2023 Zinn Writing Project: Community Quilt Installation


Over the course of ten weeks, Liberty Memorial Central Middle School seventh-grade students studied poetry and visual mark-making with artist Rae Atakpa to create a collaborative textile inspired by the AIDS Memorial quilt and Freedom Quilts of the American South. Students made and used handmade dyes & inks from natural materials like raspberries, turmeric, spinach, and more to explore the theme of ephemeral ecologies.

Each class’s quilt was assembled into a giant mega-quilt and will be on view in the Arts Center’s Main Lobby this summer!


The Zinn Writing Project is made possible by the generous support of the Zinn Family in memory of their daughter, Rebecca Zinn.


Reflections from 2023 Zinn artist Rae Atakpa:

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” -Maya Angelou

Flanked by wild geese, I share a parable about hopeful seeds and hibernating cicadas. The intention of my lessons is to create space to marvel at cycles, connective tissues, and collective power. To practice poetry by noticing the moments of our days that make up the mattering of our lives.

Poetry, I share, is often taught as something that is meant to be formally read and meticulously deconstructed. This is sometimes true and always possible, but this notion flattens poetry’s historical nature. Poetry composes ancestral and contemporary oral tradition, belongs to bards, elders, and choruses, is meant to be shared, spoken, sung—embodied.

This is the principle of our project, to connect with poetic storytellers across time, species, and disciplines by studying art, history, and biology, then utilize this scaffolding to create meditative poetry that delivers the news and engages the senses. To begin, behold.

We look at an array of textiles, considering the symbolism and liberatory mechanisms of Black abolitionist quilts from the Smithsonian to Ms. Marla Jackson, the magnitude and righteous mourning of the ever-growing AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the movement and ecologies of Howardena Pindell and Diedrick Brackens.

We hand bind journals with foraged twigs and fill them with poetry and paint recipes, free-writing, and watercolors, meditating on the potentiality of imagined futures and the life forces that have brought us into the present.

We study cave paintings to learn the foundations of how sequence and light animates artwork.

We examine the function of stenography and shorthand in women’s suffrage. We dive into the genealogy of Nikki Giovanni and Jada Renée Allen traversing cityscapes and wartimes. We read William Carlos Williams, WH Auden, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder contemplating Icarus flying too close to the sun as we study nuclear semiotics and the Human Interference Task Force’s objective to send a warning message 10,000 years / 300 generations into the future.

We consider plant processes, journeys through history that brought them to our grocery store shelves, their regeneration in compost piles and art works, how they speak with and nourish each other through root systems. We concoct natural paints made of foodstuffs—two parts pigment, one part binder, dissolved in solvent with mordant and preservative. We utilize asemic writing principles to design individual quilt blocks that culminate in this massive collaborative endeavor.

The quilt is unified not only by a common palette and burlap backing (used to overwinter plants and garden beds), but by themes engaging nature, decay, and joy. Ephemeral ecologies. Before you are flora and fauna, plastic and smog, and the magical chaos of the mundane.

“Pink sun, purple solar flares, brown mountains / a tree once treed on a hill that had a tree and the trees kept treeing / a light alight, burning day and night / the stitches weave together what was once apart / freedom is the future of earth.”**

Many thanks to the Zinn family, the Lawrence Arts Center, and the Liberty Memorial Central Middle School 7th grade ELA teachers and students for making this project possible.

—rachel j. atakpa (rae/raje)

**selected from student artist statements

further reading

Inciting Joy – Ross Gay

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

Deaf Republic – Ilya Kaminsky

Emergent Strategies – adrienne maree brown


Stop by the Lawrence Arts Center this summer to check-out your art & claim a set of quilt magnets!

Just tell the front desk you’re a Zinn Project artist!