‘Tikkun Olam’: Repairing the world a stitch at a time

"A sewing bee that can help mend our society": Textile artist Bonnie Meltzer and a lot of helpers transform a giant parachute into a symbol of hope at the Jewish Museum.

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“Thank you so much. Lovely to meet you. And thank you for doing that mending. Nice, beautiful. Again, thank you for coming here.” Textile artist Bonnie Meltzer stands at the front of the small gallery acknowledging visitors to Tikkun Olam: Mending the Social Fabric, her interactive installation on view through January 22 at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

Behind her, a parachute, 314 feet in circumference, billows out like an oversized nylon wedding gown, held aloft by a crimson cord that spans the ceiling. Hanging from the sides of the parachute are various pieces of white fabric, including vintage handkerchiefs and baby gowns, each embroidered in red, blue or purple with quotes on social justice, voting rights, democracy, the safety net, and more. The authors are as diverse as William Stafford, Martin Luther King Jr., Seneca, and Fred Rogers.  And many are written by Meltzer herself.

Surrounding the bottom half of the parachute, plain wood embroidery hoops encircle small rips and tears in the nylon fabric, which are intended to be mended by visitors to Tikkun Olam. Behind the installation, rows of colorful pennants hang like prayer flags. An American flag map made from sweaters hangs on another wall. It has a utilitarian use as a pincushion, holding the threaded needles that the stitches will use.

“Tikkun Olam” greets visitors as they enter the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Photo courtesy of Kayley Hoddick

As visitors enter the gallery space, Meltzer greets them, thanks them for coming, explains the project, and invites them to consider helping to mend the damage in the material.

The interactive experience, when visitors sit and raptly sew stitches over the tears, is core to Meltzer’s vision of community: a sewing bee that can help mend our society.

Meltzer, 76, is a dynamo of energy. Petite, with flame-red hair, wearing sweeping dresses that are as vivid as she is herself, she moves continuously through the gallery, occasionally stopping to look over a sewer’s shoulder and offer encouragement or to answer questions about the installation to others.

Artist Bonnie Meltzer describes Tikkun Olam as the “work of her life.” Photo courtesy of Kayley Hoddick

She describes her life as art-making, activism, community building, and gardening — linked together like the mono-filaments of crochet; one thread looping with itself creating an interlocking fabric.

At her core, she is an artist, a social activist, and also a teacher, all three parts of her identity as interwoven as her work.

Her most recent work has focused on engaging and educating people about critical environmental issues, including climate change, coal exports, deforestation, and warming oceans. She has taken her art activism to hearings, sat in city hall meetings, handed out leaflets and hung posters, and organized protests along railroad bridges.

Her intent is to make people think about these issues and how they impact their lives and those of others. But most of all, she wants people to be part of the solution: “Art can be a very good teacher.”

Sponsor
Tikkun Olam

The vision for Tikkun Olam, Hebrew for “repair the world,” came to Meltzer on January 21, 2017, the day after the inaufguration of the nation’s 45th president, when she joined the Women’s March in downtown Portland — one of the largest public protests in Oregon’s history, with as many as 100,000 participants. 

“I saw all these people coming together to repair what’s wrong with our society,” she says. “And everyone was saying the social fabric is falling apart, the fabric of American life is unraveling, and I heard fabric, fabric, fabric.”

But if Meltzer’s vision of Tikkun Olam involved a community, it would also take a community to make the project a reality. Donations of materials and money, including nearly $5,000 from small Go Fund Me donors and a  grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, as well as the work of volunteer sewers, and the support of the Jewish Museum, seem to come together as much by serendipity as intent. “I have good juju,” Meltzer acknowledges. “The parachute and 150 antique handkerchiefs found me when I needed them.”

Her first step was to craft a proposal to the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE). “I said to them, I have an idea. I think it’s really good. But you’ll either be jumping up and down or you’ll say it’s not for us. It’s a lovely idea, but it’s not for us.” Because the installation was difficult to describe in the abstract, she began by crafting a small parachute sample, which she took to her meeting at the Museum in an IKEA bag.

