The Stories Hiding in Roswell Park’s Quilts

Thursday, January 7, 2016 - 11:49am

One day Barb Murak stopped by the waiting room of the Urology Clinic at Roswell Park and noticed several guys flipping idly through Field & Stream magazine, heads down, as they waited for their appointments. She had an idea. A few days later, she returned with some cardboard fish shapes and fabrics in colorful patterns.

“What the heck are you doing?” one man asked.

“We’re going to make a quilt,” said Barb, an Roswell Park Artist-in-Residence who specializes in fabric art.

“Oh, no!” the man protested. “We don’t sew.”

“We’re not going to sew,” she assured him. “What do you like to fish for?”

“Salmon.”

Barb handed him a cardboard cutout of a salmon. He took it (somewhat reluctantly) and selected a fabric sample. Then, with her encouragement, he cut the salmon shape out of the fabric and placed it on a large blue-gray quilt. As the salmon fisherman worked, interest stirred among the other men — and so did the conversation.

Barb Murak, an Roswell Park Artist-in-Residence

“What do you fish for?” Barb asked another guy.

“Trout — just trout. I go on opening day every spring.” Barb handed him a trout cutout.

The men began to tell stories of their fishing adventures.

“A lot of fish hide in the weeds; you can’t really see them,” said one. He modified his cutout of a striped bass so its mouth hung open.

“From the seventh floor of the hospital you can see where I used to fish, over there by the harbor roundhouse,” another man added.

“My fish is always at the bottom of the lake.”

That interaction was just what Barb Murak was aiming for. “I love it when I get people talking in the waiting room,” she said. “Then they don’t feel alone. I want them to tell me stories, or tell each other stories. I write them all down, because I don’t want to forget.”

Stories come to life when Roswell Park’s six Artists-in-Residence engage patients and visitors in musical performances and art projects, building human connections that can relieve anxiety, lead to new friendships and beautiful creations, and make life a lot more interesting.

Before long, the men’s quilt was teeming with fish. Barb took it home and added aquatic plants where some of the fish could hide. Then her friend Rosellen Ring-Easton — a champion quilter and volunteer — stitched background patterns representing rocks and bubbles and eddies in the water, and sewed the fish in place exactly where the men had put them. 

Today the quilt is displayed in the waiting area of the Urology Clinic. The fish, of all colors, sizes, and shapes, recall the men who created it together.

Another quilt, decorated with teacups of different sizes, greets visitors as they enter the Mammography Center. It was designed by Roswell Park patients and caregivers who were invited to participate in the project as Barb made her way down from the waiting room off the eighth-floor Intensive Care Unit to the ground-floor lobby.

Teacups tell the stories of Roswell Park patients and their loved ones on a quilt outside the Mammography Center.

One teacup, tilted precariously on its side in a corner, was contributed by an overwhelmed woman who had spent long days at Roswell Park watching over her mother, with little help from other members of her family. Several other cups touch each other, symbolizing the connections between husbands and wives, or grandmothers, mothers, and daughters. (Stitching the cups to the quilt, Rosellen Ring-Easton inserted little surprises in the spaces inside the cup handles — spiderwebs, spirals, tiny pearls.)

Barb Murak says other finished quilts are currently in storage, ready to be displayed — and so many more are waiting to be created from stories yet untold.

Based at the Center for the Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the Roswell Park portion of the Arts in Healthcare program is funded entirely by donations to the Roswell Park Alliance Foundation and proceeds from the Roswell Park gift shop.