by Andrew Watt
One of the items on display here at A Parliament of the World’s Religions is Esther Bryan’s Quilt of Belonging. Consisting of 263 hexagonal frames for 263 embroidered and textile blocks, the quilt is a kind of self-portrait of Canada at the dawning of the Christian Era’s second millennium: there is one block for each of Canada’s First Nations, and one block for each nation of the wider world whose immigrants have come to Canada. It took six and a half years to create. Members of each immigrant group and First Nation worked on the block representing their community, some only agreeing after long periods of negotiation and gradual or grudging trust-building. One nation, San Marino, is represented by only one person in all of Canada, while other blocks represent thousands of people and their descendants. One two-year-old sewed a couple of stitches, while a 92-year-old had to be helped to hold the embroidery needle between trembling fingers. Just outside the display area, several massive crates with giant foam rollers inside hold the Quilt on its travels around Canada — which have already taken it enough miles to go from Earth to the Moon five times. Listening to Ms. Bryan talk about the creation of the quilt left me with the impression that the Quilt of Belonging is not simply a quilt: it is a treasure-house of stories.
The Quilt is currently on display on the first floor of the North Building. It’s nearly impossible to take in all at once — the ribbon of color that forms the upper edge creates a rainbow of extraordinary intensity. Yet as one approaches, the appearance of continuum dissolves into a formula of precise strips of color all down the length of the hall. Beneath
these ribbons of hue in harmonious order are the Nations. The eye catches on San Marino, and then on the Tlinglit First Nation. One has to go and seek out countries of one’s own national origin: perhaps Great Britain, perhaps France. The Diné come into view, and then perhaps Thailand. Malayasia and Tonga and Cuba appear. The Labradorans and the Dakota and the Haida.
It’s the opposite of erasure.
And then something curious happens. You stop seeing the names of countries, and you start looking at the artistry, at the needlework, at the overarching structure of the quilt. You start to see the heavy tassels of yarn along the bottom. You start seeing how the fabric pulls against the stitch-work here and there. You begin to imagine women and men sitting with Esther Bryan in kitchens and living rooms, all across Canada, as she gently but deliberately earned their trust, came into their communities, and helped them stitch a quilt block. This pull here was a stab through the textile by an untrained hand; that one over there is a daughter guiding her mother’s hands that are starting to lose a battle with arthritis; these interwoven threads were stained by the tears of a refugee remembering their homeland. You start to see those big crates carrying the quilt on the back of a cargo skid pulled by a ski-doo across the ice for a display in the far north, or hauled onto a ferry for a showing on Prince Edward Island. You imagine careful hands unrolling it from its crate for the first time, and staring in wonder at a picture of their homeland for the first time.
And then you, the viewer, start to cry.
You become one with the stories that you see, hear, and imagine in the great quilt before you. You, in a sudden moment, find yourself drawn into the story of Canada, even as a visitor, you find yourself wrapped in all the tales of wonder and heartbreak and hope and tragedy and dignity that are caught up in this quilt, tangled together in its threads and in its fabric.
You are in the presence of a relic. A medicine, in a sense. An object that has been made holy by the hands that have made it, and the stories that have been woven into it, and
the community that has chosen to honor it. An emblem of Canada — not its government, not its national presence on an international stage — but of its people and its common life.
So many rooms and spaces at the Parliament are barren and devoid of symbolism. It’s a conference center, of course — part of the very nature of the spaces within it is that they are non-descript and easily shifted from one purpose to another and another. At the same time, though, the Quilt of Belonging shows a portrait of grace: a nation of nations, a country of countries, at peace with itself and with its neighbors.
And simply by viewing the quilt with your other eyes, you feel the potential for welcome and trust, the gracious hospitality, and the growing strength, of this year’s host nation for the Parliament.
EarthSpirit is at A Parliament of the World’s Religions this week in Toronto! You can find more updates here and on our Facebook page.