A healing art

Quilting has long been known as a uniquely American tradition, but for one Haitian-born doctor it’s become a way of life

Ten years ago, Boston physician Michele David had to interrupt a busy career after she was diagnosed with a rare and debilitating illness.

“I couldn’t really work,” David, 54, said. “I couldn’t write, or even read, because I was too ill. It was very scary.”

But it was during that two-year period that she discovered a joyful pursuit.

Not accustomed to being idle — even in illness — she enrolled in a quilting class.

She learned to sew as a child in her native Haiti, but had never tried quilting before, in part because the traditional American folk art had not attracted much attention on the Caribbean island.

She took to the craft with the same sort of commitment that has earned her several academic degrees — and the amazement of her friends and colleagues.

On one of the first days of the class, David recalls, the instructor advised the students to keep realistic goals.

“This is a class for beginners,” David recalls the instructor telling the class. “No one can make a large quilt.”

Quite naturally, David made a large quilt.

“You can see how competitive I am!” she said as her low voice gave way to a deep, hearty laugh. “I guess that’s why I went into medicine.”

Around that time, an exhibit called “Oxymoron” at the New England Quilt Museum opened her eyes to the world of contemporary art quilts, and she was hooked.

More important, quilting helped her heal.

“I wanted to do handwork because I couldn’t think, I couldn’t concentrate,” she said. “That process [of making a quilt], I think, helps your brain heal faster when you have difficulty concentrating, so you can come back to your full self. Within two years I was able to regain everything back.”

She returned to full-time medical work, and even expanded her roles to health care advocacy and youth mentoring — but never stopped quilting. Her quilts have been exhibited in more than 30 shows locally and nationally.

This fall, six of David’s quilts are part of an exhibit at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell. “African-American Quilts Today: A Celebration of Motherhood, Sisterhood & the Matriarchs” is curated by Dr. Pearlie Johnson, professor of Africana Studies at University of Missouri-Kansas City and an expert in the history of African American quilts.

Michele David is an associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, an internist and director of community health programs at Boston University Center for Excellence in Women’s Health and co-director of the Haitian Health Institute at Boston Medical Center.

She has worked on health policy as a member of the state’s Public Health Council and the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Universal Health Access Task Force, and on patient advocacy training as a Soros Fellow with Health Care for All. She also chairs the board of Youth and Family Enrichment Services. She holds a medical degree from University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine as well as a master’s in public health from Harvard Graduate School of Public Health and a master’s in business administration from University of Illinois. She is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

Johnson said she was attracted to David’s quilt “Church Ladies,” that shows four women in elaborate hats. “I look at the traditions that have developed wherever black people landed, and the aesthetic similarities,” she said. “Michele really brings it home in terms of the Atlantic diaspora. She may be in the States now, but her frame of reference has been shaped by the traditions of Haiti.”

The quilters in this show may not know each other, Johnson said, but they have similarities in what their work is about: “Black women dressing up, feeling good about themselves, really being the women they actually are and feeling free to do that in church, no matter what they do for a living.”

A healing art

David discovered the healing power of art firsthand, but the idea is not a new one.

Art therapy is a tool increasingly employed in mental health and medical fields. And a number of prisons in the United States and England run quilting programs to reduce anger and foster a sense of accomplishment in inmates.

Art therapy is expanding especially fast in areas of trauma and aging, said Dr. Julia Byers, art therapy coordinator and professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., a leading institution for art therapy training.

She said more than 100 Lesley students are now engaged in art therapy internships in the Boston area, working in schools, community centers and hospitals. Byers, a licensed mental health counselor, cited the ongoing AIDS Quilt project as one of the most well-known examples of creative expression in a time of loss.

“[Quilting] heals because it’s soothing, meaningful and insightful,” she said. “I think of it as reconnecting fragmented parts.”

While David does not formally merge her artistic and medical work, she recommends artistic pursuits to her patients on occasion, and recently advised an ill friend to “make a quilt, from start to finish” to help regain mental strength, she said.

And she described a community-building project in which she helped sixth-graders create a quilt together. “That was also very healing,” she said. “One of the children, who had had a lot of trauma in Haiti, never talked. I was teaching him to make a self-portrait in the quilt — and the largest feature was his mouth. That made the principal realize the boy really wanted to talk.”

David left Haiti as a teenager in 1974 to attend college and medical school in Chicago. After a residency in New York, she came to Boston in 1991 for a post-doctoral fellowship and has lived here ever since.

