Summer Issue 2023
The Jack of All Trades & the Tinker:
Two Artists Stitch Together Latin American Cultural Influences and Mixed-Media to Create Quilts
By Miranda Brown
Note: Portions of this piece have been translated from Spanish to English. Original quotes may be found at the bottom of the article.
What is a quilt? I grew up sleeping underneath a worn blanket with a design hand-pieced of red clothing scraps, the layers stitched together by my great-grandmother. It was magical to me that someone who birthed my grandfather, who then fathered my father, who eventually fathered me, had also created the soft, cool blanket that covered me. Scraps of fabric painstakingly reimagined as a bed covering, carefully arranged by someone who meant something to me — that was my first introduction to quilts.
The web resource Quilting in America classifies this as a patchwork quilt1. Of course, this is just one type of quilt, with the word quilt itself more generally referring to three or more layers of fabric. For bedspreads, the middle layer often consists of batting or padding, and the outer layers of woven cloth. Quilts can be sewn together from solid sheets of cloth instead of pieced cloth, or decorated with applique or embroidery on top of the fabric. Uses and artistic expressions for quilted fabric are endless. As such, cultures around the world display varied quilting traditions.
Years of sleeping under my great-grandmother’s quilt wore the twice-used cloth thin and riddled with holes. Today it sits folded in a closet, a cherished memento of generational connection. A newer quilt lays on my bed now, this one pieced by Mercedes Harn and lovingly gifted to a community organization dear to both our hearts, Casa de la Cultura Kentucky.
Casa de la Cultura means “House of Culture”, and so the organization is a cross-generational and cross-cultural hub for sharing traditions and appreciating heritage. From dance to music, arts and crafts to language, Casa offers “programs, activities, and workshops” to “enrich each person’s sense of wholeness” to ensure that “Latino culture is recognized as part of Kentucky’s cultural heritage.”
In 2019, Mercedes, who now serves as the President of the Board of Directors, donated the quilt to a silent auction for the organization’s first major fundraiser. Guessing at the amount of time that she must have poured into the colorful work of art, I eagerly out-bid everyone else at the auction.
Growing up in Peru, Mercedes was a self-described “tinker,” always making something with her hands, always learning. She took photographs and made candles, soap, and crafts from recycled paper. After moving to the United States in the early 2000s, she learned quilting from a class for international women. She says that “quilting in our countries isn’t something old. Quilting in our country was modern…it’s not a tradition. It hasn’t been spoken of as a tradition like it has been talked about in the United States.”2
However, Mercedes unwittingly draws a connection between the two of us. “In a way, I’m emulating my grandmother,”3 she says. A grandmother who sewed clothes for all seven of her children and used the leftover fabric scraps as well.
Over the last year, Mercedes has been teaching the techniques and art of quilting to artist Deyanira Esmeralda Martin, with support from the Kentucky Arts Council’s Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. The two artists met in 2019 through mutual friend Soreyda Benedit-Begley, a local fashion designer and community organizer.
Esmeralda describes herself as a “todóloga”, or a “jack of all trades,” who is always teaching herself how to do new things, which she partially accredits to being a middle school teacher in her home country before moving to Kentucky. She says of her native Mexico, “…in my country, I always wanted to learn the quilt, but, unfortunately, in my country …the quilt isn’t accessible for everyone…because it’s only for the white, wealthy women sector. It’s a hobby for rich people. It’s too expensive to take a course, too much to pay for a class.”4
But Esmeralda says of her own grandmother,
“The mother of my mother, well, she had 15 children. So then she would buy rolls of fabric and would make undergarments for girls to undergarments for boys to dresses...all the same style. From the oldest to the youngest. And when the clothing wore out, what my grandmother would do was cut it into squares…she would put them together with her machine and make sheets. She would make bed covers. But that was just a way for poor people to dress the bed because she didn’t think of it as something artistic.”5
I recently listened to Mercedes describe the perception of their ancestral craft as “mundane and common,”6 and I perceived it as having the same creative, resourceful, caring spirit as that of my ancestors in Menifee County, Kentucky. The three of us speak with pride about how our grandmothers saved money and recycled cloth, even learning that the origins of the cloth were often the same across our cultures, from old clothes to flour sacks.
