WSU professor expresses cancer struggle through quilts

Judy Elsley: 40 Days 40 Nights Exhibition, Shaw Gallery
(Source: Judy Elsley) A quilt featured as part of the 40 Days 40 Nights Exhibition in the Shaw Gallery.

An exhibition of artistic quilts sewn by Judy Elsley, professor of English and director of the honors program at Weber State University, documented her struggle with breast cancer through a quilt project called “40 Days and 40 Nights.”

Originally an exercise for her planned sabbatical leave, Elsley said this project is one where she can combine her two passions: writing and dyeing fabrics.

“My two passions in life are writing, text, and fabric work, textiles,” Elsley said. “My goal for my sabbatical leave was to bring the text and textiles together. The way I do that is by writing on the quilt.”

Each day, Elsley sewed one 8-by-8-inch square of fabrics she had dyed and wrote on the square.

“In effect, it was a fabric journal,” she said.

The project did not start with breast cancer. In fact, the quilts started three months prior to Elsley’s diagnosis.

“I started (the quilt project) in November. In January, I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Elsley said. “My sabbatical leave changed radically because I had to have surgery and chemotherapy. So I continued doing the journal, not so much as an exercise for my sabbatical, but as a way to document what I was going through on a day-to-day basis.”

Elsley explained that the title of the exhibit has several different meanings, some literal and some figurative. Each quilt is five squares across by eight squares long, making each quilt 40 squares and 40 days of work. Another significance to the name, Elsley said, is that, like the children of Israel in the Old Testament who suffered in the desert for 40 years, Elsley suffered through her own figurative desert.

While text and textiles may seem two very different media, Elsley said there are many parallels between the two.

“In both cases, you start with a blank screen or a white piece of fabric, and you add color or you write your first draft, then you over-dye it or you edit it,” she said.

Elsley also said the quilts exhibited under the title “40 Days and 40 Nights” are only nine of a series of 23 she made during her sabbatical leave and her fight with cancer.  The nine displayed deal with everyday activities, whereas the remaining 14 deal with larger concepts.

“Those nine quilts are a section of the day-to-day process,” Elsley said. “I also have all the other quilts that take the big questions, like who took care of me and how I dealt with my fear through this process and words that I found comforting. They’re all different. They all are about my experience, but they each take a different approach.”

Katie Lee-Koven, the director for the Shaw Gallery in the Kimball Visual Arts Building, said she first saw Elsley’s quilts at the College of Arts and Humanities retreat when she gave a report on her sabbatical leave.

“When she did her sabbatical report last year at the college retreat, it was the first time I had seen them,” Lee-Koven said. “That’s when I knew wanted to show the quilts in the gallery.”

David Turley, a senior studying photography, said his favorite part of the “40 Days and 40 Nights” exhibit is the journey the viewer can see in the quilts.

“The design is beautiful,” he said. “But when you actually start to look at the words that go along with it, it brings so much more meaning — the dyes she used for that day, some of the designs are more exciting than others, some of them have dragonflies, and it all matches the text very well. I really like seeing her journey, and seeing how she was able to find something that would be an end goal and help her make it through. As a whole, it’s a beautiful display.”

“40 Days and 40 Nights: Breast Cancer Quilts” will be in the Shaw Gallery up through Oct. 18. The Shaw Gallery is open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 12-5 p.m.