introspective work to date. Somber, dark, and mysterious, they play bold strokes off ethereal sky spaces, and stabbed marks against lyrical, though interrupted, linear networks. Leaves, branches, grasses and water remind us of the inexorable cycling of the seasons, death and rot leading to new life leading to death yet again. While the broad vistas of the Plains can seem hopeful, they can be lonely and can seem oppressive too, especially when the sky lowers and bears down ominously. The presence of the landscape can be as discomfiting as comforting. Its expanse can as easily fill one with despair as with optimism.
James’s newest quilts have grown out of a very personal experience of loss and mourning, yet they aspire to universal resonance. His sorrow and pain are familiar to each of us, and have no less impact for that ubiquity. Our human destiny is to live, to love, to lose, to mourn. These quilts embody one artist’s reflections on that destiny.