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Textile Artist Creates Interactive Healing Project, One Stitch at a Time

Article written by Leah Kohlenberg

Help Mend the Social Fabric at Tikkun Olam, Showing at the Jewish Museum, Oct 7, 2021 - Jan 30, 2022

NOTE:  Each year, Portland Open Studios designates at least one art destination, to direct attention to artists and art projects we find exciting and inspiring.   Read about this year’s art destination below.

For artist Bonnie Meltzer, Jan. 20, 2017 was a bellweather moment. 

“Do you remember what happened?” she asks.  “Trump took office.  I was sitting there, stunned, and everyone on tv and radio started talking about the unraveling of the social fabric.”

That phrase sparked an idea for her, and she began collecting the idioms about how people used the terms “social fabric” to discuss the unrest stirred up by the Trump administration.  “It became a kind of hobby for me,” she says.   So Meltzer, who is at heart a multi-media artist with a textile bent, began envisioning how she could use textiles to visualize the unraveling everyone was talking about.  She crocheted large nets using fishing line weaving in found objects like black beads and mussel shells to represent air quality, and her first show, “The Unraveling of the Social Fabric, opened at the Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River in 2018.

“We all know about this unraveling,” she said.  “There was another step for me.   I wanted to do something about the mending of the social fabric.”

This October, Meltzer will open the interactive exhibition Tikkun Olam:  Mending of the Social Fabric at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in Portland.    As a Portland Open Studios artist destination, she will be open during the two weekends of the tour, Oct. 9, 10, 16 and 17, and the museum has waived the entry fee for visitors to experience Meltzer’s show for free.

Tikkun Olam is Hebrew and means “to repair the world.”  The evolving exhibit is mounted on a giant parachute, hanging, wedding dress like, from the ceiling.   Meltzer has spent the year embroidering positive phrases and imagery onto the parachute.  Before the pandemic over 40 people helped her sew at sewing bees in her studio. Now it is your turn to sew.  At its base are embroidery hoops with tears in the center of the fabric.  Meltzer has already threaded needles and fabric patches and invites visitors to sew on the parachute with her.

“This can be done singly or people can come in groups, and work on it together,” she says.  “You don’t have to be good at sewing, or if you are, you can leave something exquisite.  All experience levels are welcome, I will be there to guide you”. 

Meltzer, age 76, has spent her life as an installation multi-media artist, getting a graduate degree in textile arts at the University of Washington in 1971, and creating art ever since.  While this isn’t her first interactive exhibit, it may be her most ambitious to date.   She’s received a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, donations through her GOFUNDME site, and she’s received contributions from around the world. Already over 100 people have contributed in time, fabric or money to the project.  “I recently got some fabrics sent to me from Poland,” she reported excitedly.

“It is so right for the time,” she says, of the wide interest this show has garnered.  “It speaks to our better nature, how we want to heal.”

Meltzer is no stranger to Portland Open Studios.  She served on the volunteer board when it first started 23 years ago, and she built the first website in 2000 and spent ten years running publicity.   The show will be up for four months at the Jewish Museum, opening officially on Oct. 7.  The museum is normally closed on Sundays and is open then especially for Portland Open Studios.

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