Susan Lenz describes her time in cemeteries as “quiet moments spent reaching out to touch the remains of history.”
Most history books recount the past through wars. Susan introduces people to history through sacred spaces. “I love walking through graveyards,” fabric artist Susan Lenz freely admits. Much of the population fails to share her love of graveyards, viewing them as settings for scary movies. In stark contrast, Susan draws upon the granite and marble studded cemetery landscape for her Grave Rubbings art quilts. “Mortality, especially my own, and memory...these are the feelings I have when visiting cemeteries.”
Armed with a child’s crayons, lengths of silk, and a mixed sense of bohemian delight and reverence for the dead, Susan seeks out gravestones and the words and symbols carved into them for future generations. She makes crayon rubbings on the silk. She adds embroidery, relying on her favorite kantha stitch, which originated with Bengali housewives who mended old clothes with this decorative stitch. Assorted embellishments, as well as vintage fabrics and forgotten textiles that she resurrected from obscurity complete the memorable and emotion-rich quilts.
Cemeteries are repositories for memories using brief quotes, fewer words, names and icons. Nowhere is symbolism more alive than in a cemetery from religious images of crosses and angels, to totems that reflect the personality of the one who ‘sleeps’ beneath the stone. The open hand with a heart demonstrates charity or can show an affiliation with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The image of a woman with an anchor denotes hope. Lily of the valley wishes for a return of happiness. A spray of cinquefoil speaks of maternal affection or beloved daughter…. All find their way into Susan’s quilts.
Quilts seem a natural fit with death, loss, grieving. Throughout the centuries quilts have covered the corpse, been present in the laying out of the body, were used as linings for the coffin. Memory quilts are constructed from scraps of the deceased’s clothing, embroidered with names, dates, designs that remind the quiltmaker of the life that had been lived. But Susan’s quilts take a new direction.
It all began in 2008 with an award from the MacNamara Foundation for a six week art residency on remote Westport Island in Maine. The island landscape is dotted with small family graveyards. A passage from Jeanne Williamson's The Uncommon Quilter, a book Susan purchased at random, described making grave rubbings. It was just the catalyst she needed.
“I've never actually considered myself a quilter but this format seems perfect for these rubbings,” Susan said. “Maybe my anxiety about quilting stems from the seemingly required rules for perfect piecing, even machine stitches, careful measurement, and traditional construction methods. I just can't make myself conform.” She also read while in Maine, Robert Shaw’s “The Art Quilt” and discovered the unconventional freedom of art quilts.
Susan has also studied embroidery and design with such masters as Charlotte Miller, Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies with a concentration in history of art (most particularly 14th and early 15th century Italian). She and her husband run a successful art framing business, Mouse House, in the heart of Columbia, South Carolina. When not framing other people’s art or creating for her varied and numerous quilt series, Susan hunts for antique collectibles, textiles, and ephemera to incorporate into her quilts. She frequents estate auctions, flea markets, and purchases items by the lot. Reselling most of these purchases, she regularly sets aside damaged or everyday items that take on new meaning when included in her art. “I adore the notion of quilting together recycled materials, combining fabric and a sense of the past into something relevant.” Susan wrote in her blog, “Art by Susan Lenz.”
Quite often Susan draws on bits and pieces of vintage fabrics that may have been damaged or scarred. In that first quilt, made from a Maine grave rubbing, she backed the quilt with remnants of a vintage, but damaged, summer spread originally used on a child’s bed. She embellished and edged it with variegated pearl cotton blanket stitches. In her own way, she once again lays out the deceased with reverence and attention to detail. Each stitch made with reverence. Her art quilts speak of mourning – not a specific life – but of similar lives. Her quilts remind viewers that gone does not mean forgotten.
Her careful documentation of each quilt adds to the value. Photos she took in cemeteries, the delight in discovering someone she’s known vicariously through history books such as the Sheriff of Nottingham adds another chapter to each life she encounters in the cemetery.
Now whenever she travels, whether in her home turf around Columbia, South Carolina, or across the pond to visit her son in England, or out to Seattle for a jaunt, she brings needle and thread. Colma, California –the city of the dead-- drew Susan with its seventeen cemeteries. Her “He Who Is” quilt features a visage rubbed from a grave in the Serbian Cemetery at Colma.
“Looking back, cemeteries have always been a fascination,” Susan said. “Chiseled gravestones, flags and flowers, and a place for remembrances have always been important to me.” She adds, “Now, I'm deeply involved in an art series using grave rubbings, epitaphs, and photos from these sacred places.”
Dawn Goldsmith is a freelance writer and founder of Subversive Stitchers: Women Armed with Needles. She devotes most of her time to writing about fabric and needle art, quilts and the creative souls who make them. Her work has been published in a variety of national publications including Notre Dame Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, NBC News, The Washington Post as well as a variety of quilt and fabric art publications Quilter, Quilt World, Quilt Life, Knit Lit, Too.
To learn more about Susan Lenz and her work, please visit www.susanlenz.com.