Four colorful quilts have been embellishing the walls of the University Commons fifth-floor lobby for months. But there’s more to them than decoration. Woven into the tapestries are the history of the college and mentors of alumni who stitched them together.
Susan Ley Lee, a 1979 Carlow grad, remembers that although the late 30-year Carlow art educator Suzanne Steiner led them in quilt-making, it wasn’t an art or sewing course.
“It was a women’s studies class,” Lee said. “She was using the metaphor of the quilting bee to talk about issues relevant to young women of the time. I recall the assignment was to identify women who were iconic, inspirational, heroic, pioneering or courageous.”
Lee made her quilt squares of Sara Bernhardt, a French stage actress who was among the first to work in motion pictures, and Erma Bombeck, a 1970s humor columnist and author whose comedy centered around anecdotes of suburban housewives.
“In (Bernhardt’s) history, she was one of the first women who took control of her own career, and she was the highest-paid actress of the day. She had a lot of courage and vision about her own life and career,” Lee said. “Erma Bombeck was one of the first women to make the subjects women talk about funny. I found her commentary liberating for a lot of women who knew that (traditional family life) was not for them.”
Lee said these two women, and the education she received at Carlow, inspired her career in Broadway theater new business strategy development.
“I found both women equally compelling, not because they were a performer or a housewife, but because both were unbelievably courageous in their time, and in the way they chose to express themselves.”
Lee credited Carlow in assisting her intrepid career path.
“What I liked about Carlow was it provided an environment that illuminated choices,” she said. “I was an odd duck in speech communications and theater. I wasn’t a nurse or in biology. There weren’t classes about how to be a producer. There weren’t arts management majors. There were no pathways set for me. But they created a course just for me.”
Among the quilt squares are Dorothy Day, Harriet Tubman, Marie Curie, the Sisters of Mercy’s journey to Pittsburgh, the college founders, a fire that leveled a historical chateau that pre-dated the college, and even the parking scarcity on campus.
“The class was not about the quilt,” Lee said. “It was about the process of discovering stories that went into the quilt.”
Although the quilts were brought out of the archives and exhibited for Carlow’s 90th anniversary, Sister Sheila Carney is hoping they become a permanent display, across from the entrance of the auditorium and chapel.
“Lots of people have said they are enjoying looking at them and enjoying the color they bring into that space,” Sister Sheila said. “They’re commenting they’d like to see them up all the time.”
Sister Sheila said the quilts align with Carlow’s Sisters of Mercy tradition.
“The quilts do honor our story by honoring particular moments in the history of the university and of women,” she said.