“There is much about Mending the Social Fabric that fits into our mission,” said Judy Margles, executive director of the OJMCHE, “and I was intrigued from the moment Bonnie described her plans for the project. Engaging visitors by encouraging them to take part in mending the work, which draws upon the concept of tikkun olam – repairing the world – is a brilliant metaphor and deeply rooted in our work at the museum.”  

The Threads of Tikkun Olam

Bonnie Meltzer began work on creating Tikkun Olam in 2019. Here are her stories behind the different elements of the installation.

The Parachute

The vision of the parachute came quickly. “What is a parachute? First, it’s a big piece of fabric. Second, it is a symbol of safety. It is not just a symbol of safety. It is safety. It’s not just when it’s in use. But people know that if they come into danger on an airplane that there is this thing that will slow down the speed and lead them to safety. So it is also the potential, the reassurance that there is a safety net there for you.” It was also fortunate that Meltzer is someone who owns four 10-foot-diameter white parachutes, all probably from World War II. Over the years, they have often figured in her textile pieces, including her own wedding dress. She couldn’t resist when her friend and fellow artist Kindra Crick asked her if she wanted a giant 20-foot-diameter supply parachute dated October 1943. It solved the problem of what to use for the symbolic social fabric.

Meltzer begins work on the 20-foot-diameter parachute. Photo courtesy Bonnie Meltzer

Then she had to figure out how to hang it. ”At first, I tried to build a big armature for it to hang from, sort of a big umbrella that is already open, but that didn’t work.”

As Meltzer looks up at the installed parachute, she muses on the different ways she considered hanging the piece. “Some looked great. Some didn’t look great. I wanted something parachute-y with the folds and softness of fabric.” It wasn’t until she heard the news that the museum was closing because of Covid in Spring 2020 that she had the opportunity to see what the piece actually looked like on site. “When the museum closed, they actually let me come here and use this gallery space as a second studio.”

“The delay in opening turned out to be constructive for Bonnie as she was able to expand the themes of immigration, voting rights and civil rights to include the pandemic and racial justice,” notes Judy Margles. “She was also able to use the museum space as her laboratory while we were still closed, which also provided museum staff a terrific opportunity to become more acquainted with the piece.”

The installation would evolve over time, meandering in form through both opportunity and problem-solving. When it was discovered that a large pipe ran across the ceiling, she had to rethink a simple hanging structure and find a new way to hang the parachute, combining wires, parachute cords, and hooks.

Visitors raise the parachute to view the hoop skirt underneath. Photo courtesy of Kayley Hoddick

The result feels much like an organza wedding gown, an effect Meltzer is comfortable with. “There’s a hoop skirt under there, which is, of course, for a bridal gown. It wasn’t my intent to make it look like a wedding gown but I like it when viewers bring additional meaning to my work. After all, a wedding gown is a symbol of hope and happiness. In fact, after the Second World War, this was the only fabric around and there were many stories of people who made wedding gowns out of parachutes that were just left around.”

Handkerchiefs

‘I was at an opening at the Japanese Garden and saw someone I hadn’t seen in 20 years. And we chatted and I was telling her what I was doing, because I’d already begun working on this idea. I said a friend of mine had given me six handkerchiefs and I was playing around with them. Then she said she could give me 150 of her late Auntie Evelyn’s, that she couldn’t give them to Goodwill and nobody wanted to buy them. So I washed and ironed them all, and then embroidered them. 

‘Everything has come through some opportunity and solved a problem in some way. I do believe in recycling materials, but I also love the ideas and symbolism recycled materials bring to a project even more.”

Each handkerchief hanging from the parachute bears an embroidered quote related to one of the five themed “sides” of the parachute: Mend, justice, voting rights, the safety net, and life itself.

The quotes, each handstitched in a font that Meltzer created, use words that come from textiles: thread, weave, knit, quilt.

