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David Charity addresses hunger, human trafficking and other social issues through quilts

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"These aren't your grandmother's quilts," said Marcie Emily, docent at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, while leading a tour through MANifestations, the twelfth biennial exhibition of quilts made by men. As she walked by each quilt, she discussed techniques, the price of the fabric, and which were hand-sewn and which machine-made. When she arrived at three black-and-white quilts with stark, violent lines and graffiti stenciled on the fabric, she froze; these quilts make her nervous. Looking more like Soviet agitprop than Amish crafts, one depicted a slave, another a starving child and the third a woman chained to a bed. Describing quilter David Charity's intent, Emily stumbled over the words "sexual exploitation," and then assured the group that despite the violent images, the artist was a warm and charming man and very good at explaining his own work. So Westword took the cue and talked to Charity about social issues, art, craft and gender in the quilting world.

See also: Fashion designer Jasmine Zion talks about her quilted vagina skirt

Westword: When did you start quilting?

David Charity: I've been quilting for six years; my wife has been quilting since the mid-1980s. I used to support her hobby, go to quilt shows with her and pay attention to what was going on. I learned all about quilting but wasn't too interested in putting triangles, squares and blocks together. She decided to take an art-quilt class from a man named Phil Beaver. He taught her how to hand-dye fabric, and she came home with this sunflower quilt. I looked at it and thought, that's really interesting: I might like to try something like that. I took a class from Jane Lafazio. She specializes in multimedia and collage work. During those classes, I created my first quilt, which was a little collage piece called "PB&J and Tuna Fish Sandwiches." It depicted my grandfather, my father and myself fishing.

Talk about your three works on display at the RMQM.

In quilting art, most people doing statement pieces deal with environmental issues, and that's really important. I don't see too many focusing on human-condition issues. We don't have any children of our own, but I have a soft spot for kids. I thought about all these issues, involving children around the world, which are being ignored. In the United States, we live in comfort. We don't see a lot of suffering; if we do, we tend to ignore it. I saw this as an opportunity to make people think twice about these issues.

The first piece, "In Our Comfort," was about hunger. The organization Quilts on the Wall was doing a special exhibit called Black and White with a Twist. I immediately started thinking about hunger and children. With black and white, the white represents the innocence of the child, and the black represents the desperation and the possible death of the child. It fit for the black-and-white theme. That's how this entire series was born.

The second quilt was the forced labor piece. Children produce a lot of the products in the world, including all the luxury goods: cotton, carpets, chocolate and gems. Kids tend to work the most dangerous jobs that adults won't do. That really bothered me. That's where I got the idea to bring up the issue of forced labor.

The third piece in the series is about human trafficking. I drew the young lady on the bed. There are cuffs on her wall, and she's chained. Those chains represent the different kinds of oppression that trafficked kids go through. I'm working on a fourth piece in that series; it will be about the heaviest issue: domestic abuse. I led a Bible study for ten years. I never realized how many people have broken childhoods, until I started working with women who had experienced childhood verbal and physical abuse. I felt I had an opportunity to make a statement about these issues impacting children, issues that can be pretty easily ignored. Keep reading to find out what David Charity thinks about the role of gender in the quilt world.

This exhibition they're doing at the RMQM focused on male quilters. Talk about your experience of gender in the quilt world.

The man-angle is interesting. In some ways, being a man in the quilt world has been an advantage. The first big quilt shows I went to, the women used to call me "The Guy." "Hey, there's the guy." It was kind of funny.

This series I've done has had extremely mixed reviews depending on where the quilts are going. When my pieces have gone to quilt shows, quite frankly, a lot of women don't want to look. They go to the quilt show and want to see pretty things that will make them feel good. They look my quilts, say "yuck" and turn and run. I get many women who come up and say, "Why did you do that? Why would you want to create something so ugly?" After I saw that response, I almost stopped, because it was rather discouraging. They were so poorly received. My wife was extremely encouraging. She said, "O,h no. No, this is good. Keep going."

When I first put these pieces in an art exhibit, I found that they were well-received. People from the art world saw my work from a completely different viewpoint than people from the quilt world. I got excited. People approached me and asked me all sorts of questions. At the RMQM, I got that same good feeling. I could really tell people appreciated the art form. They appreciated the statements that I was trying to make in those pieces. It was one of the best receptions I've ever had.

MANifestations will be on display at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum, 1213 Washington Avenue in Golden, through April 29. Admission is $6; for more information, go to the RMQM website or call 303-277-0377.

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