Special Edition   

Artist on the Frontline
Portrait of a Quilter Amid COVID-19
Krishma Patel in her Home Studio, May 2020

When launching a website for her quilt-making, Krishma Patel had no idea she would ever need to use the blog feature - it was more or less there by default. That was pre-COVID-19. It turns out a pandemic changes our expectations of what we need and suddenly we find ourselves in unchartered territory. Krishma's first blog post was a solution to an unforeseen problem - solving a supply and demand issue. As the COVID crisis began to ramp up, taking hold of our communities and stifling our healthcare systems, she felt an urgency to do something helpful. Responding to the need in her local community and beyond, Krishma became a quilter turned mask-maker, and practically overnight. In a very short period of time, she simply couldn't keep up with the rush of requests that were flooding her inbox. Hundreds of customized masks later, and contemplating another way, she created a picture tutorial, (posted to her blog), teaching her specific process and helping people to skillfully sew their own masks for themselves. This gives new significance to the term, "passing it on". In our unprecedented virtual reality, Krishma shares her talents every time someone reads her post and follows her lead. Although this may not be a typical job for an artist, Krishma's story is an example of how, in times of crisis, the creativity and resourcefulness of artists can serve communities in surprising ways. 

Krishma's history with quilting is relatively brief, but it is not short on passion, nor is it lacking depth. Growing up in South India, a daughter of industrialists and garment factory owners, her mother taught her to use a treadle sewing machine at a very young age and she quickly became quite skilled at free motion embroidery. Yet, her quilt artist origin story is one that actually draws a line back to her grandparents who spent most of their lives in Kutch, West India - a region well- known for its distinct quilting culture. Although Krishma's grandmother was not a quilter herself, Krishma remembers her reminiscing about the shapes and imagery of the quilts that permeated the Kutch community. Now she admits, "I had no idea what my grandmother was really talking about". This was only true until quilting found its way back to her many years later, and quite by chance, after moving to the United States in 2001. 

Strolling into a quilt exhibition at Peddler's Village in Pennsylvania, Krishma fell in love at first sight with traditional American quilts and her whole world changed. As she started learning the craft using various traditional styles, she discovered a spin on tradition that was unlike what she was learning. Her curiosity guided her towards what is considered modern quilting. "In the beginning", Krishma says, "I didn't know that's what I was doing. I was doing the traditional quilts, but every time I picked up a modern art book, I wanted to do modern art with this medium". When realizing she wasn't alone in her interests, she became inspired by masters of untraditional styles and innovative thinking showed up in her creative process. Having studied from numerous books made by master quilters and shared practice in local quilting groups, Krishma now sees herself as a modern traditionalist. When asked what is traditional about what she does, she replied, "The way I approach dealing with fabric is traditional. To put in simpler terms, the construction is traditional. The methods I use are the same as traditional quilt makers.  To make a piece of art, the skills to do this were passed on for generations ".  There is a sense of unity in the point that regardless of where it hails from, the foundation of all quilting shares the same tradition.  

Her devotion to this art form, and in a sense that fateful reconnection to her heritage, has taken her in a direction she never imagined she would go. In a matter of a few short years, Krishma has become an award-winning quilt maker, featured her work in solo exhibitions, been commissioned, and has participated in a number of community projects. The decision to transition from quilting hobbyist to professional quilt artist and service provider has been rewarding beyond her wildest dreams. She likewise never imagined she would be turning her home studio into a make-shift assembly line, offering up her skills to help keep her community safer during a global health crisis.

Excerpts from an Interview with Krishma

Krishma's masks 
Passing It On: What motivated you to get involved with making masks for communities in need?  
Krishma Patel: In the first few weeks of all this, just like everybody else, I was lost. At some point you start to realize, oh my God, this is not going to go away. Then the news started coming in that we don't have enough PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) and the S.O.S being sent out from the healthcare community - the sheer helplessness of this whole situation made me think about what I could do. I thought, you know, it's not that hard to figure out how to make a mask and I have seven working sewing machines and all the fabric in the world. How can I do anything? One of the women who had previously been in a quilting guild I am in is a maternity nurse and she sent out a message asking for masks. The nurses there had to give up their masks to the other healthcare workers on the front line in the hospital because they didn't have enough. That was a shock. So, I said ok, I'm getting to work with this.   

