Active Art : Carlsbad Quilters Give 'Security Blanket' Added Meaning

Agnes Herman is a writer, lecturer and retired social worker living in Lake San Marcos

An old-time quilting bee, with its sharing of ideas and work, has come alive at the Carlsbad Senior Center. The motivation of this group of artisans, however, gives new meaning and adds new dimension to the old customs.

The participants are not making the quilts for themselves, nor are they making them to sell. They are designing and stitching the quilts to cover 14 beds which will be occupied by teen-age girls at Casa De Amparo (House of Refuge), a residential crisis center in San Luis Rey for abused children.

At Casa De Amparo, children come and go. They arrive at a moment of intense crisis in their lives, then leave after a few days or several weeks to enter other secure environments. The quilts are meant to reinforce the feelings of security and warmth that the staff works to establish at this initial shelter-from-harm.

Since the project started last May, the quilters have met each Monday at the Carlsbad Senior Center to collectively design, stitch, paint and decorate the unique, handmade quilts. The quilt-makers incorporate messages into the quilts that they hope will aid in the healing process for the children.

The quilt making is part of a larger project to use art to bring warmth to the surroundings at Casa De Amparo. Organizing the project is a group called Social Movement in Art, or SMART.

Artist Margaret Larlham of SMART is facilitator of the project at the senior center. In addition to her work with textile arts, she is a dramatist and teacher, skills that she also draws on in the Casa de Amparo project.

She encourages the quilters to share their experiences, especially those from their own youth. Her questions are gentle yet provocative: "Where were you when you were 16?" or "Do you remember what it was like getting ready to be married?" or "What troubled you most as a teen?"

The answers to these questions produce stories and reminiscences that build a bridge of understanding to the girls. When a senior citizen can say about herself at 16, "I was a maverick and a troublemaker," or when another answers, "I thought nobody ever listened to me," it's clear that the bridge is under construction.

The recollection of these personal experiences gives birth to ideas that are transformed into animated quilt designs. The are no preconceived patterns, no stencils, no printed fabrics in the creations.

The women enjoy the challenge of providing messages of encouragement to the youngsters who will wrap themselves in their quilts. They are eager to distract the children from their pain and to bring a message of hope.

"It is a special category of people who come to this project," Larlham said.

The quilts themselves are striking.

On one, hand-painted cats and kittens invite cuddling. Another quilt flows with lines of reverse appliques, stitchery indigenous to Panama's San Blas Islands, and has small pockets that afford opportunities for hiding secrets, tucking in a prayer or a wish. Another has the theme of metamorphosis, where colorful butterflies decorate the whole. Still another, stitched for laughter, has an array of dogs scampering around its circumference.

The final quilting and sewing together of the covers is being performed by yet another group: The Vista Third Ward Relief Society, an organization of Mormon women who are engaged in a variety of philanthropic activities.

SMART came into being a year ago when funding cutbacks in the art world rallied many artists around a common cause, the desire to deal directly with social issues. The group is composed of a variety of artists dedicated to improving the physical environment of childrens' facilities. It became urgent to these talented people to be able to combine life and art for action.

The quilts are one component in the Casa De Amparo SMART project, which is to be completed in 1992.

Artists, educators, students and architects have joined to upgrade and enhance the interior environments of several of San Diego County's child-support agencies. This enhancement includes redesigning rooms, improving floors, lighting and beds, using children's art and encouraging specially designed art projects that soften, brighten and enrich places such as legal offices, hospitals, clinics or shelters where children find themselves at critical times in their lives.

Jeannie Cartabiano, executive director of SMART, said activating the community is one of the group's goals. The senior center was contacted because it "made sense to go to the elderly, to give them a venue to contribute their knowledge and skills."

The result, said Cartabiano, has been the creation of quilts that tell stories, that are "so beautiful, that some weep when they take them in."

Before taking on their functional role, SMART hopes to present the quilts as objects of art in a a gallery-type opening next year at Casa de Amparo. When finished, the quilts may also be displayed at the senior center, according to Rosemary Eshelman, the center's program coordinator.

Each quilt pattern is a unique effort to reach out to troubled girls with comfort and with hope. The requirements of participants in the project are only that they have an interest in the project, an openness to the development of their own talents and empathy for those who will enjoy their handiwork. New members are welcome.

The project gives added meaning in the phrase "security blanket." How exciting to lend a child a lovingly made object of art that exudes acceptance and security, at a time the child most needs those supports.

Casa De Amparo, presently leasing space from the Mission of San Luis Rey, has 26 beds, of which 14 are occupied by the girls who will use the quilts during their stay.

The facility can care for about 600 children a year. Far more children are in need of services though, and a major new facility is being planned in San Marcos.

According to John Weil, director of development, the agency is currently raising funds for what will be a 110-bed facility adjacent to Cal State San Marcos. They hope to break ground in about 18 months on the facility that will include a school and medical center. In addition to those cared for at the San Luis Rey site, the new facility would serve 2,000 to 3,000 children a year.

Many, many more quilts will be needed.

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