“Bubbe” is the Yiddish word for “grandmother.” Pronounced “bubbeh” or “bubbee,” it is a word that brings warm memories into the minds and hearts of many.
Quiltmaker Louise Silk, who recently turned 65 and is a bubbe herself, has created an exhibit, “BubbeWisdom,” that includes 18 quilts, a children’s spiritual tent and a community quilt made in collaboration with participants at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. It’s her third solo exhibit since 1994 at the center’s American Jewish Museum.
The children’s tent, titled “Hannah’s Children,” is filled with pillows made from remnants of previous projects. The floor and roof are made from remnants of a Mechitzah (a divider separating the men’s and women’s sections of the synagogue). She made them as part her 1994 exhibit at the museum, “I Was There; I Am Here: The Illumination of a Soul.”
“Because I am a bubbe, I wanted to make (the tent) for the grandchildren,” Silk says.
Some of the materials come from a earlier project Silk did about Hannah, “the Jewish model of prayer — the first person to pray directly to God. She wanted a child,” Silk says.
The pillows were made from remnants of her more recent “Jacob’s Ladder Project.”
For that project, Silk asked members of the community center to donate “materials of memory,” such as napkins, baby onesies, bedspreads, tablecloths … anything imbued with personal meaning, for the creation of a “community quilt.” Forty-eight people participated.
The “Jacob’s Ladder” quilt includes mishmashed materials such as a challah cover, logo T-shirts, biker shirts, men’s sport shirts, Mexican embroidery, African fabric, even a Holocaust Star and photo.
At the center of the quilt is a ladder shaped as though it is reaching for the sky.
“I decided to use the biblical image of Jacob’s ladder — a good shape for lots of different fabrics,” she says, “and a nice metaphor about coming together to bring the angels from heaven.”
Since July 2001, Silk has lived in a loft on the South Side. That’s also where she creates many “memory quilts” on commission. The quilt “Port of Entry,” which is primarily made of hand-quilted T-shirt remnants, is a perfect example. It features the Tree of Life as a central image.
“I have done a series of quilts about the Tree of Life using the scraps of the T-shirts,” Silk says. “When people order them, they want the logos (of T-shirts). I cut those out to use in their quilt, and then I am left with the sleeves and the hems, and that is where the material comes from. Knits are very hard to work with because they stretch. So, part of what I am doing is seeing how I can manipulate the materials into an interesting, meaningful, aesthetic textile.
The show culminates with “Bubbe’s Memory Quilt,” which is the largest in the show, at more than 7 feet square.
“I make my living making memory quilts for others, using their materials of memory, so this is the quilt I made for me,” Silk says. “I can tell you a story about every single patch in there. All of the material is precious to me.”
The list of materials included on the wall next to the quilt give evidence: “Heath’s corduroy shirt and pinstripe nightshirt, Dad’s golf hankie and navy blazer, Mom’s 75th birthday suit, etc.”
“The big question that I am getting lately is, ‘How long does it take you to make that?’ Oh my, what a loaded question,” she says. “There are so many factors that go into each and every quilt: the purpose, the budget, the materials, and the use to name the most basic. That requires a face-to-face meeting with the client, asking critical questions to understand the needs and goals for the project.”
Silk says she begins with her experience, recalling past projects that fit into the same classification.
“I search through other pieces of art that will engage my creativity looking for innovations that will help make this piece better,” she says. “I go through the materials and organize them to make sense for this particular project. I decide on the format.”
Finally, the work begins, a very organized and speedy process of cutting, piecing, ironing, pinning, observing, correcting, noting, quilting and binding.
How long does it take her to make a quilt? “A lifetime of experience,” she says.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.