Shown in these three photos are some of the dozens of embroidered handkerchiefs that hang from the parachute. Photos courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer

“I’ve been collecting these textile quotes, filing them away. I did searches; people sent them to me. My ears pricked up when I would hear the words fabric, thread, yarn, weaving, quilt. I’m a fiber person, so I went searching for quotes using those words.

“I once listened to a speech by Joe Biden and he must have used social fabric five times. I must have 50 more quotes I haven’t used. And I am still collecting them.”

The words on each handkerchief are stitched in threads of red, purple, and blue. “Purple is a symbol of freedom and of the suffragettes. And it is the mixture of red and blue. I tried very carefully not to assign the red as Republican and blue as Democrat.”

Wendy Rust’s labor, problem-solving and friendship have been invaluable throughout this project.  She also made the giant needle. Here she is making adjustments to the hoops. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer
Baby dresses

“So I took this class at PSU and it was in a building where they had a room where you could drop stuff off or take something you needed. Mostly three-ring binders and just really crappy stuff. And then they had this big barrel and this was the last day of class and there was a piece of lace sticking out. Oh my god! There were these two antique baby dresses. They were perfect as a symbol of the future. I embroidered both of them.

Anne LeVant Prahl, the curator of OJMCHE, embroidered the Hebrew onto the baby dresses. Photo courtesy of Kayley Hoddick
Prayer Flags

Lining the wall behind the parachute are five rows of fabric rectangles. “There were just going to be a few of these that would wrap around the top of the parachute,” says Meltzer. “Then I got this idea to honor immigrants by attaching fabrics from around the world together like a prayer flag with a connecting ribbon. On the ribbon I embroidered, “Immigrants are a golden thread woven into the American.” I was going to just say that, because when I started this in October or November 2019 that was when there was the hoopla about how horrible immigrants were and why can’t we just have people come from Sweden?

Prayer flags, including the two above, feature donated fabrics from around the world. Photos courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer and Kayley Hoddick

“I wanted to include all Americans, so I added more text. ‘Black lives have been a golden thread woven into the American tapestry for 400 years’ and ‘Indigenous People have been woven into the North American tapestry for 12,000 years’. Connecting these sentences is a quote by Vice President Harris that says it all:  ‘(we) have the right to be recognized as American — not as the ‘other’, not as ‘them’, but as ‘us.’  When the flags didn’t look good on the parachute they moved to the wall.”

Meltzer posted a request for fabric contributions on her Facebook page and began receiving pieces of material, including from people she had never seen in her life. “The fabric came from people everywhere. Every piece has a story.” A piece from a friend in Madagascar, another from Poland, part of a Cub Scout uniform, a piece from a tablecloth her mother made in 1952. Pieces of African fabric and a  treasured piece of Athabaskan beadwork from Alaska. It just kept coming. One day a red truck pulled up outside her house. They pulled out a box of fabric and left it on the porch.

“We are this American fabric. It’s really pretty cool. The diversity and all is beautiful,” she says. “I wanted audience participation making the installation, as well as after the exhibit opened. I wanted to get as many people involved and I thought I was going to have a year of having people come to my studio and help me sew the flags and embroider the handkerchiefs. I would put some post on Facebook, and in two hours I would have ten people willing to sew. Until March 6 my plan was working. Buttons were sewn and flags made by about 40 people. But I didn’t count on Covid.”

In the end, because of the pandemic, she did all but perhaps ten of the handstitched quotes on the handkerchiefs herself. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2021 that she had her first sewing bee of people who came to make the pocket flags.

A sewing bee of volunteers create the prayer flags. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer
Buttons

“I needed something to give the parachute some weight at the bottom. So I decided we’d sew buttons all the way around with the help of volunteers. It will give it some weight. It will give it some beauty. And it will be a symbol of Northwest native people who made button blankets.”

