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Altar Offerings: Memory Quilts, Love, Loss, & Honor

We use quilts to commemorate so many of life’s milestones—births, graduations, marriages, successes. But quilting can also be a creative and cathartic way to honor and celebrate the lives of those who have passed.

Visitors to the most recent Quilt Festival in Houston had the opportunity to see this concept on full display in the exhibit “Altar Offerings—Memory Quilts, Love, Loss, & Honor: The Students of Jane Tenorio-Coscarelli.” The moving exhibit features quilted “altars” created in the Mexican tradition of Dia De Los Muertos (*) and honoring a person or people the artist knew and loved. Each was made by a student of Tenorio-Coscarelli’s “Altar Offerings” workshop.

Tenorio-Coscarelli has been quilting for 40 years, beginning with an adult education quilt class she took with a girlfriend, and “never looked back. I had an art background and started designing for my friendship group,” she explains. “They convinced me to design for the retail market. I started my design company, 1/4 Inch Publishing, in 1995. We now have over 90 patterns and six children’s books. I always tell people I color with fabric!”

Although she works and designs in a variety of styles, Tenorio-Coscarelli is probably best known for her vibrant color and designs paying homage to her Latin heritage.

“I couldn’t find designs that reflected my culture, so I started coordinating motifs and colors that reflect my heritage,” she says. “After each trip I take to Mexico, I come back with my head and eyes full of designs and color. And I can’t wait to translate them into designs with fabric.”

But it was actually a trip to Houston for Quilt Market on which she found inspiration for her fabric altar. “I stumbled into a book store called CASA Ramirez in the Heights area, and he had these beautiful altars the whole length of the shop,” she explains. “In my home, we did not do altars growing up and I was fascinated with the whole concept of honoring those that have passed on.”

While speaking to the store owner, she learned that he taught classes and that the altars were actually the work of his students. And several months later, she returned to Houston to take one of his classes for herself.

“Once I returned home, I couldn’t wait to start building one in my home…and then a light came on!” she continues. “Why not do it in fabric? So I designed as if I was building it dimensionally.”

Tenorio-Coscarelli hosts a retreat each year in Temecula, California, and decided to introduce the idea and design to her students there. She began by explaining the elements that are included on an altar. Each item reflects an element in life—earth, wind, light, fire, smell, and taste—and means something to both the artist and the person being honored.

“They all grasped the subject matter and ran with it!” she says. “I couldn’t believe the beautiful altars they produced. On the last day of the retreat, we all got up and talked about the person or people we honored in the quilt. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Many said that it was a great healing opportunity for them.”

*Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a multi-day holiday in which families create ofrendas (offerings) to honor their departed family members. These altars are brightly colored and often include photos of the departed, or even favorite foods or drinks. These offerings are believed to encourage visits from the departed souls.

 Jane Tenorio-Coscarelli

Tenorio-Coscarelli’s goal with both the workshop and the exhibit of her students’ works is to help people understand that the idea of Dia De Los Muertos and the altar—both traditional and her quilted version—isn’t meant to represent darkness, but rather light.

It’s “a celebration of life and those we honor and want to remember,” she adds. “I hope I am able to educate and allow my students to celebrate life today and beyond. If we do not remember those that have passed, it is said that is their second death. So, we have to remember to celebrate and share the stories, traditions, and culture with generations to come.”

You can read more about Jane Tenorio-Coscarelli here: http://quarterinchpublishing.com/

© 2020. A publication of Quintessential Quilt Media.
No portion may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Quilts, Inc.