After the Last Sky

Quilt by Jenny Bowker, from a photograph by Mosa’ab Elshamy

Photographer Andrew Sikorski

Photographer Andrew Sikorski

I was lying in bed, as it was night in Canberra when the shooting started in Rabaa el-Adaweya Square in Cairo. We were reading Twitter which had come to life as people tweeted from the squares. One tweet has burned into my brain – “Write your phone numbers on your arms as we can’t identify bodies.”

Shawkan Zeid and Mosa’ab Elshamy were two young photojournalists in Rabaa Square that day. Shawkan never came home – he was gaoled for being there and is still in gaol. Mosa’ab was then a freelance photographer. As people died around him he realised that his camera might be a target and so he went from the Square to the mosques where bodies were being taken. He took hundreds of photographs. His record, on his website, is spectacular but heartbreaking.

It was on his site that I saw the image I have worked with to make this quilt.

The Lead Up

Bob, my husband, was the Australian Ambassador in Egypt from 2005 to 2008. We had left Egypt before Mubarak fell. We watched as crowds gathered in Tahrir Square in 2011 with a degree of envy. It was a fascinating time to see change in a country I loved. People talked excitedly about the Arab Spring and its potential to capture the energy and talents of the younger generation of Egyptians.

I was leading a tour to Syria and Egypt in a few weeks so the unrest was worrying. Ten days before we were due to leave I decided to go to Syria and Jordan instead. The decision was right as many tourists in Egypt had problems getting out, and amid the turmoil there was a wave of attacks on women.

Time moved on. I saw other changes as Egypt elected a new President, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak was gaoled.

Then it all started again. The Brotherhood proved to be a failure in government. Morsi was unable to ‘be a president for all Egyptians’ as promised in the Brotherhood’s election speeches. There were mass demonstrations in opposition to the government, and counter-demonstrations by its supporters.

In July, crowds gathered, carefully encouraged by the Army. Morsi, who had rejected calls to hold fresh elections, was deposed and gaoled. Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who had been appointed Minister of Defence and head of the Egyptian Armed Forces by Morsi, became President.

Morsi supporters insisted that he had been wrongfully dismissed. They occupied two locations in Cairo, refusing to disperse. On 14 August 2013, military and police moved into Rabaa el-Adaweya Square and Nahda Square and opened fire on the demonstrators. 638 were killed, and 2,104 injured – according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health. The numbers are probably much higher: other estimates of the death toll are between 817 and 1,583. It is accepted that over 3,000 were also injured.

The Scaffolding and Process

When I saw the image of the lone protester against the smoke and fire I contacted Mosa’ab about the image. I asked if I could use it to make a quilt. We discussed the idea and on a trip to Cairo I met Mosa’ab – he seemed SO young – and paid for the rights to make the quilt. He was now working as a photojournalist for Associated Press.


We exchanged contracts and set boundaries. I started thinking about how to make it.

I intended to remove the logo from the Demonstrator’s t-shirt as it is an identifier. With a journalist in prison the demonstrator would also end in prison if his identity was known. Otherwise, I decided to use the image as it was, possibly adding a bit more height. I wanted to use an Egyptian element as piecing. I have always liked adding some piecing to quilts. I enjoy the process and it is a nod to the origins of the medium. There are rugs and saddlebags made in Egypt with the unit I think of as a half-square triangle unit set on point. I love the look of it and it is used right across the Arab world in simple weavings so I decided to pixelate the smoke with these triangles.

I have a private rule for myself that I am a scrap quilter and decided to use only my stash to make this.

I traced the image from an A4 print of the photograph, using and even bigger enlargement to get the hands and face as accurate to the photograph as possible.

I projected those drawings onto tracing paper on my design wall. It took multiple A1 sheets as I wanted the Demonstrator to be larger than life size.

I made the triangles for the smoke and flames first, joined them and put them up on the design wall.

I made the blue tarpaulin next. I had almost decided to eliminate this – but the tarps were used as shelter by the demonstrators as they camped in the square after Morsi’s ouster, and I liked the burst of colour, so it went in.

Then I built up his body in raw edged applique, making sections, then stitching each fabric piece down with monofilament in a fine narrow zigzag. I made his face last as I was nervous about it. I wanted every trace of that anguish. All were made on separate background fabric pieces.

I had to make long strips of the triangles to be sure that I was producing an accurate rectangle and joined them in a lattice to hold the background in shape while I tacked down the figure and face. Then I machined them into place.

The top was then sandwiched and quilted.

The Justification

I am always aware that using another person’s image and reproducing it accurately will incur criticism in the quilting world, especially with an art quilt – in in my mind this is very much an art quilt. It evokes emotion, it tells a story, it has a message and it is visually arresting.

I have wanted to make a quilt about Raba’a for a long time. Finding Mosa’ab’s incredible image was one of those illuminating moments when I realised that everything I wanted to say was in that image – but that very few outside the audience at the time would see the photograph and that very few would go to Mosa’ab Elshamy’s page to search for it.

I know that I could be a conduit to put a brilliant image – a man in extremis, backed by smoke and flames – into audiences that would not see them otherwise. The people dying around him are not visible, but they are implied.

I wanted the rawness of this image in the soft medium of a quilt. I have always liked the fact that people see quilts as a loving warm wrap, as comfort and home and thoughts of grandmothers. I wanted the image to unsettle, to start conversations and to make people think.

