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This fiber artist is enlisting ICA visitors for her ‘portrait of the community’ quilt

Fiber artist Merrill Comeau stands before her "“Threads of Connection” quilt at the ICA.Cassandra Rodriguez

Merill Comeau’s “Threads of Connection” wasn’t finished when it opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art last weekend. That’s because the Concord-based fiber artist designed it to be a collaborative, evolving quilt, inviting visitors to select their own fabric (from the array of scraps she provides) for a conglomeration of community. We reached Comeau by phone last week to ask about “Threads of Connection” and the experience it provides for ICA visitors. The interview was condensed and edited.

Q. What material did you use to get “Threads of Connection” started?

A. The materials have all been donated to me or salvaged. They include table linens, discarded designer fabric samples and clothing that’s been deconstructed and reconstructed. I believe that I take hundreds of snippets and puzzle them out and put it together again to create. It’s an impulse to create order out of disorder. It’s an impulse to have some control.

Q. You generally use discarded materials in your fiber work. Can you tell me about that?


A. I always have worked with what is in front of me and at hand. For one thing, I’m committed to the reuse of consumer goods rather than putting them in the trash. Part of it is a reflection of an environmental concern — I myself have been composting for over 30 years. What I discard turns into black gold and grows the next season’s plants, so it was very consistent with how I see the world. We have an inequitable use of resources and we use more than our share here in the United States, so just being more thoughtful about getting more than one use out of any one item.

Q. You’ve done collaborative public art installations before. Tell me about your past projects.

A. Sometimes it’s with children, sometimes it’s with adults. I’ve done everything from a one-day event, a big music festival in Lowell, where people cut out shapes that were evoked by their experience, and we made a big fabric mandala on the ground. I have also worked with youth in the Department of Youth Services system where, over a series of months, we explored a particular topic then represented that in textiles and a wall hanging.


Merrill Comeau worked with young ICA visitors during a printmaking workshop.Cassandra Rodriguez

Q. How will the ICA installation be interactive?

A. The intention of the ICA is to have an installation that has threads of connection to work that’s in the galleries. There are threads of connection between what’s in the gallery and my installation that’s on the wall. There’s people like Josh Faught who has a piece [a mixed media work incorporating hemp, sequins, and a wooden garden trellis] upstairs in the gallery. I believe strongly, and the ICA does as well, that everyone can have entry into art. Everyone can look at art and engage with it in some way. [My] piece was made specifically for Art Lab, and considering the population that goes to Art Lab, I chose very colorful textile sources and a lot of hand stitching and recognizable elements. Participants are going to be able to pick their own colors and put together their own 6-inch-by-6-inch piece that reflects their relationship to color and textiles but also relates to the work on the wall and what’s happening upstairs.

Q. What are you hoping participants take away from the experience?


A. I hope they have a good time. I’m hoping this is fun and expressive and that there’s joy in experiencing color. I will say this too: the individual contributions are reflective of how unique we are as individuals and the piece that we’re putting together is a collaborative piece that’s a portrait of the community at a time where everyone keeps talking about polarization. I’m hoping this is a portrait of what a beautiful community we make when all of us get put into the same piece.


At the Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through June 21, Saturdays and Sundays, noon-4 p.m. 617-478-3100,

Grace Griffin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GraceMGriffin.