By Margaret Foley
In January 2016, textile artist Jeanne Hewell-Chambers was watching a documentary on the Holocaust when her attention was caught by a mention of Aktion T4, a little-known Nazi program in which 70,273 physically and mentally disabled people were killed between 1940 and 1941. Nazi doctors would read patient files, and if they thought the person was unfit to live, they would put a red X in the file. If two doctors put an X, the person would be executed.
Horrified by what she heard, Hewell-Chambers was immediately inspired to create The 70273 Project. Her idea was to visually commemorate these unnamed and unknown people through quilt blocks. “The design came to me almost instantly,” she says. “I saw two red X’s on a white background. The white is for the paper in the files, and the red X is for the pen marks.” A few days later, she announced the project on her blog, The Barefoot Heart, inviting people to join her in making blocks.
Hewell-Chambers has long been interested in the connection between women, arts, and disability. “I learned about sewing and quilting from my grandmother,” she says. “I have an innate love for it. It’s tactile, and of course, it’s got a nostalgic element, but working with fabric is also a way to make connections and create meaning.”
And it’s clear that the meaning behind the project resonates with people all over the world; from her small town of Cashiers, North Carolina, the project has gone global. So far, people from more than 120 countries have participated. “From the first day, it’s grown and grown,” says Hewell-Chambers. “It’s very grassroots, and people connect to the human factor.”
Participants have found ways to make the project personal, and one of those ways has been through fabric. A woman in Kosovo sent a quilt to an exhibit of The 70273 Project in France last summer that was made from her wedding dress, and another woman found a way to connect her quilt to the 1940s. “She went into the attic of the house of a woman who had been a midwife in the early 1940s and found a cache of baby clothes,” she says. “She created this quilt from baby clothing from the time period when this Nazi program was going on.”
Others have connected through history, particularly in countries where World War II was fought. “That part is very interesting,” Hewell-Chambers says. “It’s still very fresh for them. They don’t live in the past, but they honor the past.”
To keep track of this worldwide-quilting activity, Hewell-Chambers has people send her blocks, pieced blocks, and finished quilts. She assigns each block a number and catalogs it using a provenance form sent in with each block. So far, she’s cataloged close to 25,000 blocks, and that number only includes projects she’s been sent; she hopes in the winter of 2018 to stage a large-scale exhibit of everything that’s been made. Other exhibits for The 70273 Project include QuiltCon and exhibits next January in England’s Rochester and Durham cathedrals.
Historically, quilting has been an art form that brings people, usually women, together, whether through the creation of a quilt that has been handed down through generations or through the tradition of getting together to make quilts. This sense of community has been an important aspect of The 70273 Project. In addition to making blocks on their own, people have organized block-making events in places such as the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and the Channel Islands. Some of these have taken place in conjunction with other events, such as a multigenerational The 70273 Project block-making stall at the Hever Castle Handmade and Homegrown Festival in Hever, England, in September.
In Portland, Oregon, quilter Michelle Freedman has been arranging block-making days at Modern Domestic, a sewing workspace and store where she is the programming and education coordinator. At these events, she provides sewing space and access to machines and makes quilting materials available. She first heard about the project from a friend and decided to come up with a way to get others involved. “I can not only participate easily, I can gather community and make space for it,” she says. “I like the idea of art that speaks to a cause.”
Like other people involved in the project, Freedman also had personal reasons for wanting to participate. “I felt connected because it was beautiful and meaningful to me,” she says. “I feel like being Jewish, you have to know and own your story. This was a new way to tell the story, and its background story was one I’d never heard. I feel like it’s timely because for the first time in a long time, I’ve felt exposed. Projects like this are a way to have a voice in what’s going on.”
For Hewell-Chambers, in the larger social context, The 70273 Project is about activism not politics. “I don’t allow politics in the project,” she says. “Politics are divisive, and in The 70273 Project, we’re about finding common threads that bring unity without squashing differences and individuality. For reasons that escape me, politics doesn’t allow this kind of unity, so I just close the door on it. Politics? Nope. Social activism? Yes.”
To find out more about The 70273 Project, visit its website.
Margaret Foley is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. You can read more of her writing and connect with her via http://www.margaretfoley.com.
Cover photo: A volunteer participating in The 70273 Project at Modern Domestic in Portland, Oregon uses a sewing machine for the first time. Photo courtesy of Michelle Freedman.
Copyright © 500 Pens. October 2017.