Memorial Quilt Collection in Lincoln Adds Perspective to the Losses of 9/11
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Sept. 10, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·
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Facing a tall, white-washed wall, the team at Nebraska's International Quilt Museum prepared to hang the heavy cotton-backed quilt. On hydraulic lifts, two staff members rose as they slowly unfurled the five rows of hand-sewn blocks honoring the dead of September 11, 2001.
The smiling photo of Elkin Yuen appears. Born in Columbia, he became a floor broker from Queens. The lovingly embroidered name of medieval history buff Simon Weiser found a home next to Jerry Dewan, Ladder Company 3, the son of a firefighter.
Fully revealed, five panels wide and five panels high, white cotton surrounds each compact memorial square. Each quilt represents 25 souls.
The 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks will be a difficult day for many. This month, an exhibit at the Quilt Museum hopes to show how memorializing a loss through art can be cathartic as well as heartbreaking.
In 2015, The Quilt Museum became the home for the United in Memory 9/11 Victims Memorial Quilt. Nine of the quilts will be on display, along with other quilts created as a way to cope with monumental loss.
The exhibit, Trying to Make Sense of It: 9/11, Loss, and Memorial Quilts, remains on display through October 16.
The curator, Jonathan Gregory, explained, "quilts have been used uniquely throughout the generations and right up to today to acknowledge those losses, to try to establish some sort of a memory and to help us make sense of it."
As Gregory, staff member Camilo Sanchez, and the volunteers continued their installation, talk turned to the history behind the memorial.
"It's hard to believe it's been 20 years," Gregory said from atop the lift. When asked where they were when they heard the news, the volunteers shared vivid memories. One heard it on the car radio and arrived at an eerily empty Target store. Another recalled being on an international flight from Nepal. She watched a nervous, watchful flight attendant assessing the behavior of the passengers.
The 9/11 memorial quilt originated with a pair of California men after visiting the World Trade Center ruins at Ground Zero in New York City. They committed themselves to assemble a quilt created by survivors on behalf of those lost that day. In the 1980s, they had been deeply moved by the creation of thousands of quilts to commemorate those lost to HIV/AIDS.
Once the pair announced their plan, "they got a lot of support from local quilters, but the word got out around the country."
People across the country sent quilt blocks that they had sown, or sometimes they just drew or wrote, but they sent these blocks to Long Beach. These volunteers assembled them into large 10-foot by 10-foot panels that have 25 blocks, each one commemorating one of the victims.
There are 143 quilts in the collection—3,575 uniquely decorated quilt blocks.
"I think that quilts are a medium that offers the opportunity for participation from a broad number of people and skill levels," Gregory said in his office. "There's something charming about every block being different and every block being an expression of one person's thoughts."
The variety of blocks reflects the diversity of the thousands lost.
The name on the panel is the one constant, observed Gregory. "Sometimes those who survived them, their names are there and then maybe a piece of clothing or something about their hobbies. Something about their work. We find out who was a Yankees fan and who was not."
- A burgundy and white abstract angel honors Beth Ann Quigly, 25, a stock trader at Cantor Fitzgerald.
- Hearts and pinwheels surround Alysia Basmajian. A text block notes that at 23, she was a "loving wife to Anthony; mother to Kaela."
- The Boston Red Sox logo dominates Peter Goodrich's square.
- There's an embroidered basketball on the panel of Bernard Curtis Brown II, along with the name of his Washington D.C. elementary school. He didn't survive past his 11th birthday.
- Stenciled on a blue linen background is the job Jeffrey Collman loved. Flight Crew American Airlines, Flight 11. That was the first plane to strike the towers.
Name after name appear as the quilts are hoisted.
Luis. Dorothy. Syed. Hilda. Lt. General Timothy J. Maude.
"I think it's beautiful to recognize the individual," Gregory added. "Text, images, symbols, the use of color. All of those things communicate what the person wants to be remembered" about the deceased.
Nine of the 9/11 quilts hang for this exhibition.
The bulk of the collection has been shipped across the country to Saint John's University, Staten Island, New York. There is an appropriate reason.
"St. John's University there has displayed this quilt in its entirety before, and they, for the 20th anniversary, asked if they could borrow it again. So we're sending them all of the panels that have names of people from Staten Island."
As the volunteers re-folded the quilts to send them to New York, one could catch a glimpse of names of first responders lost that day.
- NYPD Police Officer Ronald Kloepfer on a red gingham panel.
- A photo of Firefighter Gerard Schrang surrounded by red, white and blue.
- A cross, the flag of Ireland, and a four-leaf clover adorn the square dedicated to Officer Stephen Driscoll of the Emergency Services Squad 4.
"Staten Island has a long history of being the home of firemen and first responders," noted Gregory, "so 9/11 hit the borough very hard. So many losses."
He is also struck by the number of panels remembering those lost from some other 90 nations, including India, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.
"It wasn't just an American tragedy. It was a global tragedy in that sense."
There is a long history of using quilts to memorialize historical events, both celebrations, and tragedies.
The Nebraska exhibit includes panels of the original AIDS quilt.
That quilt, Gregory says, "started and inspired many other projects to memorialize or remember the significant loss, including the 9/11 quilts and also the COVID Memorial quilts that we'll be displaying. He said it seemed important for us to acknowledge how the AIDS quilt "is a seminal in contemporary quilt-making."
Also displayed are samples of quilts memorializing those lost to the Holocaust, the COVID pandemic, immigrants crossing the border into the United States, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and racial violence.
"I think it's important that a museum is able to help tell those stories in the years to come. And these quilts help us bring that story to people in an accessible way."