Thirty people in Gustavus made 43 different mini-quilts, or as the group likes to call them “quiltlets,” for the new Gustavus Community Center.
Since 1976, a local artist would create a T-shirt design for the Independence Day celebration. While the first were silk-screen prints for a race event, the subsequent ones were sold to benefit the arts and culture scene in town; the money has gone on to bring different musicians in to perform, or more recently, fundraising to build the new community center.
Fundraising for the Gustavus Community Center (GCC) has been ongoing since 2009. The proposed 3,200-square-foot facility will serve as a large gathering space, being able to seat 200 people. A 2017 Capital City Weekly article reported that the estimated cost of the total project would be $1.4 million. Funds so far have come from grants, like from the Rasmuson Foundation which awarded GCC a “top off grant” of up to $400,000 in 2017, and community fundraisers and donations.
Annie Mackovjak and Lynne Jensen have been collecting the specialty T-shirts since 1977 with the hope of turning them into an art project. All of Jensen’s shirts were ones she bought for herself or her husband, and Mackovjak’s were ones she bought for herself or found at the local thrift store The Community Chest, Mackovjak said. Two years ago, the pair pooled their shirts together, organizing them by date and determining which shirts were missing from the collection. Mackovjak hung onto them for a time until Chris Gabriele, a committee member of the Gustavus Community Center, expressed interest in them and put out a call for creative ideas on how to display the shirts, Mackovjak said.
Enter Ellie Sharman, a retired teacher and fiber artist. She hadn’t worked with T-shirts before and was initially hesitant to take on a project, but then she had an idea.
“I got the idea for each one being its own quilt,” Sharman said. “That completely changed it for me. Then I realized it could be any size and each person who took on the job could design it how they wanted and use whatever fabric they had and I didn’t have to organize this big thing where everybody had to do the same thing and each one had to fit into a larger picture. We’re just going to string them on a line, like T-shirts on a clothesline.”
The initial group was 10-12 people, and over the course of the five meetings during the winter of 2017, it grew to 30 participants. By the second meeting, Sharman had a sample quiltlet to show the group. The group cut out all T-shirt designs, and once prepped, individuals would take squares home to add borders and the string sleeve. They even had a sewing day at the Gustavus Library. On the final meeting they hand-sewed labels onto the back of each, stating the artist, year of the design, and who made the quiltlet.
One sewer, Layla Ohlson, 7, decided to make a quiltlet out of her grandmother’s T-shirt design from 1986, Kate Boesser.
“Her grandmother helped her but she put the borders on it and came to a couple of the meetings and helped sew the labels on. But she was the youngest,” Sharman said. Since Sharman is retired, she has also taught sewing to some of the girls in town, and some between the ages of 11-13 took part in the art project too.
“It was really cool because it spanned the generations,” she said. “There have been people who are brand new in town to people who have lived here for decades who kind of recognize the T-shirts from years back.”
When the community center is built, the quiltlets will be strung up like prayer flags in chronological order, though the order they’re arranged can be changed if desired, Sharman said. After the quiltlets are unveiled at the Independence Day celebration, they will temporarily go up at the local Alaska Seaplanes building.
“The designs on all the shirts are different but they’re all about life here in Gustavus,” Sharman said. “I think of it as a document of our town through art.”
• Clara Miller is the editor of the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.