Quilting helped South Jersey woman heal after brain tumor blurred her vision

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When Renata Merrill started quilting in 2011, she could barely see out of her left eye after having brain surgery to remove a benign tumor pressing on her optic nerve.

Through the quilt, she began a healing process and rediscovered herself as a wife, mother and community leader. She also turned a hobby into a passion closely tied to her African-American heritage.

His work, exhibited until February 19 at the Camden Fireworks art gallery, reflects his personal style, life experiences and perseverance after a health issue that threatened his vision. Her bold and vibrant quilt exhibit is titled “New Beginnings,” to tell her story.

Merrill, 56, from East Camden, started quilting several months after her operation when she joined a quilting group started by her mentor, Chris Butler, at Asbury United Methodist Church in Woodlynne, which she has been a member for 12 years. The group traveled to Kenya in 2015 to teach quilting to young women.

Although her eyesight improved, she needed glasses. She had to relearn basic motor skills, how to cut, how to make a straight line. His speech was slurred and his balance was off balance. Slowly she improved and found peace in the small group setting.

“Who would think that learning to quilt would be part of your healing process?” Merrill said. “Every little thing I did encouraged me. I was no longer the same person as me, but it recreated me.

She completed her first quilt a few months later, a brightly striped piece in various designs. She calls it “Second Chance”. The quilt is not part of his exhibit.

About 20 of her quilts are on display at Fireworks, which provides studio and gallery space for resident artists in a restored Victorian era fire station which also hosts educational programs. Located on Broadway in the city’s Waterfront South neighborhood, its mission is to use art to create social change.

This is Merrill’s first solo exhibition. She prides herself on sometimes going off the beaten track with lines that are not always perfectly straight.

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“I can see there’s a lot of talent in this city that’s being overlooked,” said Asiyah Kurtz, executive director of FireWorks.

Kurtz said the gallery recently received a $10,000 U.S. Challenge grant from the National Foundation for the Arts to teach quilting this spring to about 80 middle school students in Camden. Students will explore social justice through quilting and learn about environmental racism and food deserts, she said.

Merrill, a community activist and former councilor who was born and raised in the city, covers a variety of themes in her quilts. Most of her pieces feature brightly colored African fabrics. She uses metallic threads, sequins, buttons, geometric shapes. and even coins.

Each quilt tells a story, mostly drawn from her life experiences. There’s “The Chief,” in honor of her 83-year-old father, Ollie Bussie, whom she calls rock in her family. The quilt includes Adinkra symbols from Ghana.

There is also “A Shield of Faith” and “Sunday Best”, a collection of church shoes, a nod to his spiritual life. Inspired by childhood memories of playing checkers, Merrill created a quilt with black and white squares that is named after the game. It includes phrases such as “rejoice” and count your blessings” and “eat the dessert first”.

“My faith is in God,” said Merrill, a married mother of three adult children.

Her husband of over 30 years, Tim, said the quilt has boosted his self-esteem. He converted the family room into a fabric-filled quilt space.

“It was great to see her blossom into her art,” he said.

» READ MORE: In Camden, an abandoned fire station becomes an art gallery

One of Merrill’s favorite pieces is “Imagine,” a labor-intensive quilt inspired by quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, where African Americans preserved the cultural traditions of their ancestors. Merrill was surprised to learn that she came from a Southern quilting family.

Exhibited quilts line the walls of two rooms at FireWorks. They include Merrill’s early works as well as several she made in 2021. The not-so-chic white Kenmore sewing machine purchased by her husband when they married in 1989 is also on display.

“It gives me inspiration,” to make a second quilt, said gallery visitor Zelda Davis, of Ewing. Her first quilt was made in memory of her late husband using her Omega Psi Phi Brotherhood shirts.

Merrill does not sell her work or take commissions, although her quilts can fetch hundreds of dollars. She is currently working on a quilt for her first grandchild, due next month.

“I consider myself an artist and not just a quilter,” Merrill said. “I am blessed.”

The New Beginnings exhibition runs until February 19 at Camden FireWorks, 1813 S. Broadway, Camden. It is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. Merrill will give a talk on her quilt on February 19 at 1 p.m. (856) 338-0400 or visit www.camdenfireworks.org

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