Cultural HiJack: ‘My Great Grandfather’s Flower Garden’ and ‘Left Behind’

My Great Grandfather’s Flower Garden (quilt, 2022)

My great grandmother made lovely quilts, but no one in my family has taken up the craft since. My Great Grandfather’s Flower Garden breaks this trend as my first attempt at making a quilt. Using second hand fabric patterned with stains and distressing and a custom quilt block design, this quilt explores the connections between the passing down of abuse, distress, and insecurity in familial relationships on a generational scale. The quilt’s construction prioritizes progress over precision and layers damaged fabrics, found objects, and stitching to achieve a chaotic, imperfect beauty within this this item that helps me understand and connect with my family.

I created this quilt in response to the conflict between my desire to take up quilting and an intense fear of failure. I worried that I was too sloppy, inattentive, and dirty to successfully engage with this folk art tradition. I chose to build my quilt top out of stained and distressed fabrics from clothes and household items to parallel how I was beginning this process as already tattered and grubby from the generational legacy of depression, insecurity, and abuse I was born into and still subconsciously perpetuate.

Using second hand items with existing stains as well as textiles from my personal collection that I distressed, I pieced 49 blocks following a quilt block design I drafted to portray the feeling of desperation for the prospect of life with less pain. After repeatedly attempting to create this image out of the distressed fabrics, I joined them into a quilt, granting them success as an item of comfort. I quilted along the corners of the blocks and around prominent stains in red thread so that the patchwork and discoloration were boldly imposed on top of the soft-pink, floral backing. Additionally, I included applique and beading on the quilt top to symbolically include my adopted family members and the external experiences that also contribute to who I am and how I see the world.

By embracing imperfect technique and visual traces of labor and difficulty, I am attempting to shift my interpretation of memory and history to understand them as materials serving my unique creativity and value. Additionally I have conquered a fear and have a new art-making technique to incorporate into my practice.

Left Behind (collage, 2022)

This collage, mounted on blank newspaper, uses discarded magazine cuttings, item wrappers, prescription labels, photographs, boarding passes and more to communicate the mourning of losing a loved one. The collage also includes an excerpt from Psalm 22, two handwritten excepts from Revelation, and one short handwritten text by me that engage questions of faith, sorrow, purpose, love, and family.

In February of 2022, while I was taking the cultural hijack course, a beloved member of my family, a mother figure in my life, was suddenly killed by cancer at 59, leaving behind her daughter under the guardianship of my parents. The excruciating absence and destruction of my sense of purpose and understanding of faith paralleled the imagery of apocalyptic fear instilled in Evangelical Christian children- that one day you could return home to find only a pile of clothes where your mother used to be, indicating that she had been taken away from you into the rapture and that you yourself are not worthy of salvation. While studying artistic indexing and the biblical apocalypse in my coursework I created this collage, that centers the boarding passes from my trip home for the funeral, to process the pain of this world-ending event and stay engaged with my classes despite the certain uselessness of any knowledge or understanding in my life without her.

I began the collage with magazine pages that had pieces cut out of them for other collage projects because I was taken by the strong sense of absence and aimlessness they conveyed. I then added wrappers from crayons and medical supplies, used cigarette filters, crayon rubbings of my dorm-room’s floor, cuttings from photographs, medication receipts and labels, boarding passes, and quotes from the bible to further represent the effect of her rapture. Finally, I added a short paragraph of my own words reading “I know its selfish to want to wrench you from the heavens back into our suffering, but at night she begs me not to leave her, and I make hollow promises as we remember begging you for the same thing.”

This project serves as indexical documentation of my experience of loss this year and how it affected my life while at college far away from my family as well as the unraveling of (and attempt at rebuilding) what I understood to be my faith and my future in the wake of this tragedy.

In loving memory of Beth Orton, 9/27/62-2/11/2022

Author: Elan Retzlaff