When Diane Caney asked her ninety-five-year-old mother what she wanted for her birthday, Phillis Leidtke told her that she only wanted her daughter to help others during the pandemic. Caney, a portraitist, and owner of multiple wineries took the challenge on.
What formed was a community-based art project to honor “those affected and to express feelings associated with the pandemic”. Caney began asking individuals to submit digital panels, incorporating those panels into quilts, and then displaying the quilts in an online gallery as well as movable public art.
Inspired by the AIDS quilt as well as other community art projects throughout American history, Caney began asking people she knew to submit panels with the goal of creating a transportable, affordable, historical project.
“We wanted to do create something that would both memorialize those who lost their lives and also honor front-line workers,” said Caney.
Phyllis Liedtke, Canney’s mother and a resident of Pompano Beach, Fla., said it’s been shocking to see the devastation created by the virus.
“I thought we’d seen it all,” she said. “I lost my grandfather to the flu in 1918. I’ve lived through the Depression, which was grim, and there was the smallpox scare in New York.”
“I have this personal plan to spread hope, in a time when things are so hopeless. That’s the last thing we have left, is hope.”
Canney began to work on the quilt, starting with panels of portraits of those who died. She soon realized that people needed to be able to see the quilt. And unlike the AIDS quilt she’d originally drawn her inspiration from, it wasn’t safe for people to gather to view it. That’s how she came up with the idea to use some of the panels of the quilt to display the letters HOPE in large open spaces such as outside of the Reston hospital and at the National Mall.
“I thought it would be reassuring for people in, to feel like there’s hope. They’re able to see it when they arrive at work in the morning, and when they’re going home from their shift at night I have Christmas lights on the letters so they glow and people can see it as they’re getting into their cars.”
Among the panels that have been assembled so far, three stuck out to Canney. She’s particularly taken aback by the contributions of children, and interested in how they are viewing the world around them. She described the work of Jack, an eight-year-old, who drew several windows with doctors, firefighters, nurses, and other first responders. He explained to Diane that it was all of the people who keep us safe in their Zoom windows. Another child, an eighth-grader, drew Rosie the Riveter in scrubs and a mask, with the iconic catchphrase ‘We can do it!’.
“When people tell me their stories, I can hear in their voice that they just want to tell me about their loved ones. One day a man came up to me at the national mall, where I was displaying the letters and had recently been on the news. He pushed his mother in a wheelchair, walked a half of a mile through a construction zone, and asked me ‘Are you the lady who painted my boy?’”
The man explained to Canney that he was the father of Thomas Fields, a 32-year-old man whose portrait Canney had included in the project. Fields explained how his son had been caring for his mother in the very early days of the pandemic before the doctors were able to test her for covid. His mother survived, but Thomas fell ill and died in the hallway of a hospital.
“His son needs to know that his father wasn’t just a statistic,” Canney said.
To contribute to the project, visit HopeQuilt.org to submit a panel or join the movement. You can also view a gallery of the portraits.