Threading History Through a Needle

COMMENTARY: MARILYN GARDNER

IN 1984, after decades of stitching needlepoint canvases painted by other artists, Netty Vanderpol began experimenting with a design of her own. In it, horizontal pastel stripes, representing the beauty and hope a 16-year-old girl sees in her life, are interrupted by two vertical black stripes, symbolizing the concentration camps where the Dutch teen-ager and her family spent a year and a half during World War II. So satisfying was the needlepoint project that Mrs. Vanderpol, once a schoolmate of Anne Frank's, designed a second Holocaust canvas, titled ``Transports.'' A tiny train track runs across a ground of somber brown stitches. Then the track, which ``symbolizes the beginning of a journey to the frightening unknown,'' suddenly ends, its rails ``bent back in grief and sorrow, the journey to nowhere.''

Today, five years and 15 canvases later, the needlework has been temporarily moved from the walls of the family's home in Newton, Mass., to the Boston Public Library. Next month it will be on display at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.

Although the project started as Vanderpol's ``private expression of feelings and memories of the horrible war years when I was a teen-ager,'' it soon took on a larger purpose. A talk by Elie Wiesel made her realize she was part of ``the last generation who, by telling our story, can hope to help prevent this from ever happening again.'' Hence the title of her exhibit: ``Every Stitch a Memory.''

A similar commemorative purpose lies behind a quilt depicting the Vietnam War Memorial, displayed this month at the public library in Norwood, Mass. The quilt, created by Bonnie Falcone of Norwood, shows a mother gazing at her son's name on the memorial. Her hand is raised in a salute. Her dead son, clad in army fatigues and stitched in silhouette, stands beside her, his hand resting on her shoulder in ghostly comfort.

Mrs. Falcone has dedicated the quilt, called ``Reunion,'' ``to all who served in Vietnam and the families and friends who waited at home for their return.''

Both the Holocaust and the Vietnam war have been endlessly portrayed in films, books, paintings, and monuments. But Vanderpol's needlepoint and Falcone's quilt represent a relatively novel way of preserving the memories and emotions that surround these historical events.

Here is no graphic portrayal of gas chambers at Auschwitz or mine fields at Da Nang. Instead, through the texture of yarn and fabric, the interplay of colors, and the symbolic representation of places and events, these understated works give new and surprisingly powerful expression to age-old themes of war, brutality, and loss.

Needlework has always served many purposes, both practical and decorative. Quilts that warmed beds in drafty log cabins also added beauty and color to Spartan rooms. Tapestries that helped insulate the walls of unheated castles also served as giant works of art.

At the same time, as any needleworker can attest, the act of stitching offers an escape from ordinary routines, a refuge from the sorrows and cares of the day.

Yet often needlework, while prized by collectors and artisans, continues to be underrated by those who dismiss it as ``women's work'' - domestic, soft, not terribly important. Painting with a brush counts; painting with a needle does not.

In threading history through a needle, Vanderpol and Falcone offer moving reminders that even the humblest of materials - yarn, scraps of fabric, thread - can do justice to the largest events. Marble monuments, bronze statues, and granite memorials give a public grandeur to history. Needlepoint and quilts, stitched in sadness and in love, touch the private heart and bring history home.

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