Volunteer sewers began stitching buttons to the hem of the parachute in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer
Pincushion

On an adjacent gallery wall, a map of the United States made of sweaters serves as a pincushion for the needles and threads the sewers will use to mend the fabrics. As with much of the installation, the pincushion is made of memories. An Irish fisherman’s sweater was given to her by a friend. And another sweater was made for her as a high school graduation gift by the mother of a family she used to babysit for in her hometown of Irvington, New Jersey.

A map of the United States serves as a pincushion for the needles and threads. Photo courtesy of Kayley Hoddick

Though many of the plans Meltzer had for engaging people in the early creation of the piece had to be put on hold, other opportunities arose, including the chance to work on the piece in the museum gallery itself.

Then, on May 25, 2020, the murder of George Floyd, followed by public protests across the country, began a period of self-examination for Americans on the tragic consequences of systemic racism across our country and close to home.

Tikkun Olam was needed more than ever. As Meltzer looks at the rips and tears she made in her parachute, waiting for the public to come mend them, she comments, “I could have done this piece with just justice. This whole thing could have been about justice.”

The birth of a social activist

Despite living in the Pacific Northwest for 51 years, Bonnie Meltzer’s origins are apparent as soon as she greets you. She was born in Irvington, New Jersey in 1945, and attended Irvington High School in the early 1960s.

It was a turbulent time and place to come of age. Northern New Jersey had long had a fraught racial history, and by the time Meltzer entered high school the cultural and demographic changes, as Black people moved northward to nearby Newark and white residents moved west to the growing suburbs nearby, were beginning to come to a boil.

A young Bonnie learning embroidery from her mother in their New Jersey backyard. Note her costume. Even at age 3, she had the beginning of her lifelong love of dressing up. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer

Growing up in Irvington, Bonnie was very aware of the racial dynamics occurring a few miles away. She commuted to Montclair State College (now Montclair University) in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, where she studied art education. The curriculum offered her the chance to explore every art form. “You had to take photography, textiles, ceramics. You even had to take puppetry. If I had a better puppetry teacher, I probably would have been a puppeteer.”

It was at Montclair that Meltzer first met the mentor who would impact her the most. “I was still living at home and having to work. This is a state college, which was $75 a semester, and I still needed a scholarship.  So I worked for Charlotte Lockwood, the textile teacher. She was single, six-feet tall, flamboyant, in fabulous clothes. And she had this large personality and it was wonderful. I wanted to be like that with my students, knowledgeable, encouraging, and enthusiastic.”

Passing on the Mantle, homage to my mentors – my mom, my Grandma Rosie and my college fiber teacher and friend Charlotte Lockwood.” Crocheted wire and digital photos on copper. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer

Meltzer ran the slide library, organized books, did any task Lockwood wanted her to do. Her passion and her talent for textile art were evident. Charlotte Lockwood took notice.

“So Charlotte says to me, I have an assignment for you. I want you to find out all the graduate schools that have textile departments,” Meltzer recalls. “Why did she want me to do that? Because she wanted me to go to graduate school. She wanted me to be a fiber artist.”

The seed was planted, but other plans took precedence. Upon graduating in 1966, she accepted a position at East Orange High School, an inner-city all Black high school in nearby East Orange, New Jersey. “I took that job because I wanted to teach in a Black school and not the suburbs. I was idealistic and it was exciting.”

“I mean, to teach art in an all Black school in 1968, it was heavy,” she recalls. “It wasn’t the kids that were the heavy part. It was the other adults and the turbulent times, the Vietnam War, the nearby Newark Riots, the Kennedy assassination. The intensity was enormous and I was too soft to be in that place.”

Meltzer’s first exposure to social justice and civil rights had come when she was still in high school. “I belonged to a Reform Jewish youth group in a neighboring town. A friend took me to a meeting and I stayed,” she said. “It was different. Programming was heavily about social justice. I got to go away to conferences and met other kids from all over New Jersey. I was the representative to the Newark Youth Council from that group, where I learned more about diversity and social justice. And I got to stand in front of the New York City Hall, my right hand over left, singing “We Shall Overcome” when I was 16. It was the ’60s, of course.” Her commitment to social justice and equity was woven into her being.