Esmeralda’s grandmother and my grandmother sewed pieces of fabric together into patchwork blankets. Weren’t they both making quilts? In fact, the word quilt7 and the Spanish word colcha8, meaning bedspread or quilt, come from the same Latin root, culcita, which refers to a mattress or cushion.
By the time she began her apprenticeship, Esmeralda was already painting and incorporating fabric into her art. However, the opportunity to engage with the quilting practices of her ancestors presented itself when she met Mercedes, already a quilting master. When the Kentucky Arts Council opened up applications for their 2022-2023 grant cycle, the two applied together in the hopes that Mercedes would be able to pass on her skills and processes to Esmeralda.
I sat down with them in May, during the final months of the grant, to learn how this opportunity contributed to — and changed — their artistic practices. Through its funding, the KAC grant paid Mercedes to teach Esmeralda, in addition to covering the cost of any project materials. They started with piecing and quilting by hand, incorporating hard-learned tricks of the trade along the way. “The most important, I think for me, is to have cut all the fabric beforehand,”9 which is faster with a rotary cutter, says Mercedes.
Esmeralda is grateful for Mercedes’ guidance:
Before, I would open a book and come across something new and say, ‘Wow! What’s that?’ And I would go about translating word-for-word. I didn’t understand. ...And with Mercedes, she would say to me, ‘Look, this means this. This means this. You need to leave a quarter. You sew this way. You cut this way.’ If she hadn’t taught me like that…I would have done it, but I would have wasted three times the fabric! 10
Mercedes also decided to use some of the money for professional development, so that together she and Esmeralda could learn new techniques and tools. For guidance in new techniques, they took a class together at Quilter’s Square, a sewing shop in Lexington. There, Janet Moran taught them appliqué technique, which involves stitching a small piece of fabric onto a larger one. They made collage quilts with a nested quilting pattern called “echo quilting”.
For a new tool, they took a class from Cecil Skee of Quilting Bee on how to operate an automated quilting machine. Prior to this course, Mercedes had only quilted by hand or paid someone to do the quilting step for her. This workshop was an opportunity to learn how to sew with a machine large enough to frame an entire quilt, rather than having to roll it up and stuff it underneath a regular sewing machine arm.
Since beginning the apprenticeship with Mercedes, Esmeralda notes that she’s grown in how she integrates various colors, patterns, and fibers into her collages and quilts. She expects to incorporate more colorful fabrics in future pieces. Esmeralda loves color and describes the therapeutic nature of concentration, of appreciating beauty, of creating, and the experience of giving oneself over to total immersion in a project.
Esmeralda arrived in the U.S. in 2015. While she had been a teacher in Mexico, she says, “here, I was nothing.”11 Between tedious day-to-day life and the fact that she was separated from her oldest child, her son, who still lived in Mexico, she says, “My spirit broke…There’s a part of me that isn’t complete.”12 In 2019, Esmeralda met Soreyda, who encouraged her to start making art as therapy. “She practically pushed me. She didn’t make me, but she pushed me. Because of her, I was motivated and inspired. Like when you hold a bird and blow on it so that it flies, that is how Soreyda did me.”13
Esmeralda began painting, but always incorporated recycled materials. She makes alebrijes as well–colorful, fantastic sculptures with mixed characteristics of various animals, an artistic expression unique to Mexico. She’s incorporated recycled children’s toys into the alebrijes and recycled fabric into paintings. Through the apprenticeship, she learned that she’d already been incorporating appliqué into her paintings without even knowing it.
It’s therapeutic. Definitely the quilt or any type of art is therapeutic. I learned, for example, from Soreyda that sometimes when you’re anxious or something or your mood is you don’t even know what…you get into the noise of the machine, and it leaves you…The fact that you’re concentrating on a piece and you cut and go about assembling it and you say, ‘Oh, how pretty.'14
Esmeralda’s inspiration comes from her son, and she always tries to incorporate Mexican symbols, such as hummingbirds — a sacred bird in Mayan mythology — into her work. It is said that if one is lucky enough to see a hummingbird, it is because the bird has come to communicate that a loved one is doing well in the afterlife.
