Writing :: I write books, stage plays, one-and-two women performances, journals, and heaps of old-fashioned notes and letters.
Stitching :: I stitch the marks made by my developmentally-disabled sister-in-law, Nancy. Hymns of Cloth, I call them.
Performing :: I perform . . . well, shoot. Being a woman who was raised in The South, I could tell you that I’ve been performing all my life, and that’d be the truth. But now, I like to take to a real stage every now ’n then and tell a story. Or seven.
I write, stitch, and perform for the same reasons: to shine a light between the cracks and see who or what fell there – because I adore surprise – and because laughter is my all-time favorite language. The stitching, though, is actually More. I stitch Nancy’s drawings to give her – this wise woman that society is so quick to turn away from – a voice. Nancy may not be able to make a bed or bake a cake or even brush her teeth without a little help, but she has so much she could teach us . . . if only we’d be still, shush, and pay attention.
In June of 2012, a friend and I hopped into her convertible to visit my 57 year-old developmentally disabled sister-in-law, Nancy, for her first-ever all girls weekend. We kicked the weekend off the way anybody would: we got all sugared-up with hot fudge sundaes and milkshake chasers. Once the table had been cleared, I gave Nancy my journal and a pen and asked her to write her name for me. It’s our ritual because once upon three-decades ago, when we lived closer to each other, Nancy and I worked hard on her reading and writing.
She wrote “N – A – N,” then the “cy” dribbled off down the righthand side of the page. “This right here is a woman going through menopause,” I told my friend. “Her entire identity is changing, and this is the only way she knows how to express it.” Nancy lifted the pen from the paper, indicating that she wanted me to turn the page for her, then surprised me by doing something she’s never done before: drawing. She drew and she drew and she drew: 167 drawings.
I called The Engineer (Nancy’s brother, my husband) and leapt right in without asking how his day was. “Sugar,” I told him, “there are two things you need to know. Number One: this woman-child never rides in anything but a convertible ever again as long as I’m around because she never stopped smiling and we needed 14 sticks of dynamite to get her out of the car. And number two: I’m gonna’ need to make a run to the fabric store ‘cause she’s drawing – yes, drawing – and I’m gonna stitch every one of ‘em.”
“What’s she drawing and what are you gonna’ do with them once you’ve stitched them?” he asked, which was kinda what I expected he’d say.
“We’ve had this talk before,” I told him. “This is the unknowing part. The mystery part. The trust part. And believe it or not, the fun part. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that my bones say I HAVE to do this.”
I made Nancy an art box that she keeps at school, and it’s filled with an assortment of pens and crayons because I want to give this woman, who has so little agency in her own life, an opportunity to at least choose which marker and what color she feels like using.
To this day, I continue to stitch every one of Nancy’s marks. At the end of each visit, I bring home a set of drawings – set 1 contained 167 drawings; set 2: 454 drawings; set 3: 271 drawings; and set 4: 90 drawings. I scan them, put them in sheet protectors, and store them in binders. Then I print each drawing in the set, pin the paper to the cloth, and stitch right through the paper, using lighted tweezers to remove all the pesky little bits of paper once the stitching is done. When a set is finished, it becomes a piece in the series I call In Our Own Language. I’m currently stitching In Our Own Language 4, and The Story and Wonder continues to Surprise, Delight, and Unfold . . . all on its own without any blueprint from The Engineer or planning ahead (other than cloth and thread selection) on my part.
Jeanne Hewell-Chambers, BS, MA/TLA is the Court Jester of the mythological (and downsized) empty nest that’s now filled with aging pets, aging parents, and a retired husband. In Our Own Language 1 was in an exhibit at the now-defunct Florida Museum for Women Artists, and Apocrypha 1 (a smaller piece in another series) was invited to to the International Quilt Festival in Ireland. This fall, Nancy and Jeanne will exhibit at Invisible:VisAble at the Abernathy Arts Center in Atlanta.