Fading candles, a ‘sad’ horse: Students process pandemic with quilt

The quilt block depicted a dove flying through the sky, a coronavirus vaccine in its talons.

The dove, created using dyed merino wool, was dropping the vaccine over the world, Max Tolka, 10, explained to his classmates at Bannockburn Elementary School on Thursday. The artwork represented his hope that the pandemic would nearly be over.

“It took a while, but eventually it’s going to end,” Max said. “You’re almost there.”

The block is among 133 decorated by fourth- and fifth-graders at Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda as part of a months-long project to help the students document their feelings about the pandemic. Together, the blocks will form a 45-foot-long, three-foot-tall quilt.

“We gave kids time to actually reflect on the experience,” said Emily Thaler, Bannockburn’s art teacher.“During school, we’re mostly focusing on academics, whereas this time, they’re really able to express themselves in an artistic way and show how they really felt.”

A lot of the students’ artwork shared how alone they felt during the past two yearsand how much they missed their friends and the normal school experience. Some depicted how they felt like the pandemic was an experience that would never end. And then there were students like Max, who tried to capture the hope the vaccine would have on their futures.

Nathan Satlof, a fifth-grader, divided his block into six smaller panels that chronicled his experience at the beginning of the pandemic until February when the class started the project. The first panel showed a candle burning, the flame gradually dimming through each frame. He told his classmates he felt like he was the candle. He hadn’t contracted the coronavirus for a while, he said, but in January, he tested positive. The fading flame represented how eventually, he just “burnt out,” he said.

Emily Winningham, 9, told her peers she chose to illustrate a horse in a stable in herblock, since she loves the animal. But the horse was “sad, because he didn’t have any friends,” she said.

“If you’re in fourth or fifth grade, that’s a huge percentage of your short life that has been taken up by this experience,” said Katherine Dilworth, a visiting visual artist from Baltimore-based nonprofit Arts for Learning Maryland. “It was interesting to watch them talk about in their images, talk about how hard it’s been, but also, there were little inklings that maybe this is going to be the end.”

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Dilworth collaborated with Bannockburn’s teachers on the topic, which would help the students also learn about metaphors and how to depict them through art.

The students wrote poetry in their homeroom teacher’s class that captured how they felt throughout the pandemic. They then brought the poems to Dilworth, and looked at New Yorker cartoons and other sources of inspiration to figure out what images they wanted to use. Once they were ready, they created a sketch.

Dilworth then taught the students needle felting, an art form that uses dyed fleece from an animal and special needles to create different images. The needles have a point and tiny barbs at the end of the shaft. When it’s stabbed into a background material — which in this case, was cloth — the barbs catch on the fibers and smooth it out. Unlike sewing, no thread is involved.

“It’s almost like you’re able to sculpt with your needle,” Dilworth said.

Felting is an obscure art form, so many of the students didn’t know how to do it, Dilworth said. But she said that made it easier in the classroom because everyone was able to start from the same place. Students who weren’t typically successful at other art forms took to this, she said.

Mason Qiu, 10, pointed to his quilt block, which showed a coronavirus cell taking over the Earth “because coronavirus felt like it was overpowering — there was nothing we could do,” he said. Smaller coronavirus cells were rotating around the planet in space. Mason said he probably would have made those smaller, but he had “needle problems,” he said, though he liked experimenting with how the wool functioned.

“The wool sometimes decides, ‘Hey, I’m not going to do what you want. I’m going to suddenly fluke this way,’ ” the fifth-grader said. “It’s pretty fun.”

The students used dyed merino wool to construct their quilt blocks, and each took roughly four days to make. Some of the students have been taking panels home to sew them together with other family members. Others have gone to Thaler’s classroom during their lunch periods to help, like they were doing on Thursday.

“Do you guys feel different about the pandemic than when we were making it?” Dilworth asked the class. “Because I feel like we made it in February, and a lot has changed.”

A lot of the children nodded their heads. When they started constructing the quilt, the omicron variant had been sweeping across the D.C. region. Many schools shifted to virtual instruction to curb the spread of the virus. But now that caseloads were down, they were back working together, only a few of them were wearing masks.

“We can, like, get closer and collaborate more than we used to,” one student said.

“Physically, the masks are being taken off,” another student added. “It’s a lot easier to breathe. But mentally, we’re still recovering.”

The quilt, once completed, will be displayed in the elementary school.