Handmade happiness

For this art collective displaying work at the Telfair Art Fair, it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood

Back in the summer of 2012, many hearts were touched by an exhibit at the Jepson Center called Journey to the Beloved Community.

Featuring colorful wall quilts and stunning portraits, the exhibit was a tribute to the ideal promoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a "heaven on earth" where all humans care and are cared for by each other.

Some of those exquisite textile compositions were created by social worker and award-winning visual artist Beth Mount, a pioneer in person-centered planning for those living with physical and mental disabilities. A longtime colleague of Citizens Advocacy director Tom Kohler, Mount traveled to Savannah from New York for the opening to explain how artwork can activate a person's self-worth and knock down walls between people who believe they have nothing to say to each other.

The evidence could be found in another of the Jepson's sun-dappled spaces: More wall quilts, less ornate than Mount's but just as evocative, made by the little hands of children in the aftercare program at the West Broad YMCA and the elderly palms of residents at the City of Savannah's Hudson Hill Golden Age Center. Depicting scenes of everyday life of the young and old, the collaborative works expressed themes of love, food and the desire for home.

Facilitated by West Broad Y program coordinator Molly Lieberman, the story quilt project rippled positive feedback through the Y community, especially those who considered themselves outside the boundary of who an artist could be.

Some of the participants had never stepped foot inside an art museum, let alone thought that their work could hang in one. Suddenly, Lieberman, who runs the Loop it Up Savannah youth sewing program, heard many requests for sewing lessons.

The young ones and the elders had their chance to create. Why not those in between?

"After the show came down, a lot of the moms around here at the Y wanted to learn how to make quilts," she says. "So we started having these weekly get-togethers."

Quilting has always been a metaphoric and literal expression of community, as it almost always requires help: Someone to hold the piece while another stitches, many hands to complete a bed-sized work.

More experienced seamstresses like Tina Hicks, who teaches crafting and crochet at Hudson Hill, and Barbara Morgan, retired special needs teacher from Long Island, found themselves teaching others like Phyllis Jones and Freda Jones how to thread needles and calculate fabric cuts.

"I literally knew no one in Savannah before I got involved," says Morgan. "Now I have a family."

The meetings were so popular that they outgrew the few sewing machines Lieberman carried back and forth from the building. That was when Mount introduced her to the Sewing Machine Project, a non-profit based out of Wisconsin that donates machines to individuals and community centers to "mend social barriers" and provide a means of income.

The project has shipped machines from New Orleans to Sri Lanka, and the makers of Savannah's West Broad Y fit the parameters as worthy recipients.

"Beth told me to ask for what I wanted —" recalls Lieberman.

"And we got the Cadillac models!" interjects Hicks.

Those Cadillacs are 10 high-end Bernina sewing machines and two surgers that the group uses to construct the basic parts of the quilts. The rest is sewn by hand.

Soon potholders, pillows, placemats, dolls, purses, jewelry and other items were added to the inventory, and the group of amateur artisans evolved into a business collective they call Handmade Neighborhood.

Handmade Neighborhood is a social network of women from all races, ages and parts of town. It's also a way to supplement the incomes of group members, some of whom struggle to support their families with part-time employment and government assistance.

Though a handful of members assembled at their old room at the Y for this interview, Handmade Neighborhood now meets every other week at Scribble Art Studio, another validation that their work is valuable — and viable.

"I always made jewelry as a hobby, as gifts for my nieces," explains Phyllis, a part-time crossing guard with tubes of sparkly bracelets decorating both arms. "If I can make a little money at it, that's so great."

The women set up a colorful booth for their wares at last month's Food Day festival and also receive commissions from local organizations. Their first was an order for 200 tote bags for the Creative Coast, and more recently, an order of totes made from recycled banners and bicycle tires for the Savannah Bicycle Coalition.

This weekend, Handmade Neighborhood joins 80 other juried artists at the 19th annual Telfair Art Fair. The outdoor event attracts thousands of visitors who come to peruse and buy artwork from established artists competing for $12,000 in prizes.

"I appreciate that a really respected institution like the Telfair would pull us in," says Lieberman.

The women are hard at work binding one of the large quilts for sale, proceeds to be split between members. As profits rise, the ultimate goal of the collective is to establish a scholarship fund that will cover daycare costs while Handmade Neighborhood mothers pursue employment and education.

"Being a part of this looks good on a resume, it shows you're able to be part of a group dynamic," says Freda, still dressed in a black blazer from a job interview.

It also nourishes that sense of worth that Mount extolled two summers ago. For the women who grew up in the nearby housing projects, it is a priceless resource.

"There's this perception sometimes that if you are one who receives a lot, then you have nothing to give. This sets up the expectation as a two-way street," contemplates Lieberman as she helps Freda's daughter, Kara, stack wildly-patterned placemats.

"It all goes back to the Beloved Community," affirms Hicks with a nod. "I'm so glad that people will get to hear about a positive story from this area. People see MLK Boulevard on the news and think it's all bad — but there is so much happiness here."

Surrounded by colorful fabric and scissors and finished items for sale, the women of Handmade Neighborhood agree that even with the extra cash, the best part of working together is sharing stories.

"I grew up in Frazer Homes right over there, and I played at this Y every day," adds Phyllis, her bangles jangling.

"This is home."