“Say Yes, Show Up, and Bring Somebody with You.”February 26, 2015
NedRa Bonds and the Story of The Craft, Care & Justice Hub
"I’m gonna work a quilt on your ass."
A prolific textile artist and passionate social activist, Nedra (NedRa) Bonds (b. 1948) has a gleeful, satisfying catchphrase that boils down her practice: “I’m gonna work a quilt on your ass.” Bonds usually follows her mantra with a hearty laugh and mischievous grin, and she deploys it frequently, mostly as a rejoinder to the acts of violence, corruption, exploitation, and greed that she insists on acknowledging, especially when they occur within her native Kansas City, Kansas.
Bonds says, “Part of it is about getting it off me, so I can let go of anger, while another part of it is about breaking something or someone down into fabric and thread, working it out, putting some imagery on it, and showing it to the world. It’s a way for me to say what I’m feeling.”1
Living in the conservative state of Kansas under the current Republican governor Sam Brownback and suffering the well-documented failures of his Tea Party–inspired tax cuts, Bonds has plenty of fodder for her quilts. In her most recently completed work, Preachers, Politicians, Pimps & Pushers (2015), Bonds explicitly and in plain language addresses greed and exploitation. Assembled using Bonds’s signature mixture of inexpensive and industrial textiles, which are printed with such imagery as American currency, pigs, and skull and crossbones, the quilt also features many hand-drawn and textual elements. Within the stitched and painted silhouette of a politician’s money-grabbing hand, Bonds has written the words “Wall St.,” “Corporations,” “Insurance,” “Universities,” and “Utilities,” as though counting on each finger some of the paths through which the American middle class often seems to be swindled. In the quadrant labeled “Preachers,” Bonds has superimposed the computer-generated text “Nothing is SACRED. Everything is FOR SALE” over images of such evangelical mega-church leaders as Pat Robertson, Creflo Dollar, and Paula White.
The work is intentionally provocative, and Bonds often utilizes the production of each of her quilts as an occasion for sparking public conversation. Bonds and a network of other Kansas City textile artists (including Sonie Joi Ruffin and Sherry Whetstone-McCall) insert their works into the public discourse by way of open workshops held at art galleries, community centers, civic offices, public libraries, elementary schools, parks, cemeteries—literally anywhere a public audience may encounter and engage with the art and its content. Their collective practice harmonizes with Bonds’s commitment to the pursuit of environmental justice, to the equitable development and protection of public lands, and to creating access to economic opportunities, particularly for black and low-income communities.
Bonds first experienced the power of her quilts as heartfelt, homegrown expressions of political dissent in the early ’90s, when protesting the proposed plan to sell the Quindaro Townsite—a stop along the Underground Railroad in Kansas City—to developers looking to turn it into a landfill. The 1993 four-by-six-foot Quindaro Story Quilt features appliquéd scenes of slavery and indoctrination, as well as escape and resistance, upon a bright yellow background. Bonds’s intention was to create pointed imagery related to the historical and local significance of her hometown, as there was very little in the artistic or public record to indicate its importance.
During the course of its production, Bonds displayed the quilt throughout town; as the work grew, it incorporated the stories, memories, and artistic contributions of many other Kansans, some of whom were deeply disenfranchised by mainstream political processes. All the while, Bonds was building local awareness and resistance to the landfill, encouraging attendance to town-hall assemblies on the matter and modeling a bold form of civic participation. Her strategy worked, and the quilt was on display at a meeting of the Kansas legislature when it declared the Quindaro Townsite a historic locale.2
My introduction to Bonds’s engagement with history and community came during Kansas City’s 2014 Juneteenth Celebration. There, in collaboration with the educator and author Nancy Dawson, Bonds produced If Da Dirt Could Talk, a project making history quilts with public-school children throughout Kansas City.3 The project culminated with a remarkable performance of Dawson’s play Stories from da Dirt, based on the life of Dawson’s grandmother, Elizabeth Thompson, a runaway slave from Liberty, Missouri. Bonds and Dawson presented an exhibition of Bonds’s quilts and staged the performance in the Old Quindaro Cemetery, the home of countless graves of former slaves and located on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, crossed by many travelers of the Underground Railroad.
To the present-day academic appreciator of contemporary art, it seems a lot like social practice. To Bonds, it’s just part of being an artist.
In December 2014, Bonds and I had our first opportunity to work together: a three-week exhibition and nine-event series called The Craft, Care & Justice Hub. Conceived by Bonds as an accessible and interdisciplinary space for public discussions about local and international violence, the project included the contributions of many Kansas City activists and artists and was very much an extension of Bonds’s expansive practice. Always ready with a folding table and a bevy of art materials in the trunk of her SUV, Bonds is comfortable working itinerantly. To the present-day academic appreciator of contemporary art, it seems a lot like social practice. To Bonds, it’s just part of being an artist. Her syndicate of friends—including Sherry Whetstone-McCall, Arzelyn T. Umali, the assistant director of the University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC) Women’s Center, and Sharon Gradischnig—was mobilized for this project, ensuring a backbone of support.
The catalyst for our collaboration occurred on April 13, 2014, when a lone gunman—later identified as Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., a seventy-three-year-old neo-Nazi—killed three people in the parking lots of a Jewish retirement home, Village Shalom, and the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Kansas City, both located in Overland Park, a suburb. At the time of the shooting at the JCC, Bonds’s actor brother was inside the center rehearsing a production of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Bonds said, “That event shook me. Deeply. Between that and everything that had been going on in Ferguson since the summer…I [thought] immediately of the 1963 bombing . I knew I had to [make] something about the violence.”4
Our premise was simple: to create that place.
