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How Quilting Can Explain the Foreclosure Crisis

Artists like Kathryn Clark are using their work to explore the impacts of America's financial meltdown.

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Courtesy: Kathryn Clark

San Francisco-based artist Kathryn Clark makes quilts depicting neighborhoods affected by the foreclosure crisis across the United States. The work grows out of Clark’s lifelong fascination with maps, as well as her stint in the early 2000s working as an urban planner under New Urbanism guru Peter Calthorpe. Clark recently described for Atlantic Cities how she combines secondhand materials and Internet technology to create these portraits of fraying neighborhoods.

How did your Foreclosure Quilts project come about?

I’ve been an artist for 20 years and was an urban planner for about 5 or 6 years, and I was always trying to find some way to connect the two. I began to notice these references to foreclosures in the news. It really bothered me. It just seemed like here I was, making all these plans, encouraging home ownership with the work that I was doing, yet there was some kind of crack, there was a flaw in the system.

It was such an important topic, but didn’t seem like it was being covered in a visual way. You would just see a lot of statistics about foreclosures in the news, and you wouldn’t actually see the real effect of it. I had been looking at maps of neighborhoods, seeing just how many foreclosures there were, and trying to figure out a way I could present that in my art.

Why quilts, then?

I guess it was looking through some pictures from the Smithsonian my father had sent me, old color photographs from the 20s and 30s and 40s. For some reason it was the fabric that stood out to me most in these pictures. I had also just seen the Gee’s Bend quilts, and they have this amazing history. When you see the fabrics that they use, the old denim, the worn clothing, you could almost read a story about their lives.

I began to wonder what it would look like if we made quilts today that expressed our hardship. I thought I could make quilts of these foreclosure maps, and it just seemed like a great way to tell a story, and also create a history so that there’s something we can look back on.

A quilt depicting foreclosures in Modesto.

Where does the information that you use to make the quilts come from?

I look at RealtyTrac. I actually joined that. I noticed that the only way you could figure out exactly where these foreclosures are is if you pay to be part of these websites. With my architecture and planning background, I want to make sure I’m portraying something that’s telling the truth, so I actually want street addresses that I can verify. So the quilts are my way of offering this information to the public, so to speak.

Each quilt portrays only a portion of a city’s area. How do you decide which neighborhood to focus on?

At first I was looking for the neighborhoods that are the hardest hit. Or in some cases I would look for a neighborhood that was laid out in an aesthetically nice way that would lend itself to a quilt, because you have to piece quilts a certain way so they work. Sometimes I’m just really interested in a particular neighborhood that I’ve heard of before.

And in one case, I came across this fabric that I really fell in love with, called Forest Hills. There always seems to be a Forest Hills in every town, and sure enough I found this Forest Hills neighborhood in Cleveland that happened to be one of the hardest hit areas.

What techniques do you use to make the quilts?

I hand-piece everything. Originally I thought I would do it with a machine, but my machine wasn’t that great so I ended up doing it by hand. And I think it’s important for me to do it by hand.

Lately as I’ve made more of these quilts I’m able to use only fabric that I have lying around the studio that I’ve used in other quilts. I wanted to go back to the Gee’s Bend scrap quilts where they’re using whatever they have lying around. I try to use natural materials as well, like linens and cottons, and I end up hand-dying some of these, or I tea-stain them to give them an aged look.

Also, I actually cut holes into the quilts where the foreclosed lots are to show you how vulnerable and how fragile these quilts are. So there are some neighborhoods that have more foreclosures, and those obviously are the most fragile quilts, the weakest.

You can really see that in the Detroit quilt.

Exactly. When I began working on the Detroit quilt, I was looking at just a map. Then I realized how many foreclosures there were and I said, I think it’s time to go look at the aerial view and the street view with Google. I use Google Maps a lot to do that - sort of walk the streets to see if I can tell whether these are foreclosures or not. And I was shocked to see that there were entire blocks where there were no homes at all. They were just completely razed.

Often your quilts have visible seams, with the raw edges showing around the outlines of city blocks, as if the front of the quilt were the “wrong side” of the fabric.

My very first quilt was Las Vegas, and you could see the finished front; there were no exposed raw edges on it. I realized it looked almost too perfect, and I wanted to show how fragile and imperfect these neighborhoods are, how they’re falling apart. And so it just seemed natural to flip the quilt, show those raw edges, and not try to bind it.

How many quilts have you done so far?

I just finished my ninth quilt, which is Riverside, California. I’ve done Modesto, California; Detroit; Cape Coral, Florida; Las Vegas; Cleveland; Albuquerque; Atlanta; and Phoenix as well. I’ve tried to go all the way across the US as much as I could, to show how widespread the foreclosure crisis is. But I still have not touched New England—I’m looking for the right area. It just seems like there’s a lot more happening in the West.

What have you learned about the foreclosure crisis from making these quilts that wasn’t obvious from, say, news coverage of the issue?
Foreclosures in Cleveland

I initially thought foreclosures would all be in the inner cities, and I was really surprised to find out that so many are also occurring in the suburbs. There was this pattern where the early ones were in the inner city, then you start to see them out in the suburbs, and now since it’s become so pervasive you’re seeing it back in the cities again.

Do the quilts include any of that evolution? Or are they simply a snapshot of foreclosures active at a given time?

I was initially doing that, and now I’m starting to look at two to three years back as more information becomes publicly available and as time progresses. With Riverside I looked three years back, and at first I was trying to figure out some way to differentiate between the old foreclosures and the new foreclosures. But then I realized that the old foreclosures are often the new foreclosures, they’re the same home that’s been foreclosed on several times.

Are there any solutions to the crisis that arise out of your work?

I wish I could say there was, but what I do is artistic and visual, and I think the issue is so much more economic and political, so it needs that kind of solution.

How many more of these quilts do you plan to make?

That’s a good question. I think I have to make these for as long as there’s this problem, until it’s fixed. I’ll be working on it for a while, definitely.

Kathryn Clark’s Foreclosure Quilts can be seen in April at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center in New York, and in July at Warm Springs Gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia.

About the Author

  • Sarah DeWeerdt is a freelance science writer based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in publications including Conservation, Nature, and New Scientist.