How to make an American quilt

A conversation about the difference between America's ideals and its reality leads to a fiber arts show at the Chehalem Community Center

In his sprawling trilogy on the mythology of the American West, historian Richard Slotkin observes that there is a “continued preoccupation with the necessity of defining or creating a national identity” in the United States. In recent years, the preoccupation has become a roiling public obsession. Ask Google, “What does it mean to be an American?” and you’ll see many people grappling with the question — in newspapers, in community gatherings, and in academia.

And in art. A new exhibit at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center brings the question to Yamhill County, refracted through textile arts, both by a single artist and crowd-sourced.

What Does It Mean to Be an American? is a collaborative project by Alicia Decker and Ellen Knutson, two Portland artists and educators. The show runs through April 2.

The community quilt includes nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in conversations with Ellen Knutson on what it means to be American. Embroidered details address everything from racism and disenfranchisement to liberty and compassion. Photos by: David Bates
The community quilt includes nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in conversations with Ellen Knutson on what it means to be American. Details address everything from racism and disenfranchisement to liberty and compassion. Photos by: David Bates

Knutson is a research associate at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, where she works with university faculty and librarians on deepening their connections to their communities. She is also a printmaker. Since 2017, Knutson has worked with Oregon Humanities to facilitate discussions around Oregon on the question that titles the show.

Decker is a freelance designer and adjunct assistant professor at Portland State University. According to the show’s notes, her “research-based studio practice involves storytelling through textiles; utilizing illustration, various printing and dyeing methods, quilting and embroidery, to create compelling visual fiber-based narrative through print, pattern, and color about events currently shaping our world.”

The two met at one of Knutson’s town halls about a year and a half ago, and Decker suggested expanding the conversation into a visual art exhibit.  

“My goal has always been to build community and deal with some difficult questions about things that are going on in the world through fibers,” she said.

The community quilt includes nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in conversations with Ellen Knutson on what it means to be American. Embroidered details address everything from racism and disenfranchisement to liberty and compassion. Photos by: David Bates

Knutson learned about the Oregon Humanities Conversation Project in 2015 and began thinking about applying to be a facilitator, but she didn’t have a topic. After testing a few on friends and family, she landed on the question of what it means to be American.

“It seemed that there wasn’t explicit discussion happening on the topic, and it seemed that disagreement about who gets to claim being American undergirds many other disagreements,” she said. “Then the 2016 election happened, and there seemed to be even more energy around the question. I refined my proposal, which was accepted by Oregon Humanities in early 2017.”

From the fall of that year to mid-2020, Knutson facilitated seven conversations, mostly in small Oregon towns: Stayton, Pendleton, Kerby, Forest Grove, as well as Salem and two in Portland. An eighth session online included residents from Portland, Tillamook, and Boardman.

“I’ve heard from people living in a wide swath of Oregon,” she said. “One thing that struck me from the first conversation was how people were struggling with the ideals of America and what they perceived as the reality.”

The Chehalem show has three components, all incorporating ideas, words, and images that emerged during the conversations. One quilt made by Decker resembles a flag, and the stripes comprise words that came up most frequently in the Conversation Project: Different. Compassionate. Belonging. Conflict. Arrogant. Accountable. Forgetful. Sexist. Mixed ancestry. Land. Liberty. Greed. Disenfranchised. And so forth.

A series of smaller tapestries features words that came up most frequently in the sessions led by Knutson: diversity, opportunity, freedom, hope, and arrogance.

The community quilt includes nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in conversations with Ellen Knutson on what it means to be American. Embroidered details address everything from racism and disenfranchisement to liberty and compassion. Photos by: David Bates

Finally, there’s the largest piece, the community quilt. Nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in the groups Knutson met with. 

“I made most of the quilt squares, and Ellen made a few, and I sent all of them out by USPS in manila envelopes with embroidery floss and a needle if they needed it,” Decker said. “If they wanted embroidery floss, I asked them what colors I should send. I did not dictate the content of their embroidery in any way and made sure they understood they could do whatever they wanted — that it was about their own self-expression as they answer the question and think about the prompts.”

“Working with Alicia has pushed me to use materials that are not in my typical wheelhouse,” Knutson said.  “I’m more comfortable with paper and ink than fabric and thread, but I’ve developed a close relationship with my sewing machine and rekindled my love of embroidery.”

NEWS AND NOTES: Elsewhere around Yamhill County, arts and culture marches on. The McMinnville Short Film Festival is streaming its program this year, offering a curated program of 127 films with a live awards ceremony set for Feb. 28. At Currents Gallery, Riva Wolf’s work, which we looked at here, is up for auction a while longer, while another show moves in. Meanwhile, Linfield University’s theater and music departments have a busy spring ahead, with a full slate of streaming programming you can check out here.

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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