Jillian Santora (BFA 2017) is an artist from New Jersey who examines parallels between fabric manipulation and dysfunctional bodies. By focusing on quilting and embroidery techniques, she reveals fraught experiences deriving from contact with the medical community where misogyny and misdiagnosis is ever present.
Ancient Bruises addresses a pervasive disconnection that exists amongst the SAIC body through a monumental sized quilt. Forging connection requires extra time, effort, and generosity towards others; things people do not have an abundance of while immersed in a competitive and rigorous collegiate world. Feelings of isolation and vulnerability can breed as a result. ‘Ancient Bruises’ provides a channel for warmth and comfort to those feeling isolated and vulnerable, constructed so many can come together at one time to soothe their often unacknowledged and collective hurt.
On View: TBA in Fall 2016
and darkness spreads over the snow
like ancient bruises
i’m awake and feel the ache
i’m awake and feel the ache
oh, but i wish i’d see a field below
—field below, regina spektor
from the very beginning of the fall semester, i had wanted to make a quilt specifically for this class. i felt it in my gut, that a quilt was the right medium for such an occasion. there is an imbued memory in textiles that befit 150 years of an institution, and i liked the concept of community the act of quilting enables.
i am a transfer student. i did not come to SAIC to make art: i came to study art history. because of my transfer credits, i only had to take three studio classes in the three years it would take for me to complete a BAAH. when that route ultimately didn’t work out, i turned to the fiber department and felt rooted in the techniques i was learning. i quickly saw my future stretched out before me, a future where sewing was an integral part to my well being, it was something that i had not allowed myself to feel before.
i didn’t sew for the fall semester, though.
the stereographs i had focused on in the fall instead of the quilt was a dalliance i let myself get wrapped up in. those weeks were a good way to dig into the joys of discovery in archiving, but the end result was not something i was completely engaged with or satisfied by. the most fun i had was sewing the skirt for the pedestal the stereoscopes were placed on, and i realized that i had to be more assertive in my own voice and goals when producing work. while i was upset for a while about not making what i had originally intended, culminating in an undesirable confrontation with my professors, i am grateful for learning lessons in communication above all else, and have no lingering hurt feelings over that outcome.
i dove straight into the spring semester with an idea to create a community based quilt. this was partly a selfish endeavor, in that i desperately craved a space to meet people who were interested in the things i was interested in, namely, quilting. i had yet after a year of attending to truly connect and ingratiate myself into SAIC and become more than acquaintances with my classmates. there are many reasons why that happened, mostly because of myself, but also institutionally. having a chronic illness does not lend itself well to making friends.
the idea was to have students, alumni, faculty, and staff submit a quilt block that would be pieced together by me or people who wanted to help. in addition to the blocks, i was interested in participants sending in a memory they associated with the school that would be catalogued in a compendium matching memory to artist. i imagined the response would be large, and i would have to create an insignificant number of blocks on my own. i anticipated a lot of blocks would come through the mail from alumni. to get current students involved and to share skills, i planned on having sew ins at the roger brown study collection and the neiman center. the rbsc was also a gut feeling; the many quilts laid on roger’s bed, the educational aspect of the home, and lisa’s ever encyclopedic knowledge of quilting made it feel like the right choice.
i asked my 150 classmates to give me a piece of clothing that i could turn into a block for them. it was important to me that they all had themselves sewn into the quilt.
i sent out an email blast. i spoke to my fibers professors and asked to present the project in class. i created a facebook page. i scheduled days to host the sew ins. i designed a poster. the project was an eye opening experience in just how much work is necessary to pull off a large scale collaborative project successfully on your own, and also the skills needed to do so. i really struggled with it and quickly felt incompetent.
people seemed excited on facebook and instagram about the project, then titled 150 quilt blocks. there was radio silence in response to my emailed call for submission. a week passed, and i figured it takes time to make and send something through the mail. i checked my mailbox twice a day. two more weeks passed. nothing.
i received the first block from an alumnus i had never met from Brooklyn. her block had beautiful, fine fabric with a curious piece of tape that had the word ‘face’ on it. her memory was bittersweet. it was exactly what i hoped for in a response.
