201703-uofm-quilts-091By Marci Narum

Last summer Janell Finkbeiner wrote a short story that she hopes will someday be published as a children’s book.

“It’s about a tugboat and a lighthouse. The tugboat’s light has gone out and it’s afraid of the dark and has to find a way to the lighthouse. I wrote it as part of a Bible study,” Janell says. “It’s based on the verse John 8:12, and the light represents Jesus.”

For now Janell’s short story is being preserved on a story quilt. Janell has drawn and painted the tugboat and lighthouse on plain white fabric and she’s using a gel pen for fabric to write parts of the story on the background.

“I related it to Split Rock Lighthouse (Duluth, Minnesota) because I have a lot of memories there as a child. We would go there as a family and it was my grandparent’s favorite spot.”

Janell is one of 14 students creating story quilts during an evening class at University of Mary. Sister Nancy Gunderson of Annunciation Monastery teaches this contemporary form of quilting. She offered her “Creating a Story Quilt” class for the first time last fall and to her delight it was extremely popular.

“The students would come into my office and say, ‘Sister, are you really going to teach us how to sew?’ I said, ‘absolutely!’” Sister Nancy explains. “They learn to draw, paint, write on cloth, and then quilt it. So they are learning a lot of skills in this class.”

Art Celebrates Life

If art imitates life, creating a story quilt does even more. It preserves and celebrates life and its fond—and sometimes bittersweet—memories. And since life isn’t perfect, the students’ story quilts aren’t expected to be either.

“We make a quilt sandwich where we lay the painted piece on top of a piece of fabric and sew it onto that,” Sister Nancy says. “It looks like a quilt but there are no corners to miter; there is nothing that has to match or butt up against something else.

“Basically they are learning how to run a sewing machine. One of my rules is: their lines can’t be straight. I’m taking all the stress out that I can. They won’t be afraid of a sewing machine. They put the pedal to the metal and just go. They are finding that it’s great fun.”

“It has been a relaxing class I look forward to every Tuesday night,” says Matthew Gallegos. “We can paint and get to know each other on a more personal level and hear everyone else’s stories. This class was a blessing in disguise.”

Sister Nancy says two students who are engaged to be married this summer took her class last fall. She says they have since put a sewing machine on their wedding gift registry.

“They know that they could mend a seam,” she says. “People who had never sat at a sewing machine before can actually do something practical with it.”

And students who believed they didn’t have a single stitch of artistic ability are surprising themselves.

“I’m not good at drawing,” explains Seriann Berchem. “I never thought I could make anything like this. So I’m actually kind of amazed at myself. It just started coming. You can’t force it.”

Heartfelt Stories

Sister Nancy says it’s also important that the stories come just as naturally.

“They choose what they want the story to be,” she explains. “Where they write it and how they write it is up to them. I only require that all the lettering is not the same height; that there are several different styles of lettering. But the stories are very heartfelt.

“One student made her quilt for her mom who is being deployed. She said it was a way for her to work out the sadness and the shock that her mom is going to the Middle East for months and months.”

Seriann Birchem’s quilt story is a depiction of many quilts. It’s a gift for her grandmother—who made a quilt for each grandchild in the family.

Revealing and Comforting

As a contemporary form of quilting, the story quilts are small; they do not cover a bed. They are meant to be hung on a wall. Instead of covering, they uncover, revealing something meaningful for the students.

“My quilt is about how I interpret my life. You have to keep going and picking your head back up,” Amanda Mohr shares.

Like any quilt, though, each story quilt is comforting in its own way.

“One student said, ‘this is going to hang in my classroom,’” Sister Nancy says. “Another student who is getting married this summer said, ‘this is going to be at our reception and it’s going to hang in our bedroom.’ It’s a picture of her and her future husband kneeling before the altar.”

Story quilts don’t require cutting and sewing together pieces of fabric. But in the end, students leave with an important piece of their life preserved in the artwork they created.

“I didn’t share this story with a lot of people,” explains Janell Finkbeiner. “And now I’m able to write it down and see how it fits together with my life.”   

 Click here to hear more from Sister Nancy and to see more photos taken by Photos by Jacy, click here.