Sowing seeds of community

“I’ve never seen him get up that close to people he doesn’t know,” remarked Marilyn Woodby, activities director at Yancey Nursing Center, sounding both shocked and delighted. “He’s a bit of a recluse.”

Sitting on the garden bench outside the nursing home, Woodby looks on as the thin, elderly, stooped man shuffles over to watch the group of young people digging and planting in the grassy courtyard. The 15 youngsters, ranging in age from 12 to 15, are from the Arthur Morgan School in Burnsville.

“What did [he] do before he came to live here?” I ask.

“I believe he was a farmer in Burnsville,” Woodby answers.

It makes sense. The quiet, shy man is as drawn to the scent of the fresh-tilled spring earth as a bee to nectar. Eventually, he takes one of the plants from the students, drops to his knees and puts his hands in the soil. A faint smile transforms his face.

Nearby, three elderly women in wheelchairs are parked close to the garden-in-progress. Two of the women — in their younger, more nimble-fingered days — made quilts. They recognize the familiar patterns the students have framed out in wood on the blank patch of earth and grass.

Inside, a bedridden woman in her 80s asks a nurse to crank up her bed so she can watch the students’ progress. She waves to the youngsters.

“She thinks they’re making the garden for her,” Woodby says. “She hasn’t had an interest in anything until this all started. Now, every day she asks when [someone will come] to fix her bed so she can watch.”

What’s being planted in this Burnsville nursing-home courtyard is not just a garden. It’s an Earth Quilt — an idea first conceived by fiber artist Norma Bradley in 1986. It was her creative solution to saving a community.

Bradley, a Manhattan native, settled with her family in the Sandy Mush area in 1980. Not long after the Bradleys got to know their neighbors, the federal government decided that the pastoral Sandy Mush land (and surrounding area) would make a great place for a high-level nuclear-waste dump. The residents, mostly earth-loving farmers, were outraged. Many families had worked that land for eight generations.

Channeling her anger in a positive direction, Bradley’s plan was to celebrate the earth they loved so much. While living in the community, she had helped her neighbors plant the fields. And after dinner, the women would gather to work on their quilts. Bradley soon learned the history of the community while learning the meanings of the patterns on the quilts.

In light of the nuclear-waste-dump threat, Bradley decided to combine her newfound loves of planting the soil and quilt-making — and send a message to Washington at the same time. With rocks, plants and earth for cloth, and wooden borders for thread, she created her first Earth Quilt, measuring 18 feet by 18 feet. She chose the grounds of the UNCA campus for this quilt, because of the university’s high-profile in the area.

“I wanted to symbolically cover the land with a quilt that would foster the nurturing side of humankind,” the petite, soft-spoken 59-year-old artist explains. “I made it known that this piece was going to be [both] a celebration of the earth and a piece that represented how [the Sandy Mush community] felt. I wanted it very public, to make a very visible statement.”

The media attention given to Bradley’s Earth Quilt helped carry the message of Sandy Mush community’s willingness to fight to preserve its land. Eventually, the federal government abandoned its interest in Sandy Mush and began looking elsewhere.

Bradley was soon getting calls from across the state to help other communities design their own Earth Quilts. With the completion of the Yancey Nursing Center project in May, she will have facilitated a total of 42 Earth Quilts. In 12 years, Bradley has zig-zagged across the state, from Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks to Boone, working with diverse groups: schools, rehabilitation hospitals, children at risk, the emotionally and physically challenged, and just plain folk. In between, Bradley — who had already studied at several prestigious New York City art schools — managed to find time to complete a Master’s degree in applied psychology/expressive arts therapy from Vermont College.

Each community with which Bradley works becomes her home for the duration of the project. She lives in the community during the project, researching native materials, quilt patterns and the common threads that connect the people and the town. She talks with residents and gets to know family histories. Finally, Bradley lets the quilts’ designs — many of which directly incorporate traditional patterns — take shape.

An Earth Quilt, which can measure up to 25 feet by 100 feet, is not a simple afternoon project. It combines art, math, shop, science, history and horticulture. And the lessons go deeper than the scholastic. Those who participate find, like quilters around a quilting frame, they are building community while learning to express themselves as individuals within a group.

The Yancey Nursing Center project happened as a result of Bradley attending a workshop at the Arthur Morgan School. She reconnected with Sherrill Senseney, a project coordinator at AMS who’s a native of Ocracoke and who had participated in an Earth Quilt project Bradley had done there in 1995. Remembering the positive impact the project had on her island community, Senseney suggested an Earth Quilt project for the students at AMS.

Nestled in the wilderness of the Appalachian mountains, the Morgan School — founded in 1962 by Elizabeth Morgan for grades 7, 8 and 9 — is guided by the philosophy that education should foster the development of the whole person, through a combination of work, study and social interaction. As Morgan saw it, academic work should “be related to and grow out of our real-life activities and the resources we find around us.”

Students come from across the country to attend this unique educational facility. Educators emphasize hands-on experiential academics, which include field trips to other communities, states and, sometimes, other countries. Community service is an integral component of a Morgan School student’s education.

Together, Senseney, Joyce Johnson (Development Director at AMS) and Bradley identified the Yancey Nursing Center as an ideal place for an Earth Quilt, recognizing a prime opportunity for intergenerational and intercultural interaction among the students and nursing-home residents. The Toe River Arts Council endorsed the idea, and the North Carolina Arts Council provided a Community Artist Residency Grant to Bradley.

Weeks before breaking ground for the Yancey Nursing Center Earth Quilt, Bradley and AMS students spent time with residents, gathering information about their personal and cultural histories that could be incorporated into the quilt’s design. Students submitted design sketches, and Bradley noticed that certain elements kept reappearing in the students’ work. She drew up a design incorporating these recurring elements with traditional quilt patterns familiar to the nursing-home residents. The final Earth Quilt incorporates three traditional patterns: the Log Cabin, the Nine-Square and the School House.

Senseney says the project has expanded the middle-schoolers’ perspectives on life. “A lot of these youngsters had a certain fear about nursing homes,” she points out. “People are sick, incapacitated, sometimes dying. What has happened over the weeks is that the residents began to recognize individual students and look forward to their visits.” And the students became aware of the priceless value of their simple act of visiting and talking.

The Earth Quilt is strategically placed in the nursing home courtyard, where it can be viewed from many of the patients’ windows and the facility’s community room. Each year, the quilt’s perennials will come to life and residents can decide what new plantings should be added.

This living art project breathes with the history of its makers. “Craft connects us to a body of knowledge, and art connects us to ourselves. These Earth Quilts embody both,” affirms Bradley.

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