another week passed and i got the second submission in the mail from a professor i had in community college who taught art history. then another from an alumnus i met through instagram, and then jane, a woman who was in my orientation group when i transferred to SAIC.
out of the 50 i expected, i only got four. and it was heart breaking.
i expected my biggest supporters and networkers of the quilt to be my fibers professors. when it wasn’t that way, i felt even more disconnected to the school.
come hell or high water, i was going to make this quilt, so i did. i started with the clothing my classmates gave me. in retrospect, that maybe wasn’t the right choice. i was feeling fragile and lonely and prolonged contact with their own personal objects instead of their physical being was painful. it was like grasping at wisps of friendships that i couldn’t solidify. i knew how they smelled because when you iron something the heat releases the scent of laundry detergent and you. it was a lot of intimacy for little contact outside of class time. this is a good place to point out that at this time my chronic illnesses and depression were spooling out of control – most time or effort that could have been placed into cultivating any friendship had to be directed to homework to stay on top of my classes. that didn’t work, either. i ended up withdrawing from two fairly early on and was feeling utterly defeated.
i made blocks from the clothing, and i used some fabric from my own personal stash. sometimes i was making blocks as a way to practice specific patterns like a log cabin, but most of the time i was never following a pattern and piecing intuitively. after i finished a block, i would throw it into a paper bag and start a new one. by not always looking at what i had pieced, i was hoping to keep the construction fresh.
i wanted the quilt to be monumental and large enough for many people to lay underneath it. to me, that meant not standard bed sized. i settled on a width of 72 inches (the width of the hallways on the 9 th and 10 th floors of sharp where the fiber and material studies department is located) and the height however long i could feasibly create. there is not enough floor space to lay out all the blocks i had made in my apartment and so i laid everything out in the 9 th floor studio space. i was surprised by how much space it covered in the few weeks i had started, but i knew i needed way more length for it to fulfill what i envisioned. i took note of the colors and patterns i seemed to be using: purples, yellows, blues, and greys with hints of orange, reds, and greens, with floral and circular motifs and went to joann’s and purchased fabric to continue piecing. by using a broad but finite number of fabric i was hoping to unify what was going to be a chaotic crazy quilt
then my depression really took a nose dive. most of the scheduled events i had to cancel. i ended up only holding two sew ins in the neiman center to a mostly tepid response, but the few people who were actually interested and sat down and sewed those days made up for it.
most of the sewing happened in my apartment in my underwear alone while blasting a neko case pandora station. the floor was my work zone for cutting and there is an explosion of scraps that have still yet to be cleaned. i don’t have a lot of documentation because i was ashamed of those facts. towards the end, i continued bringing the blocks to school and laying them out. class time where i could sew and use the performance space to rearrange the layout were particularly useful and encouraging. once i felt like i had a sufficient number of blocks, i decided on a final lay out. i took pictures and took everything home, and worked on piecing the blocks together in vertical sections. i added more fabric as needed to fill in gaps. this made the quilt much, much larger than when i had laid out the final design.
by finally opening up about how much i was personally struggling freed some of the guilt i had in not producing to keep up with the timeline of the class. the support of john and mark and nick and pia allowed me to heal enough to push through to have a finished, pieced top for the end of the semester. while i had to scale back my expectations for completion, i am happy with the quilt as it stands. over the summer i will finish the backing and actual quilting.
while making the quilt, the feelings i had of non-community made me think about the life of the quilt after it is displayed in maclean and rbsc. it was never meant to be just for decoration; it is vital to me that it is used, and used by students. there is programming i would like to implement in the future to help foster community through the quilt and quilting, such as holding sleep overs at rbsc, allowing it to be used in reading rooms and libraries on campus, facilitating an orientation activity to create blocks that make a quilt for that class, using the quilt as a tool to teach students how to mend.
i don’t want people to feel alone like i do. like i’m continually poking an ancient bruise. i know i’m not the only one who feels this sentiment while attending SAIC, and my biggest hope for the quilt once it’s completed is for someone to find solace in it.