A Long-Distance Quilting Bee: COVID Honor Quilt Project Offers Healing and Connection

It started as a way to connect with an aging parent and has turned into a community-building project with national ambitions.

Diane Canney, a Loudoun artist and winery owner, developed plans for the COVID-19 U.S. Honor Quilt as a way to connect with her 95-year-old mother who lives in a retirement community in Florida. In the process, she realized the project’s enormous potential for building unity and offering an outlet for collective grief during the COVID pandemic. 

“It is a long-distance quilting bee in a sense,” Canney said. 

Canney, who owns Sunset Hills Vineyard and 50 West Vineyards with her husband Mike, is inviting artists and non-artists in Loudoun and around the country to submit quilt squares to pay tribute to those lost to COVID and to honor first responders and medical professionals. The first phase of the project will be unveiled in mid-September at 50 West Vineyards near Middleburg in conjunction with the upcoming Loudoun Arts Film Festival. 

The project got rolling during a phone call for her mom’s 95th birthday earlier this month. Canney was feeling the loss of not being able to celebrate with her in person because of COVID-related visitation restrictions and was looking for ways to celebrate her in a meaningful way.

“My mother has always been extraordinarily community-minded and empathetic,” Canney said. “She said, ‘Diane you have so much energy. I wish you could do something about this pandemic.’”

Canney got the idea for a series of quilts, with individual squares contributed from around the country.

“I said let’s come up with something affordable, transportable and historical,” Canney said. “We can make them in a COVID-safe environment, we can transport them, and we can create moveable, viewable art.”

Canney has issued a call for artists and non-artists alike to send in 10-inch by 10-inch squares with a focus on memorializing lost loved ones and honoring frontline heroes. Her idea is that friends and family can virtually work together on quilts. Canney’s mother is working on a Florida-themed square with a palm tree as an expression of gratitude for staff in her retirement community.

Canney is a longtime artist and is hoping for contributions from Loudoun’s dynamic arts community. But she underscores that the project is open to all.

Diane Canney paints a square that will become part of the COVID-19 U.S. Honor Quilt.

“This is for anyone from 5 to 105,” she said. “It does not require any artistic or sewing skills,” she said.

Canney has put together a team of skilled quilters to complete the quilts with contributed squares. The idea is to make individual submissions as simple as possible. She wants to get children of all ages involved and will provide materials and supplies for families in need.

The project is inspired by America’s long history of memorial quilts and also in part by the AIDS Memorial Quilt, launched in 1985 and displayed on the National Mall in 1996 to memorialize individuals who died in the AIDS pandemic. But Canney says her project is not intended as a political gesture and her hope is that it will offer a sense of unity during challenging times.

“This is intentionally apolitical, only about bringing unity and remembrance and healing to the community because COVID affects all of us,” she said. “It has to be sophisticated, kind and thoughtful.”

Canney says she was inspired by the longstanding American tradition of mourning quilts, using pieces of clothing and other meaningful items. Creating a quilt can be a source of healing for families after the loss of loved ones, she says, especially during the COVID pandemic when families can’t come together to mourn in community.

“How do we provide comfort in a simple, affordable way?” Canney said. “They have this way of grieving with an art form.” 

Canney also plans to create a voluntary online database to memorialize individuals who died from COVID, including digital images of the quilt squares and details about people’s lives.

“To remember that this person had value. That they are not a number. That they’re a name and a story,” she said.

Canney will also donate extra material from the quilting project to Loudoun County PPE Makers for ongoing mask projects. That organization has donated nearly 10,000 pieces of protective equipment since the pandemic began.

The COVID-19 U.S. Honor Quilt project is co-sponsored by the Loudoun Arts Council and the Leesburg-based Artistic Fuel Foundation. The deadline for submissions for Phase 1 of the project is Monday, Sept. 14. The squares will be unveiled during the second weekend of Loudoun Arts Film Festival, which runs Sept. 10-13 and Sept. 17-19 with drive-in screenings at 50 West. Canney will continue to accept squares for the project’s second phase through the end of the year and possibly beyond.

A square that will become part of the COVID-19 U.S. Honor Quilt.

Canney hopes Loudouners will get the ball rolling so organizers can take the project to a national audience. She has also contacted the Smithsonian Institution for potential support.

For Canney, whose wineries in western Loudoun are located in a cradle of Civil War history, quilts are a way to honor and mourn with a strong sense of tradition and ties to both Loudoun’s and American history.

“Here we have mourning and valor,” she said. “It goes way back into the fabric of American history.”

For more information, including templates and directions for creating and submitting quilt squares, go to covid19ushonorquilt.org. Squares must be received by mail or dropped off in Leesburg by 5 p.m. on Sept. 14 for inclusion in the Phase 1 display at 50 West. Squares will be accepted for Phase 2 of the project through the end of the year.

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