Quilter finds inspiration in faces of child laborers

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While looking at the Library of Congress photograph collection, Patricia Kennedy-Zafred stumbled across a series of Louis Hine images that caught her attention. A quilter from Murrysville, Mrs. Kennedy-Zafred said her work in fabric is image driven, and she was captivated by the photos that showed boys who worked in the coal mines in the early years of the 20th century.

"My own grandfather had to leave school in the third grade because his father was injured in a work accident," she said. "He supported his family. In those days it was common for young boys to be the support of families, especially if the head of the household died or was incapacitated."

Hine, born in Wisconsin, was an American sociologist and photographer who used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs were instrumental in changing child labor laws in the United States.

Mrs. Kennedy-Zafred grew up in Cincinnati and had no coal miners in the family. However, when she moved to Southwestern Pennsylvania she realized how many people were influenced by the coal industry.

After working on the images on her computer, she decided to incorporate them in a quilt she designed, titled "Descent into Darkness: The Boys of the Mines." She started by preparing and dying her fabric, then mounted the finished images on a design wall in her home to analyze the pieces and get the color flow she wanted. After quilting the pieces, she added silk-screen accents and words taken from Hines' photo notes.

In late May she submitted the piece, slightly more than 62 inches by 42 inches, in the 2013 Quilt National in Athens, Ohio. Not only was the quilt one of 85 chosen from a pool of more than 850 entries, it also came away with the Heartland Award, given to an artist who resides in Ohio or a neighboring state who depicts that region in the design and shows exceptional artistic merit. The award comes with a certificate and a $250 prize.

"Just getting into the show is prestigious enough," said Kathleen Dawson, Quilt National '13 director. "Many artists have told me they consider the exhibit to be the one big one to get into."

The Quilt National show dates back to 1979 and is one of the first major exhibits ever produced by the Dairy Barn Cultural Arts Center, a 5,000 square-foot exhibition space in Athens. From the start, it was an international exhibit, and is held every two years.

Mrs. Kennedy-Zafred said people seemed drawn to her quilt and took time to read the narrative she included. She said she has received emails from people who were drawn to its images and message.

"I've been in a lot of shows over the years, but never got unsolicited responses like this," she said. "It reflects a forgotten piece of history and I feel it's important to bring this period to light. At the exhibit, people would tell me their grandfather, great-grandfather or great-uncle had worked as a child in the mines. From the attention it got, I consider the quilt a success."

In September, the exhibit will start a two-year national tour with a stop at St. Louis University Museum of Ar.

"I probably won't see the quilt again until sometime in 2015," Mrs. Kennedy-Zafred said.

At each venue, most of the quilts will be available for purchase, and Mrs. Kennedy-Zafred has set a $3,000 price tag on hers.

"The quilts in the show aren't functional, you don't put [them] on your bed. Rather, you'd mount it on a wall."

If her quilt doesn't sell, Mrs. Kennedy-Zafred isn't sure what she'll do with it.

"I want to have it exhibited somewhere where people can see it... .I might decide to donate it to the Heinz Regional History Center.''

Recently, she completed a smaller quilt using a boys-of-the-coal-mine theme and another made from images of girls working in a cannery. Those pieces will be displayed at the "Deux" exhibit opening in the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Chicago June 21 at the International Quilt Festival.

Finding online images of Native Americans taken by photographer Edward Curtis compelling, she also finished four large quilts with Native American themes. Currently, she's working on a quilt that shows "doffer boys" working in the cotton mills.

"Quilting is my passion," she said. "In my free time, I'm either looking for images, dying or cutting fabric, silk screening or sewing."

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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