I work part time as the Parish Administrator at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, in San Francisco. I’m not a member, but I do feel like I belong in a way to this unique faith community. This month St. Gregory’s is featuring stories about extravagant generosity and since I had a story along those lines I decided to share.
Manna (1996), 130″ x 120″, was inspired by a sermon preached at my church at that time, United Church of Chapel Hill. Both the sermon and the quilt explore the story in Exodus 16:1-36 about God providing daily bread for the people of Israel while they were wandering in the desert after their escape from slavery in Egypt. The story goes that God rained bread from heaven, in the form of “manna” translated as “what is it?” every night and that the people were to gather just enough each morning to last the day. Since the people had little faith, they hoarded the manna, but to no avail. Except on the Sabbath, the manna became foul and wormy after a day.
My idea was to focus on the extravagant generosity of God’s providence, but I struggled for almost two years with this quilt. It didn’t start to flow until I finally gave into telling the story, which was my story, of how human fear and lack of faith in the providence of the Universe made me cling to the laws of scarcity and poverty. The golden piles of the hoarded manna became figures filled with avarice, laziness, fear, and the soured ideas of scarcity and control. The figures are golden but wormy, laced with barbed wire, and oozing blood.
In 1998 I was doing my first Artist Residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. Part of the residency includes an open house where visitors can come and meet the artists and view the work being made in the studios. The open house began with a slide review of past work by resident artists and at this review there happened to be a group of board members visiting from Villa Montalvo, a budding arts center in Saratoga.
After the slide review one of these board members came to my studio and asked me questions about Manna which she had seen in the review. She wanted to know what size it was, the story behind it, where it was currently hanging, how much it cost. I answered her questions and told her the price was $10,000. Without batting an eye she whipped out her check book and wrote a check on the spot. She asked if I could have the quilt shipped from North Carolina to her home in Carmel. Needless to say there was plenty of jaw dropping happening as word about the sale spread.
About a week later I received a letter from my patron saying that she had decided not to take the quilt after all because it was going to be too big for her home in Carmel. She instructed me to keep the $10,000 as a gift in support of my ongoing creative work – imagine even more jaw dropping going on as the letter got passed around! My fellow residents and the staff could hardly believe this act of extravagant generosity.
After being exhibited at several arts centers and museums the large barbed wire quilt found a temporary home at my church in Chapel Hill. In 2002 when I decided to return to school for my MFA, the church offered me a $6000 scholarship to attend the graduate art program at Bard College, in exchange for permanent loan of Manna.
Manna has an extraordinary provenance. To this day I wonder about the wealthy woman who wanted to own a quilt that told the story of our human greed and lack of faith, with only a hint of the Universe’s extravagant generosity in the background.
I wonder about my patron’s extravagant generosity as I remember her call months later telling me how happy she was to support artists out of her gratitude for all of the wealth and good fortune in her life. I remember telling her about my pending divorce and how her gift was providing much-needed financial stability during a devastating and unexpected shift in my life.
I wonder about the extravagant generosity of my home church that freed me from the debt of student loans, again due to this quilt which was a testament to my fear and disbelief in the providence of God, the Universe, the Source, my Higher Power, my Inner Wisdom, of Chance, etc to take care of my basic needs.
I wonder about the way Inner Wisdom has come to me and others through this quilt, and about the power, the extravagant generosity of art to move people and rain bread from heaven.
I wonder about how this one quilt, that came early in my journey as an artist, continues to serve as a living testament to the extravagant generosity of a Higher Power, assuring me that I will be provided for on a daily basis, especially in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of wandering in the wilderness, in the midst of rational knowledge and a climate of skepticism that advises against such a possibility, in the midst of wondering at the edge of the unknown, which is after all, the artist’s way.