Parachute symbolizes the USA, in shreds
Bonnie Meltzer is always on the lookout for fabric for her art projects. When someone tipped her off about a World War II cargo parachute that sat in a barn since 1945, she knew she had something. It was the color of tea and smelled bad.
Her idea germinated on Jan. 20, 2021, when President Joe Biden was inaugurated and she kept hearing people talking about "mending the social fabric." The idea was former President Donald Trump had trashed it, and she would lead a needlepoint militia to fix it. She wanted to make an interactive project where people mended damaged fabric, but wasn't sure of the form: Should it be a large roll of cloth hanging from a wall? How would sewers gather around it?
Then the parachute dropped into her lap. Her friend delivered it before she could say no.
She took it to the large washers at the laundromat, surprised that it cost $10, since she hadn't been in one since it was a quarter for a load. It came out a beautiful creamy white. Hung by its top, it looked like a 20-foot diameter wedding dress or ballgown.
"Tikkun Olam: Mending the Social Fabric" will continue to hang in the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education until Jan. 29.
The Hebrew phrase "tikkun olam" means repairing the world. It is a mitzvah, or duty.
The exhibit was set to open in October 2020, but the pandemic scuttled that. Then, spurred by the year that said "hold my beer," Meltzer added "themes of COVID-19, social justice and safety nets" into the installation.
The parachute hangs from a red rope, which looks like thread attached to a huge, fake silver needle stuck on one wall. The red thread crosses the room to a blue-and-red map of the United States, made from felted wool sweaters. It doubles as a pincushion and holds dozens of pre-threaded needles, ready for volunteers to use to start mending.
Because of the virus, Meltzer did not want anyone threading the needles themselves, wetting the thread with their saliva.
Meltzer has been scheduling sewing bees for the menders to fix the slashes she made all over the fabric. Cross-stitch hoops mark the spots. She can always add more if they finish.
"The very act of gathering together as a community to sew on a giant parachute will help mend the isolation and pain so many have felt in the last year," she said.
If that seems like symbolic busy work or performative activism, Meltzer disagrees.
"It's very calming," Meltzer said. "People who come in groups, they haven't seen their friends in a long time. They see the symbolism, they've been by themselves. They like the community spirit. It reminds them that maybe they should donate or help in some way. Figure out what the small thing is that they can do."
And there are conversations.
"I hear these little snatches of talking about books, talking about things in the news, talking about what they're doing to help," said Meltzer.
Meltzer was pleased to hear that the parachute looks like a wedding dress, a symbol of hope — rather than, as someone else suggested, a ghost.
"I wanted people to have hope and to know that they could be part of something," she said. "Symbolically, you make a few stitches, and it doesn't matter if you make a little or a lot."
Meltzer heard a quote by a first-century rabbi.
"He said, 'It is not your duty to finish the work. But you can't ignore it, either,'" she recalled. "I think that's a perfect metaphor for this piece. It doesn't matter how much you do, but you can do a little bit here and a little bit there."
Meltzer lets people figure out their own way to mend, just as they must to fix the social fabric by using their own imagination and actions. Coming back to the title, she adds that commentary on Scripture is a large part of Jewish intellectual work.
"And there's even a magazine called Tikkun, which is a magazine about social justice. The publisher is Michael Lerner, who was a very socially active rabbi," she explained.
Seventy-five handkerchiefs with inspirational quotes embroidered on them also decorate the swaths of white fabric. All the quotes use textile metaphors, usually about threads and weaving.
For example: "I stitch to amplify the unheard and help mend the tired hands and weary hearts."
That, by Portland fiber and text artist Alicia Decker, is a riff on Portland poet Hazel Hall, who lived at the turn of the century and made her living by sewing.
Meltzer provided the thread and swatches, restricting herself to red and blue to go with the white, and also purple. Meltzer wears a lot of purple.
"Besides liking the color, we're talking about unity, the mixture of red and blue moving together," Meltzer said.
The parachute sits on an 8- by 8-foot platform covered in the union section of the U.S. flag. She got that from a neighbor and used it to add color.
"Some people on the left were horrified that I was using a symbol of American blah, blah, blah, as a negative thing," Meltzer said. "We as Americans have to define what the American flag is. And hugging the American flag and kissing it is not really showing reverence. There's nothing irreverent about this piece. So I don't think the feds are going to come and arrest me."
The back wall is hung with what look like prayer flags, moving from red to blue. They are made from fabrics from all over the world.
"I started in 2019, and this piece was going to be about voting and immigration, because immigration was the hot (issue). The president said terrible things about immigrants, and I come from immigrant parents," Meltzer said. "I came up with a sentence: 'Immigrants are a golden thread woven into the American tapestry.'"
Meltzer went on Facebook and appealed for fabric, to show that Americans come from all over the world. (Tie-dye is found all over the world, in Africa and Japan as well as the Americas.) After George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis, she added that Indigenous people, and African American people, are also golden threads in the U.S. story.
She hopes the piece will be exhibited in a large public space after the OJM show comes down, but she has no illusions. It might end up in a crate for another 75 years. Or she might make like a good Portlander and just recycle it.
"There are always going to be problems to solve," Meltzer said. "And it's always going to be that people have to take part. It's always going to be that you can do a little or a lot. If it's just a little bit, so be it … a little bit is better than nothing."
'Tikkun Olam: Mending the Social Fabric'
There are a few days left when visitors can join the artist in mending bees:
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 20, 21, 27, 28 and 29. Â Â Â
What: A group of volunteers will disconnect some of the supporting wires and stretch out the parachute to fill the room.
When: Saturday Jan. 29 at 2 p.m.
Where: Oregon Jewish Museum,
724 N.W. Davis St., Portland
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the date of President Joe Biden's inauguration. He was sworn into office Jan. 20, 2021. The story has been corrected.
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