The unfinished quilt of the late Rita Smith was purchased at an estate sale by Shannon Downey. A notion to complete the deceased woman's work turned into a 1,000-volunteer project, the final product of which will be presented at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, KY this weekend. Downey speaks with Tracy Ross about the quilt and the process of finally finishing it.
When Downey purchased Smith's quilt and its patterns, Downey did not know the original artist or her backstory. "What I was so drawn to was her embroidery and what a talented artist she was. I had discovered [the quilt] through another piece that I had found and purchased at an estate sale," Downey says.
"I have a habit of buying unfinished projects at estate sales and finishing them up. I like to do my part to make sure [the original artists'] souls are resting. I had fallen in love with her stitching technique, and then I had come across this project in the bedroom, and I thought, 'oh, no, there was no way I could disappoint this person. I'm going to have to finish this."
Downey soon realized the project was far greater than any one quilter could reasonably handle. "There's no way I could do it by myself," Downey says. "To be clear, I don't quilt. So I think I just didn't realize how big of a project this actually was."
Downey turned to social media to ask embroiders, hand-sewers, and quilters for their assistance in finishing Smith's massive, quilted map of the United States. "I was really just hoping a couple people would take a couple squares and take some embroidery work off my plate. But within 24 hours, I had over 1,000 volunteers...enthusiastically demanding to let them participate. I started making a spreadsheet and moved as quick as I could to make sure I was incorporating folks."
"When I started digging in [to the quilt pieces], she had finished Alaska and Georgia, which was really helpful because it gave me the opportunity to see what her vision was going to be for this quilt and what her approach to the embroidery component of it would be. I was able to sort of share with the other artists her techniques, her styles, and the stitching she was using, so we could mirror that," Downey explains. "There are 100 individual embroidery artists and approximately 50 quilters and hand-sewers that helped put this together. It's an incredible project."
Although a self-professed non-quilter, Downey said Smith's work at the estate sale spoke to her on a personal level. "I think the thing I was drawn to was all the pieces I had bought were these patterns she'd been working on. You can just sort of copy a pattern a little like a coloring book. You color in the lines. You do what you're supposed to do. You use the colors you're supposed to use. She had gone a little rogue on some of her pieces, and I really respected that."
Smith's creative freedom and unique story have caught the attention of both American and international audiences. "I think [the project] happened in a moment in our world [where] folks are just looking for a happy story," Downey says. "They wanted to see that folks could come together and create something meaningful. They wanted to see that this woman's legacy was complete. I think we all just sort of needed something in that moment."
The finished product of 150 dedicated artists will be presented at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky, on Saturday, March 7th, at 1 p.m. For more information on the unveiling and the museum, visit the National Quilt Museum website.