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In stitches
An artist threads the needle on the reconstruction of Iraq

Clara Wainwright’s art has long been a crossroads between public and private. Her most lasting contribution may be her founding of First Night, which transformed New Year’s Eve here in Boston from an erstwhile drinking marathon into an elaborate celebration of the arts — a template later replicated across the country. As a visual artist, she’s concentrated on reviving the quiet, folk backwater of quiltmaking. The public and the private are fused in her latest work, a four-and-a-half-by-six-and-a-half-foot quilt memorializing Baghdad as it looked during the American bombing on the first nights of the most recent Iraq war. In a stark counterpoint to New Year’s Eve festivity, the quilt’s skies are alight with a different sort of rockets’ red glare. "What it looks like is when the war started, during the initial ‘Shock and Awe’ period," Wainwright says on the phone from her Cambridge studio. "It’s like the horrendous pictures that were on the front pages of the newspapers: a view of Baghdad, looking across the Tigris, with the city largely in flames."

Wainwright worked up the image in about two days, but left it deliberately unfinished. "I just glued it down," she says, "and the idea was that it wouldn’t hold together unless people mended it." That’s why, next Friday and Saturday, Wainwright will host "Mending Baghdad," a weekend-long session at the DeCordova Museum, where the public is invited to help stitch the city back together again.

The metaphor, of course, couldn’t be clearer: a symbolic reconstruction realized in small, painstaking increments. "Women, I think, are typically the people who have done mending, over a period of thousands of years, and much of their work is invisible," Wainwright says. "These days people don’t do much mending, they just throw it away and buy a new one. But mending is terribly important, a quiet kind of act. I’ve done other mending projects, and it’s a way of getting people to sit down and work quietly on something, and it gives people a chance to talk. You never know what comes out of the talk. With this project, people have talked about everything from their feelings about the hawkish administration to just general kinds of gossip."

Wainwright has no hard-and-fast plans for what will become of the quilt, but says she’s "very interested" in taking it to Baghdad if a delegation of women embarks for Iraq on a cultural mission. "I’ve done a lot of collaborative projects," she continues, "and it’s always amazing how people really engage in doing something that’s quite symbolic. I just hope that out of participating for half an hour, maybe they will feel like they have done something dealing with Iraq, and maybe they will do more to contribute to the rebuilding of a cultural project over there, or maybe just reach out to an Iraqi-American. Heaven knows."

About 50 people have already helped Wainwright mend the quilt over the past several months at locations from the Cape Ann Historical Museum in Gloucester to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. "In some cases they just stitched a part of a building down, but many people have added architectural details — windows or decorative stitches along the edge of a building," she says. "Normally I bring only red and black thread, but when I was in Gloucester I had some green. This wonderful young girl, who came with her grandmother, created these little blades of grass along the edge of the river. And her grandmother, who wasn’t sure what to do, did grass as well, and now it looks like there’s this wonderful little band of grass springing up, almost like after Mount St. Helens erupted — little blades of life coming out. And about three weeks ago, when I had the quilt at the Kennedy School, I invited a friend who grew up in Baghdad to come to mend with me and just talk to any students who came along. She put in two of the 11 bridges that span the Tigris, so before I go to the DeCordova, I’m going to finish the rest of them."

Clara Wainwright presents "Mending Baghdad" on Friday and Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, 51 Sandy Pond Road, in Lincoln; call (781) 259-8355.

Issue Date: November 14 - 20, 2003
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