But the ties with her homeland remain strong.

Many of her quilts recall the bright colors of Haiti; the designs are often sparked by childhood memories. “Grandma in the Yard,” for instance, depicts an apron-clad woman using a wooden pestle outside a big house. “It reminds me of how I grew up in Haiti,” she explained, “where you have the chickens in the yard, and you’re cooking something on the fire.”

Her work is focused on reducing health disparities in minority groups, and she has spearheaded many projects to increase access to culturally competent health care for the estimated 80,000 Haitians living in Massachusetts.

And when the devastating earthquake rocked Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, David joined her fellow Haitians in fear and grief.

“It was heartbreaking,” said David quietly, her voice cracking a little. “I was frantic, trying to call Haiti. It took three weeks to hear about all my family. And we kept hearing about the extent of the damage, so that was mind-boggling.”

But she saw clearly that for others, it was worse.

“I had patients coming, who were losing family members, or whole families — mother, father, siblings, children — dead,” she continues. “So I was trying to provide support for that. People were calling our offices, frantic for help. And I’m a member of an organization of Haitian physicians, here and in Canada, so we were organizing physicians to cope with the medical disaster.”

A few weeks after the quake, and again in August, she put aside her own grief and traveled to Haiti to provide medical care in the midst of chaos.

Earlier this year, David was honored with the 2010 William A. Hinton Award. Named for the first black professor at Harvard Medical School, the annual award by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health honors leaders in improving health care to communities of color.

“Market Day,” (top) and “Creation: and God Created the Earth.”

“Michele David has more degrees, and credentials, and awards … than a large family of people would normally have,” said Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach, before enumerating her credentials and accomplishments at the May 13 award ceremony.

Among the audience was a small fan club of David’s friends from the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Brookline, including Madeline Fine, an artist who has collaborated with David on artistic and service projects for the church.

“She’s a hero to me,” said Fine. “I’ve known her for 15 years, but I had no idea how deeply involved she is in so many things.”

She described David as “quietly vocal” in the church about social causes such as women’s and Haitian issues but humble about her achievements.

“And I love her laugh,” Fine added. “Her laugh embodies her. She’s got gusto for life.”

At the end of the award presentation, Auerbach gestured toward an array of quilts covering the table and podium. “In addition to all her other credentials, she is the artist who created these,” he said, and the audience broke into applause.

A new Haitian tradition?

Quilting has become a significant part of David’s life. She has turned her modern townhouse into an inviting gallery, with every wall holding paintings or quilts. The paintings she purchased on trips to Haiti. The quilts are, of course, her own creations.

“Yes, they’re all over,” she said, chuckling at the over-abundance. She offered freshly brewed tea, then a tour.

“I call this one ‘Market Day,’ because it reminds me of the market women in Haiti,” she said, turning to a quilt whose design sprang from a square of fabric crowded with dark-skinned female figures. “The fabric tells me what it wants to be.”

She does not readily talk about herself — a common trait of Haitian people, she explained — but her quilts reveal pieces of her life: people, nature, favorite landscapes, political leanings.

A small quilt she created in response to the Iraq war includes the phrase “Dissent is patriotic” along with a lovely bouquet of flowers.

She said she typically makes four to six quilts per year, each one taking “a few days to quite a few months,” depending on the details.

With a full schedule of treating patients, teaching, working on policy issues and mentoring Haitian teens, it’s hard to fathom where she finds time to create. And indeed, in this year of crisis in Haiti, she’s made only a single quilt so far — one she had promised for a June exhibit in Henderson, Ky.

But she can’t push art aside completely. For her, it’s not a luxury. Without quilting, she might be unable to go on healing others.

“My work is really intense, and the quilt centers me and calms me down,” she said. “I get in a zone when I quilt, almost a Zen-like state. It’s my meditation. “That’s why I’m still able to work.”

While David isn’t aware of any formal art therapy in place right now for trauma survivors in Haiti, an American-run quilting program has turned out to be of some small help.

PeaceQuilts is a Massachusetts-based organization founded in 2006 to help Haitian women gain economic self-sufficiency by teaching them to make quilts and sell them to customers in the U.S. and Canada. The organization’s director, Jeanne Staples, reports that after the earthquake, quilting served an additional purpose.

“We found that quilting in the aftermath of the quake has been very therapeutic,” Staples said. “For the women to come together, to work together on a task they are jointly involved with — it has been a sort of support group.”