A New Exhibition Takes on Gun Violence in an Unexpected Medium: Quilting

Jill Kerttula never considered herself an activist artist. Until those 12 minutes on October 1, 2017. That’s how long Stephen Paddock spent shooting up a crowd at a music festival in Las Vegas from his hotel room across the street. “It was inconceivable to me, and it was time to say something,” Kerttula says. The result is American Opportunity, the 30-by-40-inch quilt pictured above. Its 851 puncture holes echo the number of people injured that night in Las Vegas; an X is stitched over 58 of the holes to symbolize fatalities.

Kerttula, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and is a member of Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), admits that this isn’t a typical theme in her art, and that she’s not even antigun. “We’ve always had small-game rifles,” she says, “and my son is in the military and learned to shoot early on.” But the massacre in Las Vegas stirred something inside her. Making the quilt, she says, “gave me time to think over the whole thing and absorb what had happened.”

American Opportunity is one of 44 works that will be on display this month at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles in a new—and, sadly, all too timely—traveling exhibition, Guns: Loaded Conversations. While the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the subsequent debate over gun control measures have lent the show a sense of urgency and relevance, curator of exhibitions Amy DiPlacido says that the production was in fact nearly two years in the making. DiPlacido was still reeling from the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, when SAQA approached the 40-year-old museum about the exhibition. “I wanted the museum to tackle these social and political issues,” she says. “I also knew that I needed to take a risk. I figured if we had more relevant themes, perhaps a new audience would come in.”