What's left behind
July 1, 2019 5:12 AM   Subscribe

Eviction Quilts "You are never far away from that idea that this material represents real lives and real losses for these people. You never want to lose sight of that. The material has been transformed into something that hopefully is looked upon as beautiful. It holds within it a tension: This beauty comes from tragedy. The signage with the quilt tells how it's made, its source. The quilt is not complete without this knowledge, that it came from tragedy."

Documentary artist James Matthews uses clothes and bedding left behind by evicted families to make quilts. His work is currently on display at the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas in Pine Bluff.

Matthews waits until the last possible minute before the trash trucks come, hoping families will return to collect their belongings.
posted by bunderful (17 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
On his website (the second link in the FPP), if you go through all of the photos in the quilts section, at the end there is a really good short video about the project that is worth watching.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:01 AM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is fantastic, and also haunting.

I am someone who is very thing-oriented, and the idea of not just losing your home, but also losing your stuff (especially if it's only lost because you have no place to put it - things you still very much want) seems like an extra layer of trauma to me. I'm sure for some of these people, they've taken what they wanted and only abandoned the things they no longer wanted or felt they needed. But I can't believe that's the majority. I wonder - if this was done with items from my own home, would I see the beauty? Or lament that now the things are not only gone but showily repurposed beyond hope of getting them back?

It puts me right into that uncomfortable place the best art does.
posted by Mchelly at 6:34 AM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Getting evicted was by far the most traumatic experience of my own homelessness. I'd come so close several times before, finding ways to scrape together just enough payment at the last minute to keep the clamp off the door. But that last time, it wasn't looking good, and I rushed desperately to put together a plan and assemble the things I'd need and could bring with me. Experience with long-distance hiking was surprisingly useful for that, but sentiment was sadly at the bottom of the list.
posted by traveler_ at 7:08 AM on July 1, 2019 [8 favorites]

I wonder if he’s considered trying to give the quilts to the evicted families, or sell the quilts to raise funds for families in danger of eviction ...
posted by bunderful at 7:14 AM on July 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'd feel pretty weird reading the diaries of folks that had just been evicted, even if they were just laying out on the curb. Nor would I take things like clothing unless I was somehow 100% magically sure that the folks in question weren't coming back to get the clothes or whatever whenever they were able, it seems like he's sensitive about that though by waiting so that's fair enough.

I get the sentiment here and I'm not judging really but I just don't know that I'd feel ok doing the same in that situation. Quilts are a powerful thing and I like that it's raising awareness in a unique way so who knows.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:33 AM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I clicked into the article thinking it had to do with historical artifacts from the Great Depression and was shocked.

This artist seems to be deeply shocked himself, and to be making art of the experience because he can think of nothing else to do with it.

I am reminded of this passage from Ellison's Invisible Man:

"I turned aside and looked at the clutter of household objects which
the two men continued to pile on the walk. And as the crowd pushed me I
looked down to see looking out of an oval frame a portrait of the old couple
when young, seeing the sad, stiff dignity of the faces there; feeling strange
memories awakening that began an echoing in my head like that of a
hysterical voice stuttering in a dark street. Seeing them look back at me as
though even then in that nineteenth-century day they had expected little, and
this with a grim, unillusioned pride that suddenly seemed to me both a
reproach and a warning. My eyes fell upon a pair of crudely carved and
polished bones, "knocking bones," used to accompany music at country
dances, used in black-face minstrels; the flat ribs of a cow, a steer or sheep,
flat bones that gave off a sound, when struck, like heavy castanets (had he
been a minstrel?) or the wooden block of a set of drums. Pots and pots of
green plants were lined in the dirty snow, certain to die of the cold; ivy,
canna, a tomato plant. And in a basket I saw a straightening comb, switches
of false hair, a curling iron, a card with silvery letters against a background
of dark red velvet, reading "God Bless Our Home"; and scattered across the
top of a chiffonier were nuggets of High John the Conqueror, the lucky stone;
and as I watched the white men put down a basket in which I saw a
whiskey bottle filled with rock candy and camphor, a small Ethiopian flag, a
faded tintype of Abraham Lincoln, and the smiling image of a Hollywood star
torn from a magazine. And on a pillow several badly cracked pieces of
delicate china, a commemorative plate celebrating the St. Louis World Fair . . .
I stood in a kind of daze, looking at an old folded lace fan studded with jet
and mother-of-pearl.

The crowd surged as the white men came back, knocking over a
drawer that spilled its contents in the snow at my feet. I stooped and starting
replacing the articles: a bent Masonic emblem, a set of tarnished cuff links,
three brass rings, a dime pierced with a nail hole so as to be worn about the
ankle on a string for luck, an ornate greeting card with the message
"Grandma, I love you" in childish scrawl; another card with a picture of what
looked like a white man in black-face seated in the door of a cabin
strumming a banjo beneath a bar of music and the lyric "Going back to my
old cabin home"; a useless inhalant, a string of bright glass beads with a
tarnished clasp, a rabbit foot, a celluloid baseball scoring card shaped like a
catcher's mitt, registering a game won or lost years ago; an old breast pump
with rubber bulb yellowed with age, a worn baby shoe and a dusty lock of
infant hair tied with a faded and crumpled blue ribbon. I felt nauseated. In
my hand I held three lapsed life insurance policies with perforated seals
stamped "Void"; a yellowing newspaper portrait of a huge black man with the