Bonds and I had no idea what the project would lead to or if anyone would show up for the events. We knew that there were small pockets of political activity around town, coalescing in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and even smaller pockets of political-art activity throughout the city. No dedicated occasion or space existed yet to bring people—such as artists, filmmakers, activists, educators, librarians, and social workers—together in one place at one time. Our premise was simple: to create that place. Upon reflection, I recognize that the project was an extension of Bonds’s work in environmental justice, applied to the nonprofit art gallery. Call it art justice—or justice art.
Needless to say, a lot of shit went down in November and early December. Our frantic emails, inviting people to present their work or participate in some way, were seen at about the same time a grand jury in St. Louis County voted not to indict Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown case. What Bonds and I were proposing interested people, but the heightened social and political climate surrounding it seemed to cause an equal amount of unease.
Regardless, we went ahead. One day after a grand jury decided not to bring charges against Daniel Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner on Staten Island, we hosted our second event: the first of four called “The New Jim Crow: Reading & Action Circles.” These were meetings of an ersatz book club dedicated to Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book about mass incarceration and institutionalized racism, led by the activist Janet Brown Moss of BridgeWorks. The club included sixteen participants of different races, ages, life experiences, and professions.
We had invited the public to listen to the book-club discussions, and as we were preparing the space for the event, it quickly became apparent that word had spread much further than we anticipated. More than seventy people joined us—no small feat for a Kansas City art event. Attendees included protestors from the local activist collective One Struggle KC, carrying banners and other signage just used in a public demonstration; event attendants greeted them with applause as they entered.
Seated around tables, the book-club participants introduced themselves to the audience; included were artists, poets, activists, lawyers, teachers, social workers, and ministers. Some members were felons, and some worked with or in law enforcement. There were young and old activists. Some, like the activists in One Struggle KC, had just completed a direct action while others shared stories of actions performed decades earlier. There was a kind of apprenticeship in those exchanges, however transient.
Personal stories emerged from this patchwork. One member, more prone to listen than contribute, at last was called upon to share his thoughts. He had been born and raised in Ferguson, and while he was deeply disturbed at what was happening, he was not surprised.
It was also a space for first attempts at speaking publicly on such issues—for vulnerability, awkward introductions, and trepidation.
As he spoke and this room full of strangers listened, it became obvious that the project would be much more than a public forum for people to share thoughts and feelings regarding the issues at hand. It was a space for intersection, support, introspection, and expression. It was a space where those coming to politics or to activism from different modes of engagement could support one another in a much more substantive way than showing solidarity with a car honk. It was also a space for first attempts at speaking publicly on such issues—for vulnerability, awkward introductions, and trepidation. I can’t say we built or offered a comprehensive analysis of the topics under consideration, but we made an effort, and I believe that truly mattered to others.
In total, Bonds and I hosted nine public events over the twenty days of the project while Kretzer assembled artworks and a small library of social-justice literature for public perusal. Local artists were also encouraged to show relevant artworks anywhere they liked within the gallery over the course of the project. We estimated that more than three hundred people passed through the space or attended an event.
In addition to the four sessions of The New Jim Crow book club, we held discussions related to the legacy of queer activism in Kansas City, to issues and local resources related to gender-based violence, to regional legacies of grassroots activism explored within documentaries produced by the filmmaker Caitlin Horsmon for her “Resistant History” project, and to the emotional and recreational needs of those engaged in direct-action, social-justice work.
The activist Diane Burkholder organized two events dedicated to such work, collectively called “One Struggle KC: Community Healing Project.” They not only included poetry, music, video, and performance works but also allowed time and space to anyone in attendance to speak publicly about experiences of violence or encounters with racism. Attendees could produce protest signs and contribute to a feedback-graffiti wall. One Struggle KC strives to continue holding such events at least once a month, recognizing the restorative value of providing the time and space for activists—who are prone to feelings of futility and fatigue—to create together.
"A choir has got to practice."
Especially during these sessions, I understood why Bonds and I had brought all of these activities together under the banner of craft. Sure, we made lots of things, yet it was obvious that it all concerned care and justice. A more nebulous concept was why craft was an essential component. I realize now that it has to do with practicing and developing activism and empathy in oneself and others as a skill. At the end of the third book-club meeting, a typical comment was made: “In doing all this, aren’t we just preaching to the choir?” To this, our book-club leader, Janet Brown Moss, had the perfect response: “A choir has got to practice.”
Of course, there were people who came to one session and never came again, and there were people whose trepidation was so strong, or their feelings of disenfranchisement so entrenched, that they could not bring themselves to write something on the feedback wall, to offer their thoughts, or to produce a protest banner. But there were others, young and old, who overcame that vertigo and became engaged. And I observed it in myself.
From working with NedRa Bonds on The Craft, Care & Justice Hub, I learned the lesson of what might be called curatorial improvisation or even relinquishment. The space was deeply collaborative, and it authored itself as the project went along. I believe it’s a lesson I could have only learned from a craftsperson like Bonds, who so frequently bucks convention and whose creative commitments to adaptability, mobility, and fearlessness were discovered as much by skill-based learning as by subsequent unlearning.
Over the years, Bonds has had to learn and unlearn in order to abdicate adherence to the element of design, usually so important to the process of quilting. Instead, and especially as she conducted her practice more publicly and politically, she has embraced a patchwork aesthetic informed by current events and daily interactions. Bonds says, “Be messy. Embrace messiness. Revolution is messy. Some people would call my work crazy, but I don’t mind being called crazy. Look at the world, or just look at what’s going on here in Kansas. To me, it’s all quilt mania!”