Pier 21: Quilt as Infographic

Data can become art when a layer of interpretation is added, like the colourfully arranged temperature quilts or Libs Elliott’s limited edition Canada 150 Absolut vodka bottle. Part of The Here & Elsewhere Bee was collecting qualitative data to tell contributors’ narratives through the quilt. I was excited to see what data groupings formed as I listened to visitors’ stories.

The Here and Elsewhere Bee in its final form. Photo: Deborah Wong

As I began collecting bear paw blocks, I arranged them geographically by country of origin. The result was relatively uninspired  The grouping of European stories grew rapidly, indicative of a large demographic of people that came through the museum – people or their parents or grandparents) who came through the Pier 21 port from Europe as they settled in Canada.

The swath of prints was unsettling to my personal aesthetic and I had to remind myself that the point of this project was not about my work as an artist or designer, but about facilitating other people’s stories. It was uniform across its surface, and although it aimed to unify the multitude of stories, it was hard to focus on anything in particular. There was no differentiation, no place for the eye to rest, no direction.

As Canada Day approached and I knew that a large volume of people would be coming through the museum, I scaled down the blocks to 2.5″ square and reduced the single colour paired with white. About 200 blocks into the project, I looked back at my notes and reclassified the units according to things that kept recurring: ocean journeys, coming for a new future, freedom, nature, agriculture. I grouped them, but the result again, was unsettling.

I opened up a jelly roll of Elizabeth Hartman Rhoda Ruth Coordinates provided by my fabric sponsors, Patch Halifax and J.N. Harper. They were all Kona Solids, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

People chose colours that made a lot of sense to represent aspects of their stories: yellow and earth tones for agriculture, blue for water, orange and green for new life, pinks and reds for love. It was easy to choose the colours that would represent each theme. Organizing the blocks around these stripes broke them up and gave the pieces some articulation instead of getting lost amongst each other.

Up until this point, I gave visitors a bit of blank slate, and they could piece their story together as they wished. But some were a bit lost. Although the technical process of ironing on precut fabric onto a background was not daunting or difficult, often non-artists or people who do not identify as creative had a hard time starting off. What should I talk about? What colour should I use? What part of my story is significant? If they needed some prompting, I could point to the themes that people had already talked about, and it gave them a departure point. They were able to have the quilt speak to them first and fit their story into a larger narrative. A dialogue started between themselves and the work, rather than the quilt silently receiving their story.

This became a pivotal point of the project, where the stripes became tree trunks and a forest emerged as the “leaves” grouped around their theme. The multiple prints that people chose in the bear paw block phase were given breathing room amidst a mass of stories that focused on a singular aspect of an individual’s immigration story, told in a single colour. The quilt became an infographic.

I continued to jot down notes about each block and catalogue them. The documentation process was by no means a rigorous collection of data, but it certainly guided the process. These 54 pages were a record of qualitative data and contributed to a deep qualitative understanding of what was being told.

Although 1200 participants is a large sampling, it is clear that there are gaps in the larger Canadian story. The participants are a self-selecting group: They came to the museum of their own volition, paid admission, stopped at my workspace and chose to engage. Many of the people that came through were removed from their story by at least five years, unless they were international students. There was only one family who were recent refugees from Syria in the last year. Their sponsor family brought them to the museum from New Brunswick, a four-hour drive away.

What other gaps could I identify? Someone who came from afar and became disenfranchised with what they found here would certainly not make their way to a national museum. Some more difficult stories of racism and xenophobia, such as the M.S. St. Louis — a boat of Jewish refugees during WWII that was rejected at Pier 21 and had to return to Europe to face doom — are not captured in the Here and Elsewhere Bee. The result was a quilt that celebrates the immigration stories of a select group. These are stories worth collecting and celebrating, and the museum of does a great job of filling in the other gaps.

The academic side of me really enjoyed listening, digging, and analyzing the data in this project. I felt like a researcher with the opportunity to interpret my data and present it in a visual and tactile manner.

#elsewherebee #atelierailleurs

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