Sewn together: Quilting fosters growth in the juvenile justice system

The Bridge PAI’s executive director Matthew Slaats hangs quilting work created through a unique program at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center. Roy Mitchell’s students have made and given away over 100 quilts to groups in need, including members of the local homeless population, McGuire Veterans Hospital, and Culpeper and Richmond cancer centers. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto The Bridge PAI’s executive director Matthew Slaats hangs quilting work created through a unique program at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center. Roy Mitchell’s students have made and given away over 100 quilts to groups in need, including members of the local homeless population, McGuire Veterans Hospital, and Culpeper and Richmond cancer centers. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

The vibrant color hits you first—long swaths of it—before your brain can synthesize the spectrum as quilts, bright fabrics cut and pieced together in geometric patterns and draped against high walls and room dividers.

Then you notice the buzz—the palpable warmth of the gallery’s attendees. Three of the exhibited artists, young men in suit jackets sporting bow ties and pocket squares they’ve sewn themselves, explain the intricacies of the craft as they’ve learned it.

“All these are practice bindings,” said one student, pointing to a quilt titled “We Are Somebody,” with a solid black backing and a composition of colorful squares arranged like a 2-D robot. “When you start, you practice on a small square,” he said.

A quilter for the last two and a half years—the length of time this class has been available—he describes evolving from basic quilts made of 4″x 4″ squares to complex zigzag patterns, fusable web overlays and detailed appliqué work. (None of the quilts are formed from premade patterns.)

“When I got started I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about [quilting], but then I was like ‘Oh, I really like this.’ With each one I made I kept getting more confidence and people would tell me how nice it was, so I kept wanting to do more and try different things and test my skills.”

That’s the goal at the heart of the course: teach young men to strive to do good work that builds character and allows them to expresses the best parts of themselves.

Their beautiful, imaginative results are remarkable not only because they reveal the talent and passion of young men for a historically female-dominated craft, but because these men in particular are residents of the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center (JCC), arguably one of the last places you’d expect to find a flourishing quilting scene.

But the 22-person program, believed to be the first quilting class ever offered in a male juvenile correctional center, is indeed flourishing—so much so that the directors plan to double its size and hire current part-time instructor Roy Mitchell on as a full-time staff member.

“My first comment to these individuals when they enter my classroom is that it doesn’t matter what they did, it matters what they do. It’s not where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going. In my class, you are somebody,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell is a nationally recognized quilter who radiates patience and positivity. The first African-American male to be featured in National Quilting Association magazine, he’s known as The Watermelun Man for his collection of quilts featuring “watermelun babies,” sweet characters modeled off black memorabilia and posed with watermelons to “show a positive link between my African-American culture and watermelon,” according to his website.

Mitchell began his own practice of quilting in 1990, when he went with his girlfriend to a state fair in Manassas and balked at the price of a quilt she admired. “I said ‘There’s no way I’ll pay for that.’ I called it a blanket, not knowing how much detail and preparing and planning the colors and design and threads went into it.”

He vowed to make a quilt instead. He joined a class, created a quilt with a double wedding ring pattern, and fell in love with the craft.

“It’s always been a passion from that day,” he said, but his singular dedication began in 2004, when he met the founder of the Daughters of Dorcas & Sons, Ms. Viola Virginia Williams Canady. She became his mentor and personal champion, telling him he would teach one day and asking him to keep the dream alive. Everything she said came true.

As a teacher at JCC, “I’m fulfilling her dream, and these young men are keeping the art alive,” he said.

Mitchell’s students have made and given away over 100 quilts to groups in need, including members of the local homeless population, McGuire Veterans Hospital and Culpeper and Richmond cancer centers. He often takes pictures of the presentation so his students can see where their handiwork lands.

He said that six students from his class have already been released from JCC and are still quilting. One of them joined a quilt guild so he could collect scraps and start his own quilting business, Scrap Quilts.

Lots of students vow to continue the craft once they leave JCC. “I always tell them we’ll meet again in different circumstances and quilt together on the outside,” Mitchell said.

In truth, this exhibit—this room of colorful quilts—represents so much more. It’s the foundation for something that echoes the process Mitchell described in his own work as a quilter.

“I love being able to take something that was a small, plain piece of fabric and make it grow so big,” he said. “The more you get into it, the more you see you can never really finish. I tell my students there is a beginning, a middle and a continuation. You can always learn more.”

The show “We Are Somebody,” featuring work from beginning, intermediate and advanced JCC quilting classes, stopped at The Bridge PAI on an eight-state tour. It showed in Flint, Michigan en route to Charlottesville, and on May 26 it made its way to California.