With two students in an East Orange High School design class learning about pattern, about 1967-8. Photo courtesy Bonnie Meltzer
Crocheting a path forward

About that same time, a chance favor for her mother brought Meltzer the epiphany that would define her artistic path. “One night I drove my mother to her friend’s house. I knew I didn’t want to listen to everything these ladies were talking about, so I brought a project I was working on for my class to occupy the time.

“I was doing a technique on a little frame loom where you wrap each warp thread before going on to the next one. It’s a rug technique, very strong. Whether you wrap under first or over first, you get a very beautiful pattern. And I thought, “Oh, sure, it looks like crochet. This would be a lot faster if I crocheted over the warp!’  Then I got rid of the warp and just crocheted.”

Young Americans”

Pursuing that inspiration, in 1969 Meltzer took a leap and entered two pieces, “crazy crocheted and woven sculptures”, into “Young Americans,” a national competition held periodically between 1950 and 1988 by the American Craft Council for craftspeople under age 30.

The Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York exhibited the competition winners, then the show traveled to other art and craft museums throughout the United States. 

“And I won!” said Meltzer “It was huge. It was huge! The opening was in New York and then I went to the big  craft conference in Albuquerque where the exhibition was shown.

“And you know how I meet people, things fall to me. At the conference, I met this wonderful guy, Gordon Smythe. He was the director then of the Contemporary Crafts Gallery in Portland, Oregon. We had a lovely chat. And he said, if I ever come to Portland, let him know.”

Smythe, an interior designer interested in emerging artists, took over as director of the CCG during the 1970s. He established its formal residency on Corbett Avenue in South Portland, where it became known not only for its exhibitions, but also as a social hub for artists and collectors.

“On January 1, 1970, I moved to Seattle to get my Master of Fine Arts at the University of Washington.  I wanted to go to graduate school. I mean, I really wanted to be an artist.”

A very early sewing bee in her New Jersey backyard. From left, Bonnie, Sheila, Inez, Ginny, Gloria, Dorothea. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer
The Crowd”

It was at the University of Washington that Meltzer found her medium, her social commentary voice, and installation as her format. “I already was involved in textiles. I did a lot of weaving, but my thesis project, “The Crowd,” was giant figures, six, seven and eight feet high, flat woven, with crocheted embellishments making them more dimensional. People could walk between these giant woven and crocheted figures and become part of the crowd.”

She and Gordon Smyth had stayed in touch since their initial meeting in Albuquerque. “Gordon said let’s show your thesis project here at the Contemporary Crafts Gallery. And then he said to bring other things to show, so I filled the whole gallery. Including crocheted costumes that friends wore during the opening. That was a momentous show, my first one-person show.”

With no teaching jobs available during the 1971 recession, she and her now husband, Richard, who had followed her west from New Jersey, made the decision to move to Portland, which was more prosperous than Seattle.

Since those early beginnings, Meltzer has been a pioneer in crochet as an artform. The Crochet Guild of America writes: “Bonnie Meltzer’s unwavering commitment to using the element of crochet to link all her concepts together in sculptural work has brought crochet to a wider audience. Artist and activist, Bonnie has exhibited continually since 1969. Her work is materials-oriented, and she will crochet anything that is long, skinny, and flexible.”

Today her work had expanded to incorporate not only crochet, and fabric, but also found objects, wire, globes, dresses, computer parts, and other recycled bit and pieces, all worked into installations that speak to our social commentary.

Her work has been exhibited throughout the Northwest and beyond,  Maryhill Museum of Art, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Columbia Center for the Arts. Her work is in private and public collections, most notably The National Science Foundation, University of Washington, Baylor University Mandy Rosenberg Artist Book Collection, Portland Community Music Center, and the City of Portland. Her sculpture is on the covers of the books The Fine Art of Crochet and Artistry in Fiber: Sculpture.

