MATTHEWS TURNS CASTOFFS INTO STATEMENT ART WITH 9-PIECE SERIES
Artist and documentarian James Matthews is bringing attention to the prevalence and reality of evictions with a series of quilts that are now on view in the Kennedy Gallery at the Arts & Science Center.
Matthews created the nine quilts that comprise Eviction Quilts from clothing, bedding, and fabric he found curbside in Little Rock. The items were all left after the residents were evicted.
Each quilt is made from the materials from one eviction, giving viewers insight into the lives of a household with their discarded belongings stitched together into a single quilt.
Matthews started out as primarily as a photographer—he studied at The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University—but he has used other methods of documenting the world around him.
The idea for the quilts came when Matthews was curating a small space called Sixth Street Library in Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Little Rock. The space focused on documenting life in and issues with the city.
“I was looking for ways to translate what was going on in the city and to, in some cases, art work and in some cases, different kinds of projects. So, I spent a lot of time making my way around the city—walking, biking. One thing I kept noticing was the number of evictions I was seeing in the city and I wanted to find a way to document that. I still think in a documentary way, so I was looking for a way to document it.
“My first impulse was to try to photograph what was left of an eviction. What you usually see—piles of clothes and furniture left on the side of the road—but that just didn’t work as photographs. [weren’t powerful] So what I did originally was collect some of these belongings from a single eviction.
“There was a middle-schoolers backpack with school books still in it, a diary, stuffed animals, dinner plates, an outfit, a set of clothing from each family member, so I took those things and I installed them in the gallery space. Which worked well because you were sort of faced with these objects that were sort of similar to what you have your house and clothes your children might wear. They were effective as an installation.”
He was left with a lot of clothing and bedding and did not want to throw them in trash, he explained, so he made a quilt from them.
That first quilt, East 20th Street (Flag), is a striking blue and red. The blue pieces are from jeans, and the red from a pair of heavy canvas men’s work pants and a pair of women’s corduroy pants. The solid blue square in the upper corner is made of children’s jeans, and the binding around the edges is made of plaid buttoned shirts.
“It turned out that was a powerful medium for talking about and getting other people to notice evictions around the city.”
The ASC exhibition is the first time all nine of the quilts have been publicly displayed together. (Two of them were part of past Delta Exhibitions at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock.) The quilts are named for the streets on which the materials were found and where the evictions took place.
Learn more about the effect evictions have on millions of U.S. families:
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction
EvictionLab.com—A team of researchers, students, and website architects have drawn upon tens of millions of records to publish the first dataset of evictions in America, going back to 2000. Evicted author Matthew Desmond is the principal investigator of the project.
“The exhibition came about because I had just read the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond and the national crisis of eviction was on my mind,” ASC Curator Dr. Lenore Shoults explained. “I heard about James Matthews’ eviction quilts and contacted him, went to his studio, and decided that the Arts & Science Center needed to mount this exhibition.
“The exhibition is an excellent example of art bringing awareness to social injustice. The horrible truth is that eviction is a cause of poverty, not the other way around and it is women and children who most often suffer this cruel reality.”
CREATING THE QUILTS
Matthews waited until right before the trash day to take the castoffs, to ensure those families had every opportunity to come back and collect their belongings, he explained. He then collected bags and bags of found clothing and bedding. After laundering, he would cut the pieces down and remove the seams. From there, he would decide on the design.
“I machine-sew the top,” he explains. “Then I put the layers together—there’s a back layer which is usually muslin then batting and I lay the top on. I have to hand-tie it. I take large tap needle and weave through all three layers and tie it. I have to do it hundreds of times for each quilt. When all three layers are tied together, then I sew on the binding and hand-sew the last of binding around the edge of quilt.”
The largest quilt is in the series is South Summit Street (Color Blocks), measuring 120” x 88”
“It’s unlike any of the other quilts. It has less of an intentional design and there is a reason for that. At this eviction I found a box of whole yardage of fabric. Someone who lived there was obviously a sewer. Someone was there who cared enough that they made clothes for people. So rather than cut that fabric up, I wanted to use it in its uncut state.”
The green center of South Cedar Street (Green Medallion) was made from a woman’s dress suit, except for one strip a lighter shade than the rest. That strip came from a man’s dress shirt.
“I thought there was a narrative there that two people would have similarly colored clothing,” Matthews said.
Most of his quilts come from traditional quilt designs but South Cedar Street was inspired by a nightclub down the street from the eviction. The panels and door of the small, dark nightclub were painted a lime green that happened to be similar to in color to the green clothing.
That quilt earned an honorable mention in the 60th Annual Delta Exhibition.
James Matthews’ website: asurplusofobjects.com
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article: Scraps of life: "Eviction Quilts by James Matthews" shows what is left behind, lost when families are evicted
Video Short by the Arkansas Arts Center: Voices of the Delta: James Matthews
Matthews’ eviction quilts have gained attention from other art organizations and media outlets. He was one of 10 artists featured in Delta 60, a film produced by the Arkansas Arts Center, which screened June 28.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette spotlighted Matthews and the Eviction Quilts exhibition in a June 30, 2019, article.
Eviction Quilts is on display at ASC through Friday, September 27. The exhibition is sponsored by Relyance Bank and the Arkansas Arts Council.
August 10 Family FunDay with James Matthews
James Matthews will be on hand for Second Saturday Family FunDay on August 10, from 1-3 p.m.
Visitors will be invited to design and color a sheet of 12” x 12” paper into "quilt blocks." Each creative square will be pinned together to fashion a display quilt.
Family FunDay is always free and open to the public. The monthly event is sponsored by Sponsored by The Pine Bluff Area Community Foundation, an affiliate office of the Arkansas Community Foundation, Inc.