The snail, or caracol, is also featured prominently in Esmeralda’s artwork, too. This spiral shape symbolizes the wind, but in another position, it symbolizes fertility and femininity. “In the oldest Nahuatl books in our history, this symbol means the tongue, that there’s talking, but that’s also movement, that’s wind.”15 Similarly, she often incorporates the Greek key or meander for movement. But for Esmeralda, these elements are also spiral-like and relate back to the wind.
Not only do animals show up in Esmeralda’s alebrijes, but they also show up in her masks and paintings as well. One example is her tecuán jaguar mask, made in the style of those used in indigenous Mexican ritual dance. Jaguars often represent fertility, femininity, and strength.
Esmeralda and Mercedes share a cultural and personal affinity for color and the incorporation of many bright colors into their work. Both women also share an appreciation for animals and their native environments, which is evident in some of the quilts they have produced together.
For Mercedes, art is a way of life. She is always making things, always drawing, filling infinite sketchbooks. Over the years, she has channeled that energy into stained glass, canvas paintings, murals, dancing, singing, and teaching art to her elementary school Spanish students. “I love green, I love nature in general, right? Animals, forest animals, which are Peruvian animals…I love all kinds of bird, all plants, they fascinate me.”16
One of the lessons Esmeralda learned from the apprenticeship was that there’s more to valuing a quilt than how much time it takes to piece together. (For Esmeralda, it took 22 hours to assemble one block). The two agree that quilts are often undervalued when considering all the work that goes into their creation: gathering and choosing the fabric, thread, needles; washing, measuring, and cutting the fabric; ironing; assembling a block; quilting; binding the edges. Esmeralda obsessively irons every piece, but Mercedes saves time by keeping cut fabric in a book until she’s ready to sew them together.
Other tricks involve knowing when to sew by hand versus by machine. Esmeralda notes, “If they’re little pieces, you can just sew them by hand, but if they’re big it’s more comfortable, it’s faster, to do it by machine.”17 Mercedes is faster, but she has built up years of uncompensated experience. It takes time to learn the tricks of the trade.
Like my grandmother and great-grandmothers, Mercedes gives most of her quilts away as gifts. “When I try to place a value on the quilts I’ve made, most of them are gifts. Most of them are gifts because I can’t put a price on my time. It’s really hard…You know I’m giving you something of mine that I’ve truly done with intention and good intention and good energy.”18 To which Esmeralda agrees, “And that carries love, carries time, carries concentration, and mental labor.”19
Esmeralda and Mercedes expressed deep gratitude to the Kentucky Arts Council for the Apprenticeship grant and look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with KAC. Esmeralda reflects on her time with Mercedes: “I have learned so much from her, and, truthfully, I am captivated.”20 The grant wasn’t just an opportunity to meet each week to cut and sew fabric. Both women enjoyed talking about their day and discussing new projects–just like an old fashioned quilting bee.
What’s next for the Jack of all Trades and the Tinker? Mercedes wants to make a quilt with all the fabric she’s accumulated and to focus on recycling fabric rather than buying new. She also wants to learn more papier-mâché techniques like the ones Esmeralda uses in her alebrijes — for her personal art as well as the craft projects she teachers to her fifth grade Spanish students at Athens-Chilesburg Elementary School. Esmeralda aspires to make an alebrijes quilt.
Mercedes’ murals can be found around Lexington at Russell Cave Elementary, Woodhill Community Center, Athens-Chilesburg Elementary, and Lucia’s World Emporium. Mercedes and Esmeralda frequently exhibit their paintings and textile art in exhibits around Lexington.
