Photo by Cassandra Bauer
BY MADELINE CHEEK
A member of the Drake family returned to campus and brought with him a visual glimpse into his own mind, on Sept. 10.
Venture into the Anderson Gallery this month, located on the first floor of the Fine Arts Center.
The inside will be surrounded by color and pattern, standing in what Thomas Knauer considers to be his diary.
Knauer, a former instructor of design, has contributed 18 symbolic quilts to his show “Beyond Patterns: Activism and Identity in Quilts.”
Knauer says he is “bringing the public to my private space and taking that private space and putting it on display.”
After his time at Drake university, Knauer was diagnosed with what he calls “the mystery disease”: a rare form of muscular dystrophy in combination with mast cell disease.
As can be expected, some of Knauer’s quilts are about living with chronic illness, but the range of topics he illustrates in this show alone is vast, spanning from marriage equality and female beauty standards to gun violence, domestic violence and the devaluing of labor and individuality.
Although quilting may seem outdated, the tradition associated with quilts underscores the messages that they send.
“I think there’s something really wonderful about the quilts. I stuck with them because they are most associated with one of our most intimate spaces,” said Knauer, in a short speech at the gallery opening.
It can be eerie walking into a room draped with quilts. Some are illustrations of some of the most poignant issues of our time. It is as if this staple of the home has been influenced with the outside world. “This work is largely about breaking that division, bringing the world into that space, both the joys and the horrors,” Knauer said.
Knauer also gave a lecture on Thursday to give some context to his exhibit and discuss the wide range of functions that can be applied to simple objects.
Professor Maura Lyons, who is an instructor of art history and a former colleague of Knauer, reflected on the lecture and his exhibit.
“We tend to think about quilts as being associated, as he was talking about, with family, with tradition, with comfort, with private spaces,” Lyons said.
“…there are certain things that he doesn’t want to forget that happen in the world, and so by bringing (those) into that context of domestic/private, it makes you think about those issues in a different way, and of the people who can’t separate themselves. So if you’re a victim of gun violence, you don’t have the luxury of thinking about that in an abstract way, as a statistic— you’re implicated. Every day you’re dealing with that. So that’s one of the things that I think is so interesting. He takes our expectations about quilts and turns it on its head.”
Upon further inspection of the quilts displayed in the gallery, what may look like a decorative pattern becomes vows, messages, binary codes, morse code and barcodes.
“I ended up in quilting entirely by accident,” Knauer said.
The inspiration for Knauer’s endeavor into quilting as an art form was his three-year-old daughter.
The story he tells is that he and his daughter were walking hand- in-hand, looking at their merging shadows in front of them, when his daughter looked up at him and said, “Daddy, we are an ‘h’.”
Knauer was struck by the simple intimacy of a statement that referred to the father- daughter unit as a whole — she didn’t say “we make” or “we look like” but rather “we are.”
He decided to make her a quilt with a design composed of different transformations of the letter ‘h’, and when she saw it, she said “Daddy, that’s us.”
“At that moment, that whole notion of quilts as a symbolic language just sunk in,” Knauer said.
Knauer’s work began as a gift for his daughter, but it evolved beyond that.
He believes the outside world and his art cannot really be separated.
“To me, (quilts) are translations of the way I see the world,” Knauer said.
Through an object that is traditionally an heirloom, Knauer passes his own story on to the next generation.