Quilts line library with symbols of strength, life

Tree symbology features prominently in the Haitian quilts currently hanging in the Baker-Berry hallway.

Jeanne Staples knew that she wanted to be involved with poverty relief efforts in Haiti, but was unsure how until she stumbled upon tablecloths for sale that had been embroidered by Haitian women. The encounter helped Staples realize that the skills of those women could be applied to a more marketable craft quilting.

With the help of Maureen Matthews McClintock, Staples founded PeaceQuilts a non-profit organization that works to relieve poverty in Haiti by setting up independent quilting cooperatives for women in 2007. Quilts produced by the cooperatives are currently on display on the first floor of Baker-Berry Library.

Staples emphasized the importance of bringing the quilts to a wider audience in order to remind people that there are success stories in Haiti, even in the midst of immense difficulty.

“It seems discouraging when you look at the totality of it, but then there’s the Haiti we know filled with hope,” Staples said. “It’s not just filled with promise but filled with people who have achieved.”

The exhibit was produced in conjunction with a symposium on reconstruction efforts in Haiti, which was held on April 8.

Students working in the library or walking to class can admire the colorful quilts, symbols of hope and achievement, which will hang in the Baker-Berry hallway indefinitely, according to Molly Bode ’09, a presidential fellow and one of the symposium’s organizers.

“The library is a place of general congregation and an academic space,” Bode said. “People can think critically and admire [the quilts] at the same time.”

While Dartmouth has been very involved in providing medical relief and aiding physical reconstruction after the earthquake, there are many other forms of support needed to rebuild Haiti, according to Rebecca Biron, chair of the Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies department, which sponsored the Haiti symposium.

“Our role was to connect that kind of effort to broader and longer-term issues about cultural, political and social support, not just disaster relief,” Biron said.

PeaceQuilts products were made available for purchase during the symposium as a way to further emphasize the importance of arts and culture in Haiti’s reconstruction.

PeaceQuilts, which began as a single cooperative with seven women, has since grown to seven cooperatives with approximately 100 women in total, according to Staples and McClintock.

The organization aims not only to help women develop a marketable skill set to use as a source of income to support their families, but also to empower women to be independent and take ownership in the cooperative, Staples said.

After learning the basics of quilting, the women can focus on developing their artistic expression, McClintock said.

For the founders of PeaceQuilts, the biggest reward from working with the women is seeing how far they go with it, “to see them take off,” McClintock said. “They just needed a little hands-on experience and then they grow leaps and bounds.”

The women draw inspiration from sources ranging from Haitian proverbs and metalwork to their own personal experiences.

According to McClintock, the women are encouraged to think introspectively in order to depict their own lives in their quilts.

The tree of life, a popular motif in Haitian metalwork, also appears in many of the quilts hanging in the library. In the series of quilts that features the tree of life, the trees stand sturdily at the center of the quilts with bright leaves springing from every branch.

While some quilts feature birds singing from the branches and others depict children running around the tree, every quilt in the series prominently displays the tree at the center as a symbol of strength and life. The vibrant colors, intricate patterns and designs illustrate the pride quilters have in both their craft and their country.

“Even though [Haitians] have been dealt disasters over the years, they still have an incredible resilience and faith and joy, and I think it comes through in the imagery,” McClintock said.

The strength and sense of empowerment apparent in the quilts can also be found in the working spaces of the cooperatives, where the women learn how to both quilt and collaborate with a team in a professional environment, according to Staples. The women share the responsibilities of maintaining their working space, such as setting up every morning and wiping down the tables at night.

By establishing a professional environment early on, the women feel empowered to take steps on their own. As a result, Staples has been able to serve in a coaching role rather than a training role, she said.

“They decided to react on their own to bring in new members,” Staples said. “They’re working effectively training them, working out space issues and the division of responsibility.”

Working in such an encouraging environment, the women have formed a support system for one another and developed a sense of community.

“After the earthquake, the women went back to meetings and working together. The activity was therapeutic. They had the support of the group and nurturing of the soul that creative work brings,” Staples said. “Art abounds there.”

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