Krishma's masks
PIO: How did it get to the point that you needed a tutorial to manage the mask making? 
KP: While I was making masks for the nurses, my husband called around to the doctors in town - the vets and the urgent care center and they all said, 'yes we will take your masks, because we need them'. Then the calls started coming in. A friend of mine who is a billing agent for a hospital asked for a tutorial, but I said - 'I"ll make them.' Then friends of mine who are immunodeficient asked for masks. Meanwhile, my friends and family in NJ, Florida, and India needed them, and I was sending video tutorials from the web. There were all these questions and frustrations about how to follow a video, so I made a picture tutorial of my own process. The county put it on their website and I posted it to Facebook. It took off on its own. I had to stop making masks because I sustained an arm injury from all this mask making, so the tutorial still does the work. I think the tutorial has done more mask making than I could have done alone.        

PIO: Has this experience affected your thinking about the role of artists in communities? 
KP: Oh yes, absolutely. How do I put it? Suddenly I realize that the careers that don't make a lot of money are the ones that are rising to fill the gaps in a situation like this. We talk down to careers like that - like, 'oh you are going to make art? You're going to starve.' Why that perception? So I feel how important the role of the artist is here. You know, sewing should be a basic skill for everybody. How did we get to this point where we are almost entirely dependent on the six cent mask when we could have made our own? I only feel so good about rising up to make those 494 masks because I totally realize it's just a drop. 

Square Dance by Krishma Patel. Best Use of Color - Mid Atlantic Quilt Festival, February, 2020.  Published in Simply Moderne Magazine by Quiltmania Publications in France.

PIO: What's next for you as you navigate this pandemic and its effects on your profession? Will you do more community projects?
KP: That is the big looming question. I started all this for the fun of it, and then one thing led to another and it turned into an actual career. I'm sitting here thinking, I don't want to lose it because of COVID. It got so serious for me and I fear losing it. Just before COVID hit, I was asking the Art Director of the Blazing Star Cultural Arts Center in Carteret if she thinks I can make more community quilts for other towns? She encouraged me to make proposals for that, and she would write testimonials for me. If I could get five or six quilts made from other towns in the county, she offered to seek opportunities to display them. It would be really great. That is all on hold now...I still hope to do it. 

 Carteret CommUnity Quilt" , completed in April 2018
by Krishma Patel and members of the Carteret community.

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The title for this publication was inspired by Rita Moonsammy's book entitled,
Passing it On, Folk Artists and Education in Cumberland County, New Jersey, published in 1992.
From the Author 
Having the opportunity to meet, interview, and promote NJ's Folk/Traditional Artists is quite simply an honor. The artists featured in every issue of this publication are renowned in their communities, playing a vital role in keeping their cultural identities alive through the art forms they practice and master. Because they merit being experienced and celebrated, it is the Council's hope to bring these distinctive cultural traditions into focus and to share them with all New Jerseyans. I am more than happy to oblige that pursuit. In writing these issues, it is my hope that I can convey a bit of the marvel of the artists' work to you, so that you might better understand and take pride in the richness of our state's splendid diversity.  Please, feel free to "pass it on"!  -Stephanie Nerbak-
Click HERE for additional information about the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, their Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and other Grant Opportunities for New Jersey's Artists. 
The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, created in 1966, is a division of the NJ Department of State. The Council was established to encourage and foster public interest in the arts; enlarge public and private resources devoted to the arts; promote freedom of expression in the arts; and facilitate the inclusion of art in every public building in New Jersey. The Council receives direct appropriations from the State of New Jersey through a dedicated, renewable Hotel/Motel Occupancy fee, as well as competitive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Please visit www.artscouncil.nj.gov.