Julie Brown Neu sat at her sewing machine, meticulously embroidering letters onto fabric. The finished material poured out of the other side, forming a puddle of names on the ground: Ryan Clark, Ross Alameddine, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak. They were the names of victims in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
Neu had to take a breather at that point. The weight of all those interrupted lives was simply too much. She shut off her machine and walked away. But she’d be back — she had a project to complete.
For almost three years, Neu has created quilts to commemorate the victims of mass shootings in the United States, as well as “protest” quilts to call attention to the issue of gun violence. The exhibit, “Disarming: Memorial Quilts for Mass Shooting Victims,” is on display at the Arlington Center for the Arts until June 10.
“It’s my hope that seeing the quilts all hanging together will help sort of show the scale of the violence,” Neu said. “That it will be difficult to look at 14 quilts with 309 names on them without feeling impacted by the number of people affected.”
Neu, an Arlington resident, 43, began her project in the months after the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting. Requests spread through her quilting community for blankets to comfort the victims’ families and loved ones. Neu had a different idea.
“Any time there is any sort of catastrophe, quilters start sending quilts. It’s something quilters have done since the Civil War,” she said. “I decided instead to make quilts for the victims of the shooting.”
There are 16 pieces on display in the final exhibit. Fourteen of the quilts are part of Neu’s “Victims” collection, which represents the victims of mass shootings during which 10 or more people were killed. Each block on the “Victims” quilts represents a person killed. The colors of the pieces reflect the state flag of the location where the shooting took place (except for the Virginia Tech quilt, which is outfitted in the university’s colors).
“Quilts are a particularly effective medium for addressing this topic. Quilts come imbued with a very specific meaning of home and family and motherhood,” Neu said. “Because they are a comfortable medium, people interact with them as art in a different way. They draw viewers in deeper.”
The other two quilts in the exhibit are from Neu’s “Protest” series, a collection of pieces that reflect social and political issues. One of the quilts, “Bullet Holes,” has strips of fabric for each year between 1990 and 2020. For each strip, there are a number of holes representing each individual killed in a mass shooting that year.
There are 809 holes in “Bullet Holes,” which is updated as of February this year. Neu will add more holes if there are any more mass shootings in 2019 and 2020.
The second “protest” quilt, “In Our Sights,” is crafted from real New York Times newspapers from the week of the 2017 Las Vegas shooting. The papers are sandwiched between two swaths of mesh black fabric, and a neon green gun sight is appliqued over the top.
“I chose to use the actual pages because I wanted the quilt to show the passage of time. As the quilt gets handled more, the pages tear a bit and wrinkle,” Neu said. “Time continues to pass without us really making any changes to our gun control laws in this country. Without those changes, nothing is going to change in this epidemic of gun violence we have.”
The pieces in the exhibit were not easy for Neu to create. Tears were frequently shed during the process. She saved creating the quilt for the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting until last, trying to build up the willpower to face the names of the 20 children, ages 6 and 7, and six educators who were killed.
“I’ve probably touched each name half a dozen times. I’ve found they have sort of imprinted themselves in my heart in a way,” Neu said. “At the exhibit reception, I met the mother of a victim from the Virginia Tech shooting. She walked up and introduced herself as Ross’s mother. I knew exactly who she was talking about.”
Ysabelle Kempe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.