Quilting is typically an activity done for entertainment, diversion or practical purposes. But for Samantha Cunningham of Homer, quilting became a cathartic healing experience after Sept. 11, 2001.
Cunningham is a paramedic and mother of two. She and her husband, Scott, moved to Homer with their two boys, Thane, 5, and Rowyn, 3, seven years ago. She has been quilting for about 14 years. Ordinarily, Cunningham does quilting projects that are quick, colorful and kid-proof.
"I just really like working with fabrics," she said. "I normally do very colorful projects that go together fast. I like being able to have something actual with beautiful bright colors in a month or less."
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. As a paramedic, Cunningham was deeply affected by the tragic events and loss of life.
"When you work with firefighters or EMS (personnel) there's definitely a connection," she said. "If four to five firefighters were to die in a building collapse in New York, we would all mention it at our meetings and fly our flags at half mast and mourn them and it would be an unbelievable tragedy. What you do when 400 firefighters and medics and police officers disappear into a flaming inferno is just beyond comprehension. Nothing like this had ever happened before."
Even in the most extreme crises and tragedies she's dealt with in her professional life, Cunningham has been able to separate those feelings and not let them affect her home life, she said. But Sept. 11 was different.
"The week after Sept. 11, I found myself no longer functioning right," she said. "I have small children and I wasn't able to be patient with them. I couldn't sleep at night. I was crying all the time. When I started talking to my other quilting friends I realized it wasn't just me. I figured I had to figure out a way to deal with it, to give myself a time to grieve and a place to grieve and a finality to it."
The solution she came up with was to make a fabric art wall hanging dedicated to the Sept. 11 tragedy in New York.
The project took Cunningham from the second week in September to Mother's Day to complete. Although it was more time, effort and detail than she'd put into any other project, constructing the wall hanging gave her a much-needed opportunity to heal.
"I loved (working on) it," she said. "It was painful, and I loved it. Grieving is not the worst thing in the whole wide world. I think bottling it up felt a lot worse. Having the time to work with (the project) and see it emerge and be beautiful in the end was amazing."
Much of the construction and design elements of the wall hanging were symbolic and representative of Sept. 11 themes and events. The most prominent design element is an image of the World Trade Center towers being hit by the planes. The design for the picture came from a photograph on the cover of a newspaper published Sept. 12, 2001. Cunningham hung the picture on the wall in her quilting area at home and went to work recreating the image in fabric.
The gray towers, light blue background and dark blue and black smoke rising from the towers are created from strips of colored fabric. To recreate the explosion and flames at the impact points, Cunningham layered millions of tiny scraps of fabric, covered them with netting and used invisible thread to stitch it together. The layering effect makes the explosion pop out from the rest of the surrounding fabric, drawing attention not only to its vibrant colors, but to its three-dimensional nature. The cloud of billowing smoke rising from the towers also was layered and covered in netting, and metallic thread was used to highlight the design.
In other areas of the quilt, Cunningham stitched small birds trailing beaded images of flames. The idea came from a story she read about ground zero which told about the sparrows that were killed from the shock waves of the explosions.
"I was really struck by that article," she said. " ... The little corpses in the gutters from all the sparrows blasted. I couldn't bear to put people (in the wall hanging) so I did sparrows."
Close-up of a border square in Cunningham's Sept. 11 wall hanging.
Photo courtesy of Homer News
The quilting stitching itself is arranged to represent shock waves emanating from the explosions. At the bottom of the piece is a quote Cunningham came across while reading with her husband that she felt related to Sept. 11. The quote, which originates from the Bible, reads "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange is happening to you."
Cunningham collected Sept. 11-related pictures, articles and even comic strips, scanned them and printed them on squares of fabric that are designed to work in computer printers. The fabric pictures were then incorporated into the border squares. Some pictures are now-famous images from ground zero, like the firefighters erecting an American flag in the rubble. Others are cartoon strips paying homage to the tragedy.
"'Dennis the Menace' with his hand on heart saying 'God Bless,' 'Doonesbury' did one about everything changing, in 'Mutts' all the little animals are lined up saying 'thank you.' Everybody did such touching things."
The finished piece, which measures about 4.5-feet tall by 4-feet wide, may have taken months to complete, but Cunningham had the design figured out the week following Sept. 11, 2001.
"Almost the entire quilt was planned in my head," she said. "It basically came from my first sleepless night of pacing up and down the floor listening to the radio."
While making the piece, Cunningham had no plans of displaying it or sharing it with the public. She did it for her own release and was surprised when her quilting friends encouraged her to enter it in a Homer quilt show in May.
"I really honestly thought nobody would want to see this," she said. "It's the building blowing up, a scene of unimaginable violence and sorrow. I had no idea anybody but me would want to see it."
As it turns out, she was wrong. The quilt had a much more profound impact on its viewers than Cunningham ever imagined.
"Mostly I see people just looking at it," she said. "It's more how it affected people, I could see it in their faces. (The owner of Seams to Be in Homer, where the piece was displayed this summer) said people came in there and cried. One lady from New York City took a picture of it to bring back because she couldn't believe people in Homer, Alaska, cared that much."
After being displayed in the Homer quilt show, a quit show held in the central peninsula and at Seams to Be in Homer, the quilt was displayed Wednesday for the audience of the "Rolling Requiem" performance at Homer High School. Cunningham was pleased the piece could be involved in the first Sept. 11 anniversary.
Ideally, she would like it to be permanently displayed in a museum or some other memorial-style collection, she said, and is actively looking for such a place. Unless one can be found, the wall-hanging will most likely return to Cunningham's home and be stored in her closet.
"It's probably time for closure," she said. "... It's not something you'd want to hang in your living room."
Whether the wall-hanging remains Cunningham's possession or not, it has completed its role of helping her, and others, grieve.
"Immersing myself in it, looking at the pictures, stitching on it, and then I could fold it up and put it away for the rest of the night. That really helped me personally to cope with the grief," she said. "... I can't believe that I did something that might help other people through the grieving process. I can't believe people's response to it."
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