If Lisa Garlock were to sew an arpillera (story quilt) of her life, it would necessarily be busy. In the upper left, she might start with a scene from her youth overseas, when she wanted to be a scientist. Still on the top half, she might incorporate a print illustrating her education as an artist at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a small painting of her graduate work in art therapy at Nazareth College. In the center, she might place a mandala to represent her recovery from years of osteoarthritis in her hands, which hampered her artistically as it strengthened her spiritually. And in the lower panel, bordered by her vibrant handmade beads, she might show herself leading George Washington University art therapy students to India, where in Chennai, they guide women in telling their tales of gender-based violence using arpilleras. After she finished, Garlock might tack a pocket onto the back to hold a written narrative.
Through arpilleras, Garlock practices art therapy, a field of arts in health. But she wasn’t always interested in mental health. To fund her life as a young artist, she taught printmaking, waitressed, and worked in a gallery. Then, she took a job as an employment counselor to youth and adults. She loved counseling but missed art. One day, she attended a workshop on reducing recidivism in prisoners. On her way home, art therapy popped into her mind.
“The self-focus and almost isolation of being an artist wasn’t enough for me and often isn’t enough for other art therapists,” Garlock said. “I asked, what can I do socially with art? Also, as an artist I always felt bad about using so many different materials. But art therapists need to know a lot of media. Art and therapy were a perfect match for me.”
Art Therapy and Arpilleras
For the rest of us, art and therapy can be scary. We might not have drawn or gotten knee-deep in glitter or finger paint since we were children. And most of us don’t take time or have money for analysis, self-driven or professionally led. We think we have to withhold every emotion, conquer all tragedy, and produce only perfect art. But we might find art therapy intriguing and fabric surprisingly friendly. It’s tactile and forgiving. Sewing can be soothing. Women, who so often make their families’ clothes, find great solace in quilting. When working in groups, they connect. They share stories of poverty, war, illness, and gender-based violence. Their stress lifts. The fabric holds their tears—to paraphrase Chilean artist Roberta Bacic, as Garlock did.
Arpillera means burlap in Spanish. To their creators and art therapists, arpilleras de adorno are colorful appliqués that heal and endure. They were born of the first September 11, the one in Chile in 1973, when the military overthrew the government and declared martial law. Dissenters, mostly men, were questioned, and many were imprisoned and tortured. Others simply vanished. The Catholic Church intervened to help women produce arpilleras to generate income. In their story quilts, they combined paid work, political resistance, and their own version of talk therapy. To memorialize the “disappeared,” they stitched in three-dimensional figures of loved ones dressed in bits of left-behind clothing. Through the women’s artistry, word spread beyond Chile of the horrors of the dictatorship.
Arpilleras, as art or art therapy, flourish throughout Latin America and in Bosnia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laos, Northern Ireland, the United States, and Zimbabwe. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is but one example. But they didn’t enter Garlock’s world until a few years ago, even though she had minored in textile arts. The Latin American crafts gallery, where she had worked years before, exhibited Chilean arpilleras and Guatemalan traditional clothing, which decades of conflict (1960–1996) had virtually wiped out. She became fascinated by the narrative quilts of African American women of Gee’s Bend and Esther Krinitz, a seamstress who wanted her children to touch her personal history forty years after she had escaped from the Nazis. Garlock admired the patterns, colors, and the women’s resiliency, how—together or alone—they had sewn up their lives.
Arpilleras in Prison
She went back to prison. She held her first arpilleras group for women in transition. She confessed she found her task frustrating: “Most had been told they shouldn’t dwell on the bad things, but if you haven’t processed trauma, then it’s going to be hard to stay focused on the positive and move forward,” Garlock said.
They needed to find jobs and housing, stay clean, and reconnect with family. Most had no sewing background and were unfamiliar with art therapy. They could hardly see the connection between art and their health as returning citizens. Some joined the group to learn sewing; others were severely traumatized. Many were unaware of traumatic experiences in their pasts. One stitched quietly, unengaged, and couldn’t finish her arpillera by the time the group disbanded. Another spoke only with Garlock. Drawing in pastels was enough to satisfy one woman, while another put great care into creating the border of her arpillera but couldn’t decide what to put inside. Yet another, who couldn’t physically sew, used sticky tape to connect fabric images to the background of her quilt. She managed to tell a complete story— some of it fantasy, some of it real—remained in the present, and enjoyed the process.
“Art does intimidate a lot of people. It’s a different language, so it takes time to teach the skills. There can be a lot of storytelling going on in a group but not a lot of sewing,” Garlock said.
Rachel Cohen, Garlock’s colleague in Switzerland and founder of Common Threads, introduced mindfulness practices and arpilleras to trained artists and therapists in Ecuador. They, in turn, worked with women who had survived gender-based violence in a frontier town. Although they came from a culture of sewing, most had never worked with fabric. Three or four women in the two twelve-week programs recorded trauma; the others stitched idyllic scenes. Recently, the women exhibited their work in Quito. Cohen and Garlock want to document the results quantitatively.
Current Endeavors, Future Plans
For four summers, Garlock has supervised George Washington University art therapy students on two-week trips to India, where they have worked in schools, hospitals, and a shelter. Last season, Garlock’s students collected bags of beautiful fabric scraps from local tailors. At first, the women in the shelter didn’t want to use the castoffs. But by the last day, they preferred them. An Indian art therapist now uses recycled material in her arpilleras therapy.
This year, Garlock plans to offer a class on sewing arpilleras to her art therapy students at George Washington, and in September in Geneva, she and Cohen hope to hold the first international conference on narrative textiles.
When asked to cite her most heart-warming experiences, Garlock mentioned her work with students and the invitation to show her arpillera, School Field Trip (see photo, above), at the Parque de la Memoria in Buenos Aires. It tells Silvia’s story. One day, leading up to the Argentine Dirty War (1976–1983), Silvia went on a school field trip. As she and her classmates returned to the bus, riot police descended on nearby protestors. Things got ugly. Silvia went into exile, alone, and later became an architect, a nun, and then a social worker. In Garlock’s quilt, wind tears off tiny garments from a clothesline. They disappear, just as so many people did. The little banner is a ribbon from a rally held years later to commemorate the lost. It bears the name of one victim, whose life nobody—not even an artist and art therapist like Garlock—can weave back together.