Repairing the World

“From the beginning, Mending the Social Fabric was about audience participation, about getting as many people involved as possible.” Meltzer is standing in the gallery watching people mend tears in the parachute. Each rip or tear is secured by an embroidery hoop. Needles already threaded with embroidery thread are ready on the nearby map pincushion.

Visitors to the installation participate in the mending of the parachute. Photos courtesy of Kayley Hoddick
Visitors mending the social fabric. Photo courtesy of Kayley Hoddick

“I am giving the sewers a few tips and then they are off,” she says.  “Every patch is so different from the next one.  I like the symbolism that there is more than one way to fix something. I like that all these solutions are different. I’m not telling anybody what to do.

“Because to mend the social fabric, there is no one solution. Everybody has to do their part. My friend works for a big company, where she’s a manager. They always say, ‘Oh, we can’t solve that problem. It’s too big.’ And she says, ‘Well, let’s chunk it down and do it piece by piece.’”

“Look at this here,” Meltzer says, pointing out an embroidery hoop with stitches of different colored thread across it. “This solution is from one person to get it to this point. Then this person used lace and did some other fancy stitching. Some are just using plain stitches.

“During conversation with an OJMCHE member about how mending doesn’t always get finished, he told me of this quote from Rabbi Tarfon —  ‘It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it’.

“So everybody brings a different solution, their own. And one solution builds on another solution and together we fix the problems. Some people won’t want to do it, and that’s okay, too. But I want people to understand, because, I mean, once a teacher, always a teacher.”

Always a teacher first, Bonnie Meltzer provides guidance to a visitor. Photos courtesy of Kayley Hoddick.

“Observing the reaction of visitors to the installation has been an engaging experience, kind of like the best party one can hope to throw,” says Judy Margles. “This is partly because Bonnie’s work, while sober in content and intent, is itself fantastical and unique.

“Whatever our audiences might have been expecting,” Margles adds, “I think that they are all pleasantly surprised at what they see. Everyone is curious. Seeing entire families spend an hour or so participating in a mending bee under Bonnie’s ebullient supervision is a joyful and welcome reminder that we belong to a great community of artists, culture workers and people committed to working against the forces of evil to create a better world.”

A rapt visitor concentrates on her mending work. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer

The gallery is quiet as visitors whisper the words stitched onto the handkerchiefs or examine the rows of fabric flags. Sewers sit quietly concentrating on their tasks. Some are experienced sewers, stitching neat rows across the tears in the fabric, but most are not. Their stitches are uneven and patchy, but they are able to mend the holes.

The sewing bee, just as Bonnie Meltzer had envisioned it. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Meltzer

Meltzer stares thoughtfully up at the parachute hanging above her. “This whole project probably saved my life. You know, it’s just so encompassing and so exciting at a time when so many people were looking for meaningful things to do while locked in their houses. If I had to start this mammoth project during the pandemic, instead of before it, I don’t know if I would have enough energy to start. The project was so invigorating.

“I admit, I have a few more ideas in mind.”

***

  • Tikkun Olam: Mending the Social Fabric is on view at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education through January 22, 2022. Museum admission is $8 adults, $5 students & seniors, free for members & children younger than 12; there is no extra charge to see the installation. The museum, at 724 N.W. Davis Street on Portland’s North Park Blocks, is open from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Masks are required.
  • Join artist Bonnie Meltzer in the exhibition on Thursday, November 11, Friday, November 26, and Saturday, November 27. In addition, you can schedule a mending bee for up to five people by contacting Meltzer directly at bonnieemeltzer@gmail.com.

About the author

Beth Sorensen has worked in communications in the arts and higher education since 1990 and has, as a generalist, written about a wide range of creative forms. Having lived throughout the state of Oregon over the years, she is particularly interested in sharing the stories of the artists who live and work around our region, discovering what inspires them and how they make their creative process a part of their daily lives. She currently lives in Southeast Portland with her husband and three rescue terriers.

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3 Responses

  1. Amazing, uplifting, inspiring, educational and beautiful article – may Bonnie Meltzer and her creative art activist work go from strength to strength and to reach wider audiences around our country and world.

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