Manzanar National Historic Site Volunteer Spotlight: Cathy Erickson

Editor’s Note: The following is the second edition of a (hopefully) monthly article written by the staff of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Your feedback on their work would be deeply appreciated! Please leave a comment by clicking on the Comments link at the bottom of the story.

by Mandy Harmon, Park Guide

Imagine hundreds of pieces of fabric in shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns sitting next to a sewing machine. You may not immediately see a connection between the swatches and the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast of the United States during World War II, but meeting Cathy Erickson and seeing her quilts could change your mind.

Erickson spent a month at Manzanar National Historic Site in May and June 2009, serving as our park’s fourth artist-in-residence. During her stay, she demonstrated her artistry and techniques on the stage of the Interpretive Center, surrounded by many of her completed quilts. She also provided programs to the public with the focus on the book, What Remains, which she created with poet Margaret Chula.

Erickson earned a degree in Chemistry from Purdue University and currently works as a chemist in Washougal, Washington. She started her first quilt in 1995 to pass time during her daughter’s dance lessons and this soon turned into a hobby, one that blossomed into a truly unique combination of design and storytelling.

Erickson’s quilts are synthesized from historic or modern photographs, stories from books, web sites, or personal interviews, trips to camps, and Day of Remembrance gatherings, using software like Adobe Photoshop to create a unique pattern and she micro-stitches stylized designs into her quilts.

During her presentations, she describes the creative process step by step from concept to completion.

Erickson’s quilts are not the ones of homespun Americana. Rather, they challenge the audience by telling stories of separation, hardship, and self-reliance. The pieces also challenge perceptions of quilts, themselves. Indeed, one of her more dramatic pieces on display was a “Carpenter’s Quilt” which combined traditional carpentry tools (sandpaper, nails and even a wood plane) with fabric. Carpentry became a hobby and necessity for many in the austere and meagerly furnished camps and Erickson illustrated the trade accented by clouds, with nails representing the barbed wire fence surrounding the camps.

Many visitors, as well as our park staff, had the honor of meeting with and talking to Erickson this summer. She came back in August to volunteer once again to give programs and to work on the archaeological excavation of Manzanar’s Chicken Ranch. Over the course of five weeks, she volunteered over 320 hours. We are grateful for not only for her time but for the spirit she exuded while being a Manzanar artist-in-residence.

The following are some photos from Erickson’s quilts. Photos courtesy Cathy Erickson.



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One Response to Manzanar National Historic Site Volunteer Spotlight: Cathy Erickson

  1. arlijohn says:

    Beautiful! What a great project!

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