I turned away, bending and searching the dirty snow for anything
missed by my eyes, and my fingers closed upon something resting in a frozen
footstep: a fragile paper, coming apart with age, written in black ink grown
yellow. I read: FREE PAPERS. Be it known to all men that my negro, Primus
Provo, has been freed by me this sixth day of August, 1859. Signed: John
Samuels Macon . . . "
posted by ckridge at 7:35 AM on July 1, 2019 [19 favorites]

I had to clean out the basement apartment of my house after a tenant abandoned it, and as angry as I was with him (i.e., he left the place a disgusting disaster though it had been newly renovated, freshly painted, and immaculate when he moved in, I let him run behind on the rent for over a year because he was struggling and he would just pay what he could when he could, which meant he owed me a LOT of money which I will never get back from him and which I desperately need myself, he had promised me he wouldn't smoke in the place and he turned it into an ashtray, etc.), it was still saddening to go through all his things and find his AA literature and sobriety milestone chips, and his to do lists and inspirational notes to himself all mixed in with empty beer bottles, used syringes, hundreds of cigarette butts, tin can lids he'd just thrown on the floor instead of in the recycling bin, and the rest of the six-inch layer of garbage that covered the floor. He was trying, but he was still sinking beneath the waves of addiction.
posted by orange swan at 8:09 AM on July 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

his AA literature and sobriety milestone chips, and his to do lists and inspirational notes to himself all mixed in with empty beer bottles, used syringes, hundreds of cigarette butts, tin can lids he'd just thrown on the floor instead of in the recycling bin, and the rest of the six-inch layer of garbage that covered the floor

What we would look like to God, were there a God. Damn, that's sad. He might still make it. I hope he does. I am sorry about your place getting trashed.
posted by ckridge at 8:16 AM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

He abandoned the apartment in January 2014. Two years ago in late June 2017, he sent me an email explaining and apologizing for everything, saying he's been homeless but was now in housing and in school and had been sober for a year and a half, and promising to start paying me $100 or more every month until his debt was paid off. He came to see me July 1st, 2017, gave me $100, stayed for a bit and chatted... and then after he left he disappeared again. He didn't respond to my emails, and the phone number that he gave me stopped working within six weeks or so. So I expect he's likely homeless and using/drinking again. I google him once a week to see if I can find him, but no dice so far.
posted by orange swan at 8:21 AM on July 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

i am going to quietly suggest that although a discussion of the plight of landlords may be a useful one to have, it might not be the most appropriate direction to take this particular thread.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:51 AM on July 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

Thank you for posting, OP. I am reminded of Kathryn Clark's Washington, D.C. Foreclosure Quilt that I saw last year at the Renwick Gallery, across from the White House. As a homeowner in DC going on my ninth year living in this federal capital city, I am reminded of the power of art in humanizing individual tragedies.
posted by wicked_sassy at 8:57 AM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

When we were looking for apartments in TO we toured through one in a big building that had clearly been abandoned in a huge hurry. It looked fairly well kept except there were piles of clothing and personal effects everywhere as if the inhabitants had gone through everything with an eye to seeing what they could fit in their luggage. A few pieces of electronics noted by their absence in a sea of cables and speakers. Bookshelves full of books. A bunk bed for kids with the same piles of clothes. A big cat tree on the balcony. A few suitcases. A pile of mail under the door slot.

When we moved into it six weeks later it was totally empty had a freshly refinished floor, new paint everywhere, a new fridge and the stove had been scoured almost new.

I’m still a little haunted by it. An entire family just running away from a middle class apartment building and leaving almost everything but what they could carry.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:06 AM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

On the media just completed its series The Scarlet E: Unmasking America's Eviction Crisis. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
posted by obliquity of the ecliptic at 9:18 AM on July 1, 2019 [7 favorites]

The book mentioned in the article, Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, is also quite good. By quite good, I mean good enough that I couldn't finish it. It is about people who have little having the little they have taken.
posted by ckridge at 9:44 AM on July 1, 2019 [6 favorites]

Evictions were commonplace in the low-income neighborhood where I grew up, and the threat was perpetually looming over my family as well. I remember my dad and other neighbors pulling a bunch of one family's stuff into their garages to keep it out of the rain, and remember my own attempts at consolidating my "important stuff" so I could easily bring it with me. (Fires were also very common in our tightly-packed row houses, so this consolidation served two potential purposes.)

To this day I have a mental inventory of 7 or 8 irreplaceable items which are kept at grabbing distance from my bed, and a set of clean clothes put out every night, next to a bag that will fit them.

This stuff sticks around, is what I'm saying.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:19 AM on July 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

Log cabin quilts traditionally have a red square at the center to symbolize the hearth, so the white square at the center of the blue-black West 23rd Street quilt is empty, and sad, and apt for an eviction.
posted by momus_window at 10:28 AM on July 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

I wonder if it’s a coincidence that Arkansas is one of the worst states for tenants’ rights.
posted by Monochrome at 12:22 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

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