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Quilting helps woman heal after brain tumor

  • PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
                                Quilt artist Renata Merrill displays her quilts at Camden FireWorks in Camden, N.J. Her first solo exhibit in February was called “New Beginnings.”

    PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

    Quilt artist Renata Merrill displays her quilts at Camden FireWorks in Camden, N.J. Her first solo exhibit in February was called “New Beginnings.”

When Renata Merrill began quilting in 2011, she could barely see out of her left eye after undergoing brain surgery to remove a benign tumor pressing on her optic nerve.

Through quilting she began a healing process and rediscovered herself as a wife, mother and community leader. She also turned a hobby into a passion with strong ties to her African American heritage.

Her work, which went on display in February at a local art gallery, reflects her personal style, life experiences and perseverance after a health scare that threatened her vision. Her bold, vibrant quilt exhibit, titled “New Beginnings,” told her story.

Merrill, 56, of East Camden, N.J., took up quilting several months after her surgery when she joined a quilting group started by her mentor, Chris Butler, at Asbury United Methodist Church in Woodlynne, where she has been a member for 12 years. The group traveled to Kenya in 2015 to teach quilting to young women.

Although her eyesight improved, she needed glasses. She had to relearn basic motor skills, how to cut, how to make a straight line. Her speech was slurred and her equilibrium, off-kilter. Slowly, she got better and found tranquility in the small-group setting.

“Who would think that learning how to quilt would be part of your healing process?” said Merrill, mother to three adult children. “Each little thing that I did gave me encouragement. I wasn’t the same person that I was, but it re-created me.”

She completed her first quilt a few months later, a piece with vivid stripes of a variety of designs. She calls it “Second Chance.”

Her quilts were exhibited at the FireWorks, a studio and gallery space that also hosts educational programs. Its mission is to use art to create social change.

“I can see that there is a lot of talent in this city that’s overlooked,” said Asiyah Kurtz, FireWorks’ executive director.

Kurtz said the gallery recently received a $10,000 Challenge American grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to teach quilting this spring to about 80 middle school students in Camden. The students will explore social justice through quilting and learn about environmental racism and food deserts, she said.

Merrill, a community activist and former counselor who was born and raised in the city, tackles a variety of themes in her quilts. Most of her pieces prominently feature African fabrics in vibrant colors. She uses metallic threads, sequins, buttons, geometric shapes and even coins.

Each quilt tells a story, mostly from her life experiences. There is “The Chief,” in honor of her 83-year-old father, Ollie Bussie, whom she calls the rock in her family. The quilt includes “adinkra” symbols, which represent concepts and aphorisms, from Ghana.

“It’s been great to see her flourish in her art,” said Bussie.

There’s also “A Shield of Faith” and “Sunday Best,” a collection of church shoes, a nod to her spiritual life. Inspired by childhood memories of playing checkers, Merrill created a quilt with black and white squares. It includes phrases such as “rejoice,” “count your blessings” and “eat dessert first.”

One of Merrill’s favorite pieces is “Imagine,” a labor-­intensive quilt inspired by quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Ala., where African Americans have preserved the cultural traditions of their ancestors. Merrill was surprised to learn that she hails from a family of quilters from the South.

Merrill doesn’t sell her work or accept commissions, although her quilts could fetch hundreds of dollars.

Rather, her attention stayed fixed on family. She recently worked on a quilt for her first grandchild, born in March.

“I have deemed myself an artist and not just a quilter,” Merrill said. “I’m blessed.”

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