Extinction Mourning Gown – by Sherrell Biggerstaff Cuneo

I started Sew The SEEDS, a project making quilt panels about endangered species with kids, back in 2013. It was an incredibly wonderful and fulfilling experience. At the same time I began making panels of my own for extinct species with the ultimate plan of making an extinction quilt with eight panels. Somewhere along the line I started feeling the burden of the slowness of my process as compared to the speed with which we are losing species daily. As someone who enjoys making, I also began feeling that I was losing the ‘magic’ that I needed to sustain myself and the work. Into this equation crept Agnes Richter.

Agnes Richter was a German seamstress living in an insane asylum during the 1890s. She covered her uniform jacket (it is often erroneously referred to as a straitjacket) in thoughts, pictures, and often undecipherable ramblings. Her jacket, along with the works of other patients, was collected by Hans Prinzhorn, who later published ‘Artistry of the Mentally Ill’.

Agnes’ Jacket is part of the Prinzhorn collection at the University Hospital in Heidelberg. It has a special place for stitchers, and as a piece of outsider art. For me it has always had a kind of magic, exactly the kind of magic I was missing. Here then was a way of back to the magic. Here was a quicker way to record the passings. A name is something. Sometimes something very important. A lament circles the neck, followed by the five previous major extinction events; and then the sixth, the Anthropocene. 666666 etc. The rest to be filled with names. As things progressed, brief stories and thoughts on the process found their way in, and the extinction symbol.

Is this penance, she wonders.

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Sherrell Biggerstaff Cuneo is founder of Sew the Seeds community arts quilt project

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