Oregon Humanities

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.

Continues…