Maggie Thompson's Quilt Collaboration

Maggie Thompson's Quilt Collaboration

A participant unfolds a quilt designed by Maggie Thompson

A participant unfolds a quilt designed by Maggie Thompson at Then a Cunning Voice and a Night We Spend Gazing at Stars, August 2017

Courtesy of Maggie Thompson

What do you want for your well-being? For your family and friends? Your neighborhood? Your city, town, or reserve?

Across the country, people answered these questions on quilt squares, which volunteers stitched together to create a staggeringly vast 4,000-square-foot modular quilt. The piece was dreamt up by New York dancer and choreographer Emily Johnson for her all-night, outdoor performance gathering Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars, a traveling event that invites strangers to congregate, share a meal, and take in performances and the night sky. Johnson envisioned the quilt as an integral part of the piece, serving as stage, set, and a place for attendees to rest, eat, and eventually sleep. She reached out to Minneapolis fiber artist Maggie Thompson, who runs knitwear line Makwa Studio, to design and execute the piece.

The first performance was last August in Randall's Island Park in New York City, but the project has been years in the making. The two artists of Native American descent met in Minneapolis in 2014. Thompson recalls their first conversation, which followed the opening of her solo exhibition exploring contemporary native identity. “Emily has seen my work and came to my studio to introduce herself,” Thompson says. “She told me about this quilt idea and mentioned, ‘I’m applying for this grant. Would you be interested?' I said, ‘Of course.’ ” More than a year later, Johnson emailed Thompson with some good news: “We got it. Let’s do this.”

Community members help to stitch together sections of the quilt at a sewing bee.

Quilt sections were stitched together at sewing bees held across the country and even as far away as Australia and Taiwan. Photo: Courtesy of Maggie Thompson

Since that time, several project collaborators, including Johnson and Thompson, hosted community sewing bees across the country, and even as far away as Australia and Taiwan, where they asked people what they wish for their communities. “Anytime I traveled to schools or talks and met up with different groups of friends, I brought quilt squares with,” Thompson says. The fiber artist then arranged the squares into patterns, designing 84 quilts that when laid together, cover an astonishing 4,000 square feet. Designing at such a large scale took some ingenuity, but Thompson, a former architecture student, was up for the challenge. “I literally took it to a grid,” she says. To create a strong visual presence, she drew elements from bead working and weaving patterns. At a later date, Indigenous star stories will also be stitched into the back of the work.

Although the quilt was a massive undertaking on its own, it was just one component of a greater piece. Then a Cunning Voice was a night of gathering, sharing, slowing down, and caretaking. It was conceived to connect people to each other, to the earth, and to the Native peoples who first occupied the land they lay upon.

Attendees carry food to the site of "Then a Cunning Voice."

Attendees carry food to the site of Then a Cunning Voice. Photo: Courtesy of Maggie Thompson

Johnson said in a recent New York Times interview, her work is driven by a desire to inspire healing and change, especially in our current political environment. “Across the world, there are these disruptions and ripples – deep, deep anguish and deep, deep bursts of action, all of which is necessary,” she says. “But how can we focus? We come together. And that is like ceremony. You don’t know what the end of ceremony is, you just know that you’re stepping into a process.”