Turning masks into art
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Turning masks into art

South Orange synagogue to transform pandemic symbol into quilted memory 

These masks, and many others, will be sewn into a quilt.
These masks, and many others, will be sewn into a quilt.

It was hard, at first, adjusting to having to wear a mask.

It wasn’t a full-face Halloween or Purim mask, nor a half-face Venetian-style number, all mysterious and seductive.

No, it was more like a muzzle, a thing that covered your mouth and nose, sometimes hard to breathe through, presenting a particular problem for people with allergies because it’s really gross to sneeze when you’re wearing one.

And then we got used to them. We realized how important it was to protect ourselves and each other. It was a small thing to do, and we did it.

Soon, because it’s a human instinct, we also realized that it was another way for each of us to express our individuality. What we put on our faces could help us show who we are; it provided each of us with a blank canvas. We couldn’t smile visibly, but we could signal. 

Cantor Moses’s kids’ hug quilts.

Now, thanks to the miracles of science, the world is changing again. Although it seems that some mask mandates might return as the Delta variant surges, most of us who are vaccinated wear them less and less often. Now we can show other vaccinated people our bare faces. We can smile at people again.

So what are we supposed to do with our stockpiled masks? Should we just throw them out? 

What about sewing them into a quilt?

Cantor Rebecca Moses of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange has commissioned an old college friend, Cynthia Postlewait Concha, who is a quilter and textile artist, to take the masks that synagogue members dropped off a few weeks ago and turn them into a decorative quilt that will be presented to the community on Rosh Hashanah.

This isn’t the first time that the synagogue has commissioned a piece of art, Cantor Moses said. Most recently, some of its students worked with the Wae Center, a West-Orange based program for adults run by the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled, to create a project called A Seat at the Table. “It merged art and Jewish values,” Cantor Moses said. “We talk a lot about the concept of hiddur mitzvah,” not only performing a mitzvah but making it, or the physical object in which it is embodied, beautiful. “So we wanted to be able to take the symbols of the last 18 months and somehow make something beautiful out of it.”

Cynthia Postlewait Concha made all these quilts.

Ms. Postlewait Concha has made many quilts out of “pieces of heirloom fabric,” Cantor Moses said. All of them are decorative, but some are functional as well. “She helped repair some quilts that my mother made for me. I’m a big believer in using the good china. Don’t just put it in a cabinet and look at it. Use it.”

On that principle, “My kids use them. We call them hug quilts, and they sleep with them. When they have a nightmare at night, they can hug the quilt sometimes instead of coming to look for me. It helps them.”

Ms. Postlewait Concha also made the quilt that hangs on Cantor Moses’s wall, visible to people on a Zoom call with her. It, too, has a double purpose, providing  both soundproofing and beauty. “I see it behind me on Zoom every day too, and it is absolutely stunning,” Cantor Moses said.

Making a quilt out of masks, making art out of plague, seems natural, Cantor Moses continued; in fact, she said, “I’m not sure why more people aren’t doing something like this. There is a long tradition of turning bullets into artwork. 

“It is labor intensive, but during the pandemic, so many people have gone back to handicrafts. So many people made sourdough starters, or took up knitting — and good on them! I’ve been a knitter for decades, and it was hard for me to find yarn. I’ve found so many therapeutic benefits, for so long, in knitting, and I’m so glad that other people are finding that as well.

The one that hangs behind Cantor Moses when she’s on Zoom.

“So when I asked Cynthia if she’d make a quilt, she said, ‘Absolutely. Send me everything you have, and we’ll talk about it.’ She knows that this is more than a normal quilt. This is being able to channel everything we went through — and of course she went through it as well. 

“A quilt can be so much more than a failed sourdough starter.”

Some congregants are not comfortable with the idea, Cantor Moses said. “A couple of people said, ‘I don’t know if I want a quilt made out of masks. I don’t know if I’ll want to be reminded about the pandemic.’ And my response is, ‘You’ll be reminded of it anyway. This will be around for a long time. We might as well have something beautiful to remember it with.’”

There is something deeply Jewish about making quilts from masks, Cantor Moses said. “As Jews, we’ve been doing that for a long time — taking the pieces that are around us and making it into something beautiful.”

There’s a children’s book, “Something From Nothing,” by Phoebe Gillman, that retells the Jewish folktale of how a blanket became a jacket, a button, and then eventually a story, as it was used and loved. It’s one of her children’s favorite books, Cantor Moses said; the resonances are unavoidable.

Cantor Moses sent Ms. Postlewait Concha about 200 masks; they’re all clean, and they’re all different from each other, she said. “We had families with children who became bar or bat mitzvah drop off masks with the dates on them. There were Ruth Bader Ginsburg masks. People brought masks with all sorts of wonderful designs and crazy colors. I think that it is so representative of our community. We are all so different, and we are each just a little bit quirky in our own wonderful way.

“Hopefully, when people see the quilt, they’ll be able to say ‘Look! That little bit over there! That’s me! And I’m right next to 100 people who I don’t know yet. Isn’t it great?’

“Every piece of it will and won’t go with every other piece of it. We are all creating something that is so much greater than the sum of its parts.”

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