1 Allen, Lisa J. 2009. “History of Quilts.” Quilting in America.
2 “…el quilting en nuestros paises no es algo antiguo. El quilting en nuestro país era moderno…no es una tradición…No estado comentado en ninguna tradición como estado comentado en los Estados Unidos.”
3 “…de alguna manera estoy emulando a mi abuela”
4 “…en mi país yo siempre quise aprender el quilt. Pero desgraciadamente en mi país no es–el quilt no está al acceso para todos…Porque solamente para el sector de las señoras blancas y ricas. Es como hobby de gente rica. Es demasiado caro, demasiado demasiado caro tomar un curso, pagar una clase es demasiado.”
5 “…la mamá de mi mamá–ella pues tuvo 15 hijos entonces. Sí, entonces de repente tenía que comprar los rollos de tela y les hacía a sus hijos desde calzones de niñas, calzones de niños, vestidos … el mismo modelo los haban. Desde los grandes hasta los chiquitos, Y cuando la ropa pues se gastaba lo que hacía mi abuelita la cortaba en cuadros…ella los sumía con su máquina y así hacía sábanas. Hacía sobrecamas. Pero pues este era como que una forma de vestir tu cama de gente pobre o sea porque ella no se toma cuenta como algo artístico.”
6 “mundano y común”
7 Victoria and Albert Museum. 2023. “An introduction to quilting and patchwork” https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/an-introduction-to-quilting-and-patchwork
8 “Colcha.” 2022. Diccionario de la lengua española, Edición del Tricentenari. https://dle.rae.es/colcha?m=30_2
9 “Lo más importante yo pienso que para mí es haber todo cortado.”
10 “Antes podría abrir un libro y descubrir y decir híjole…¿Esto qué es? Iba yo traduciendo palabra por palabra. Yo no entendía … Y con Mercedes, ya me decía, ‘Mira, esto significa esto, esto significa esto. Hay que dejar un cuarto. Se cose de esta forma. Se corta de esta forma.’ Si ella no me enseñaba así … lo hubiera hecho pero hubiera yo desperdiciado el triple de tela!”
11 “…aqui, yo no era nada.”
12 “Mi espíritu se quebrantó…Hay una parte de mí que no está completa.”
13 “Prácticamente ella me empujó. No me obligó pero me empujó. Por ella, me motivó y me inspiró. Como cuando agarras a un pajaríto y la avientas para que vuele, así me hacía Soreyda.”
14 “Es terapéutico. Definitivamente el quilt o cualquier tipo de arte es terapéutico. Yo aprendí por ejemplo con Soreyda que de repente estás así como ansioso o no sé o sea tu estado de ánimo no sabes ni que es… te metes en el ruido de la máquina y se te va…El hecho de que te concentras en una pieza y la cortes y la vayas armando y digas, ‘Ay, qué bonito.'”
15 “…en los libros náhuatl más antiguos en nuestra historia, este símbolo significa la lengua, que están hablando, pero también es movimiento, es viento.”
16 “Me encanto el verde, me encanta la naturaleza en general, ¿no? En las animales, los animales de la selva, que son animales peruanos … me encanto todo lo que son aves, todas las plantas, me fascina.”
17“Si son piezas pequeñas pues la puedes coser a mano, pero en piezas grandes es más cómodo, es más rápido, hacerlo a máquina.”
18 “Cuando me valoría de colchas que yo he hecho son todas regaladas, todas regaladas porque no puedo ponerle precio a mi tiempo. Es bien difícil…Sabes que te doy algo mío que he hecho realmente con intención y la buena intención y la buena energía así eso es lo que.”
19“Y que lleva amor, lleva tiempo, lleva concentración, y trabajo de la mente.”
20 “He aprendido bastante con ella y la verdad que estoy fascinada.”
Miranda Brown is a certified Community Scholar, advocate, and organizer. She helped found Casa de la Cultura Kentucky with Kentuckians from Latin America to nurture and share their cultures in the Bluegrass, especially among generations of immigrant families. She thrives when she’s singing and making tea for friends. Brown is a passionate learner about everything from cooperatives to languages to growing herbs, spices, and teas in Kentucky.