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The Material Is the Message:
Sixth-Graders Make a Quilt Inspired by the Underground Railroad
By Heidi Anderson
Last fall, students in Alexandra Redfield's sixth-grade art class at James Lick Middle School threaded needles, cracked the history books, memorized codes, sharpened their multiplication skills, and learned to sew.
It was all part of a semester-long art project that blended the skills of quilting, with the popular story of how quilts were used before the American Civil War to guide slaves in the southern states to freedom in the north. Hung casually from open windows and over porch railings along a trail known as the Underground Railroad, the quilts were said to have shown secret directions to the escaping slaves.
The 24 students in Redfield's class were asked to make squares for a new quilt, using the same symbols that could have been used in the 1850s. The kids got into the spirit quickly.
"I learned to sew, and all about the freedom train," says student Taylor Mixon. "I found out that quilts were used to communicate to slaves as they made their way north."
Fellow student Maurisha Collins says that for her design, she picked a boxy-looking symbol with a black square in the middle. If a quilt with this symbol was hung out of a window, she says, "it represented that the house was a safe house."
Sewing Can Be Fun
"I thought it would be boring," says Adriana Miranda about the needlework. "But I learned that it's fun."
Adriana chose to make one of her squares a safe house as well. She also discovered that her new skills have a practical application.
"My bear ripped and I put it back together because I knew how!"
Student Breauna Wright was skeptical at first, too. But now she admits, "Sewing is easier than I thought."
Adds Adriana, "We're going to make our own quilts next. I think I'll give mine to my mom!"
On Display at Zeum
The finished quilt is 8 feet long and 6 feet wide, and incorporates 48 of the art students' squares. Redfield's mother, Penelope Wyles, finished the piece by sewing the squares onto dark blue fabric with tiny white dots, to evoke the night sky and the stars slaves used to navigate.
The quilt will be on display, as part of Black History Month, from Feb. 1 through March 2 at the Zeum art center at Yerba Buena Gardens. After that, it will be hung in the art studio at the school, located at 1220 Noe Street near 25th Street.
'Art from the Inside Out'
Redfield is a new art teacher at James Lick this year. She most recently was head of education at the Mexican Museum at Fort Mason. Before that, she produced a teacher's guide for New York City public schools, which provided information on current exhibits and other offerings at New York museums.
The holder of a master's degree in sociocultural studies from the University of New Mexico, Redfield has also taught English and art to third-graders in Costa Rica.
"My whole philosophy of education is to combine bilingual, art history, and educational anthropology."
Currently, she teaches five classes a day, 160 students in all. Her plan for the rest of the year at Lick is to teach "art from the inside out," she says. "By that I mean, start with the art we see right here on the street, then study Bay Area artists, then go further out from there."
Doing the Nines
Redfield says the story of the Underground Railroad seemed a natural subject for James Lick's diverse student body, but she's been amazed at how many kids warmed up to the quilt idea.
"I've seen some kids sewing on the playground, and they even finished their quilts early at home," she says.
The students enjoyed figuring out how to cut the pieces, even when they had to do hard things like multiply in their heads. "In sewing you have to do the math. You have to multiply, add, even subtract, on the fly," Redfield says.
Since the quilt patches were eight inches square, "that meant we needed to cut the fabric at nine inches to allow for folding and sewing under the edges." She adds, smiling mischievously, "We used nines because they're hard."
Once they got through the math part, the kids couldn't wait to show off their colorful work of art.
"Hopefully, they'll be able to see it hanging in the hallway for all the years they attend Lick," Redfield says.
No Pain, No Gain
One of the students, Wolfgang Welch, says he learned a lot making the quilt.
"I learned that sewing is a pain. The needle kept poking my skin, and I lost I don't know how many needles."
But he managed to find something to like. He points excitedly to his two squares.
"I took these symbols from a book. This square means 'Cross the river in Mississippi, take a boat.' The last one means 'You are free.'" h