I am trying to decide which quilt to piece next. I have created a pattern for a value study, nine different black or white or black and white fabrics, with a dash of yellow for pop. Value study will be good for my eye; since I have begun quilting, I have learned so much about color. But there’s the stack of aquatic batiks featuring fish and sea turtles and seahorses in my stash that I’ve been looking forward to cutting up and sewing together. And I’ve just purchased a couple yards of green and black Australian fabric featuring abstracted women dancing. I want to watch abstracted women dancing. I want to wrap myself in abstracted women dancing. Wouldn’t that be a value study, too? Wouldn’t a quilt celebrating aquatic animals be one?
That’s not the kind of value I’m talking about. I’m talking about color and contrast—how black is that black? Is that black blacker than this black? What about this white? What about the fabric that’s mostly black but whose tiny white triangles are bright, bright white? Is it whiter than the mostly white fabric that shades toward cream, toward gray? My value study requires me to arrange my fabrics in the right order, according to their value.
I have just finished a quilt with that background fabric, the black with white triangles. The featured fabrics are saturated primary and secondary colors, green, red, yellow, blue, purple. The pattern is called card trick and requires the squares to be matched precisely. I am not very skilled—I am still a beginner, but I pieced the quilt top precisely and the card trick works. It’s an optical illusion.
In my town tonight, several hundred people have gathered in an auditorium to debate the school nickname and mascot. The team name is the Redmen. Their retired symbol, which some people call a mascot and others say was never a mascot, is a person wearing an Indian headdress. People say the argument is not about Indians. It’s about tradition. People say “Redmen” doesn’t mean Indian. It recalls a town hero who attended Harvard, whose color is crimson which is something like red. When I said “people” just now, I meant white people, a bunch of them but not all of them. Many Native American people also live in my town, but they are not saying “Redmen” doesn’t mean Indian. Four small reservations surround my town. When I said “surround,” I meant that I could drive to any one of them in an hour or two, maybe three if lake effect snow slowed me down. When I said “small,” I meant that 395 people live on one, 812 on another, 3672 on the largest. On the map I just looked at, the reservations are indicated by red dots and rectangles. Maybe white people don’t like to feel surrounded. Maybe white people prefer larger reservations farther away. I am a white person, but I’m pretty sure that “Redmen” means Indian.
When I was a kid, we played euchre with Indian head playing cards. I learned to bluff, but I was never dexterous enough for the really cool card tricks.
If I were a more skilled quilter, if I had educated myself more thoroughly about color, I could create a value study relying on red and white.
The Australian fabric creates its images entirely through dots. Green dots cluster together to resemble women dancing. Black dots lead away from the women. Other fabrics in this line feature long-legged birds or cattails or white and red dots creating a pathway through a black background.
I am a white person; anyone could tell. If you did a value study of my family, you’d see that I am whiter than my wife. My skin tints toward pink, hers toward olive. I am whiter than all of my uncles and most of my aunts. But I am not as white as my father. I am not as white as my daughter. I am not as white as my niece. It’s the luck of the genetic draw. And also, here’s the thing, I adopted my daughter when she was nine years old. Her genetic draw is entirely different from mine, except that she looks just like me, except that she’s whiter. No one in my family is a Redman. No one is black. We just describe each other as darker, as not as dark.
I want to wrap myself in a quilt covered with women dancing. I want to drape myself with dancing women. You might say this would be another value study. But it’s not. If you ask any artist, you’ll discover that value describes color only, one shade’s relation to another. A study is a presentation of relation which is why we use metaphors of family, neutrals and brights and regals, those groups of people, immediate and extended, who love and despise and rescue and kill each other.
Lynn Domina is the author of two collections of poetry, Corporal Works and Framed in Silence, and the editor of a collection of essays, Poets on the Psalms. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, Nimrod, The Alaska Quarterly review, and many other periodicals and anthologies. She serves as creative writing editor of The Other Journal and as Head of the English Department at Northern Michigan University. Read more here: www.lynndomina.com.