Friday, May 13, 2011

Quilting Women and Tibetan Monks

I'm a great advocate of finding common links between disparate cultures and people - I make that sense of shared humanity the primary tenet of much of my teaching - so I was pleased to see that today's NYTimes articles about the Quilt exhibit at the Folk Art Museum (the final exhibit before it turns the building over to MOMA) and the Tibetan Arts exhibit at the Newark Museum gave me new material. The organizing principles of quilt making and of the mandalas of Tibetan monks are both reflections of a similar human need - for order, pattern, and regularized meaning and beauty. Quilts seem much less exotic - homey, crafted of familiar low value materials such as simple cottons or even discarded clothing, normally made by women whose arts are traditionally less valued than the brawnier arts of men, they come into being to serve a practical purpose - warmth for a bed and a spark of color amid the drabness of daily life. Tibetan mandalas, on the other hand, are made as a means to touch the divine and act as a form of prayer. They are painstakingly constructed, colored grain of sand by colored grain of sand, according to ancient traditions of iconography, by revered holy men. Part of their meaning is that they never last - like fragile life itself, the physical reality of the mandala is soon dispersed to the winds and gone. What remains is only the truth of the memory. But is that so very different from a quilt? First, note the pictures and see the fine use of geometry and mathematics in both forms. But similarities go deeper: like the iconography of the mandalas quilt patterns were often revered as a connection to a personal or community history with designs being passed down from generation to generation. The Tibetan community of monks relates as well to the communal activity of quilting bees. Yet surely much of the historical handiwork of woman was created painstakingly in isolated living rooms - no matter how much effort went into each careful stitch there might be no one to notice but a few family members. As with the ephemeral mandalas, the creator of a quilt had to find in the act the satisfaction of creation. And with the exception of cloth work preserved with care, like these quilts at the Folk Art Museum, much is gone forever, used up with constant wear - blown away by the winds of time. Both these exhibits display works of great, and very different beauty and meaning, but together they say something deeply true about being human.