By Cheryl Holbert, Weaving/Fiberarts Teacher

It all started with an email from Susan Leidy, the museum’s Deputy Director, to put in a call to Rubia, Inc., to inquire about an interesting new initiative taking place in the Manchester area. The organization, based in Henniker, NH and Afghanistan, creates economic opportunities for Afghan women by supporting craft heritage, education and health in the lives of these women and their families.

I leapt for the phone! What Susan didn’t know was that my own love for fiber arts, along with my work as Community Outreach Coordinator, had already made me a believer in the mission of this organization, which I had previously heard about while attending a weaver’s conference several years back.

While Rubia’s work primarily serves women in Afghanistan, the organization has launched a unique initiative in Manchester to bring women from the city’s Burundian, Rwandan and Congolese communities together to create handiwork that is not only providing income for the women’s families, but making a way for these new immigrants to be integrated into the community at large.

From my first visit to the group’s “Sewing Confidence” class, which meets several times weekly, it was clear that there were exciting possibilities for a wonderful partnership between our two organizations. After an inspiring conversation with Susan Bartlett, the project’s facilitator, it was decided that our first step would be to invite the women inside our doors for a tour of the museum.

Ornate Tapestry

This was a first-time experience for most of the women, who seemed a bit skeptical upon first seeing the various art objects meticulously arranged on pedestals, in glass cases and hanging on the walls. “What does this mean…why is this here?” one woman asked, pointing to the impressive 16th century tapestry that occupied the largest wall in the Renaissance Gallery.

From that moment, the conversation never ceased through the duration of the visit, becoming more and more animated with each new gallery experienced. The real treat, however, was waiting in the museum’s vault, where our collection of works not presently on view are stored.

Faith Ringgold Quilt

Amidst shelves of objects carefully wrapped and preserved hung a sudden burst of life, activity and the complexity of human relationships in Faith Ringgold’s, The Bitter Nest V: The Homecoming. Ringgold is known for her “story quilts,” which integrate fabrics and acrylic paint to portray characters and story themes that many people can relate to.

“The women are very, very pleased to see this,” the group’s translator said, “because this is about ‘forgiveness.”’

Since that winter day one year ago, our partnership with Rubia continues to grow, as the women, in their own way, become part of our Outreach program’s mission to make a difference by making art. Our current “Story Quilt Project” provides an opportunity for the women to work on a collaborative piece where their sewing skills are combined with newly learned weaving techniques and text to create a “new story,” in the form of visual art. And visitors to the museum can purchase handmade bags created by the women with African mudcloth and other fabrics, in the museum’s gift shop.