Inheritance: Quilting Across Prison Walls, a project by Chicago artist, activist, and Envisioning Justice grantee Rachel Wallis, is designed to help maintain connections between incarcerated women and their loved ones, while initiating difficult conversations about restorative justice.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2018, Rachel taught a series of storytelling and design classes centered around inheritance and quilts at the Cook County Jail. The students wrote, drew, brainstormed and conversed about what they inherited within their own families and what they wanted their children to inherit from them.
“The hope is that this project can do two things: help strengthen families that are currently being broken apart by systems of incarceration and also amplify the stories of those families,” Rachel said. “And get people thinking about all the people impacted by incarceration beyond the individual who is incarcerated themself.”
As a symbol of their love across prison walls, each student designed a quilt to be made and given to family members they were having difficulty staying connected with. The quilts were handmade by seven volunteer quilters outside the jail.
Additionally, the students’ writing was embroidered into a larger quilt created throughout a series of community quilting circles. Here, participants also engaged in discussions about their experiences with mass incarceration and restorative justice. The quilting circles culminated into a quilt unveiling at Read/Write Library, where community members gathered to have conversations about incarceration and the power of art in healing with Rachel, Monica Cosby, an activist and community organizer, and Melissa Blount, an activist and licensed clinical psychologist.
“There is art here from women that I was in Dwight [Correctional Center] with, that I was in Lincoln [Correctional Center] with, that I was in Logan [Correctional Center] with…and it makes me miss them more than I already do,” said Monica as she reflected on the artwork displayed at Read/Write Library on the night of the Inheritance Quilt unveiling.
After being formerly incarcerated for 20 years, Monica, now a community organizer at Westside Justice Center, still views art as a powerful connection to the friendships she left behind when she was released three years ago.
Melissa, who helped teach the classes at the jail during the fall session, felt struck by how quilting was an empowering act for women. For her, it is a way to put into words their sense of loss, connection, and trauma in a space where they are referred to by their assigned numbers.
“Numbers are a way of depersonalizing the enormity of an issue. But when you see something in a concrete, tactile and visual way, you’re struck by the sheer volume of loss and devastation,” Melissa said. “But when it’s broken down into these really artistic, concrete ways, people can wrap their minds around art as a way of dealing with untreated pain, loss, and the complex ways people act out when they are not healed, attended to, or intentionally traumatized. The benefit of art is that it allows and initiates conversations that otherwise wouldn’t be had around really complicated or scary kinds of topics.”
“Art in prison is everything,” Monica emphasized.