I checked that I was not endangering this demonstrator or Mosa’ab with this quilt.

I have always felt that photojournalists put themselves at risk of losing their lives when they document violence, demonstrations, and war. In countries like Egypt they can also lose their freedom as many are now in gaol. There is a basic truth in a photograph that is hard to reproduce in a story. I wanted the quilt to be a salute to the bravery and honesty of photojournalists and truth in journalism.

I had considered other ways to work with this theme but felt that nothing I could imagine would have the ‘punch to the gut’ of this image.

The triangulations of the background evoke the gentle art of weaving in wool and very old traditions of the Middle East. I intended at least one triangle for each person killed – and I have more than that. They also take the image from a photograph to being a quilt, and a quilt that has the ‘how long did that take?” element.

I knew that the image could be read as a symbol of the upheaval and changes over much of the Middle East in the last ten years – Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Palestine as well as Egypt.

I used bright florals in the fire – to jolt viewers back into recognising something that they might have in their stash, and to remind myself that I was making a patchwork quilt. I also like the juxtaposition of the use of flowers as a memorial with the massacre.

I have been in touch with Mosa’ab throughout the process – and it was a very long process. I was working and travelling and teaching as this was being made so there were long breaks. I have sent him regular updates and he has been enthusiastic and encouraging throughout.

This demonstrator lived through the day, but many hundreds of others did not.

A friend in Ramallah, Tania Nasser, was Mahmoud Darwish’s translator. I asked for and was given permission to use his words as a title long ago, before he died. 

The Earth is Closing on Us

The Earth is closing on us 
pushing us through the last passage 
and we tear off our limbs to pass through. 
The Earth is squeezing us. 
I wish we were its wheat 
so we could die and live again. 
I wish the Earth was our mother 
so she'd be kind to us.
I wish we were pictures on the rocks 
for our dreams to carry as mirrors. 
We saw the faces of those who will throw 
our children out of the window of this last space. 
Our star will hang up mirrors. 
Where should we go after the last frontiers? 
Where should the birds fly after the last sky? 
Where should the plants sleep after the last breath of air? 
We will write our names with scarlet steam. 
We will cut off the hand of the song to be finished by our flesh. 
We will die here, here in the last passage. 
Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree. 

Mahmoud Darwish


Tentmaker's Teaching

Canberra Quilters decided to ask Egyptian Tentmakers Ekramy Hanafy and Hany Abd el Khader to teach while they were in Canberra for the Egyptian Embassy open weekend.

We were enchanted with these classes.


I had been a bit concerned as both men have English - but they are not fluent - and I was unsure how well they could explain what they were doing and why.

Melinda Coupland Pearce and I decided to make kits.  This would simplify the class for the students as there would be less dithering about what to bring. Because tentmakers work on canvas we knew that supplying this would be easier than trying to explain what to get.

We made coloured kits that contained 1/2 metre of one fabric and fat quarters of two others. Separately we had piles of white, cream or black background colours (fat quarters) and equivalent amounts of canvas and brown paper for transferring the designs. Students chose a set of colours for themselves and then a background. Canvas and brown paper was on their space on the tables.

They were asked bring an awl if they had it, paper and fabric scissors, hand sewing needles and small ones were recomended as an addition, and an old phone book, and any other usual sewing equipment for hand work (which covered thimbles for those who used them).

We also supplied five awls, white wax pencils for the black backgrounds, cinnamon for pouncing on light backgrounds and baby powder for dark backgrounds, and three ready-traced patterns for each student - a simple Islamic design, a simple lotus design, and a more difficult Islamic design for the experienced appliquers.  I had ordered a stack of books from AQS - see The Ancient Art of Applique on the AQS site.

 We set up the room as a U shape and put a large folding cutting table in the centre as a demonstration base.



They learnt how to fold the brown paper from a perfect square to eight layers in a triangle shape. Then they pinned the main pattern on top, being sure to align the centre.

Then they pricked through with an awl through all the layers cushioning the paper with an old telephone book or a folded canvas, making sure the holes in the bottom layer were still a reasonable size. This pierced design sheet was pinned over the background fabric and smoothed out. Light backgrounds were dusted with cinnamon, dark backgrounds with baby powder.



This layer was carefully lifted away, and the design drawn out in pencil or white wax pencil.

Then the stitching started. Hany demonstrated the Islamic style, and Ekramy demonstrated lotus.


Threading up - some used their own favourite sizes, some tried some of the big needles the tentmakers use - size 4 Straw needles.


Ekramy doing Lotus demonstrations



And Hany on the Islamic designs.

Look at some of the pictures to see how well it worked.


Teachers walking the room



Helping with the drawings - after excess cinnamon was tipped off the light ones. Between cinnamon and baby powder the room smelt amazing.


IMG_8847.JPG IMG_8845.JPG

A simple lotus and a simple Islamic design


IMG_8883.JPG IMG_8938.JPG

We had a wonderful time - on all four days. One of the most common comments was "I have never enjoyed a class so much!"

Both men were wonderful and natural teachers and the room was full of smiles most of the time.

Thank you Ekramy, and thank you Hany. You will be remembered very fondly by Canberra Quilters.

And - thank you Canberra Quilters for organising such a marvelous set of workshops - especially Melinda Coupland Pearce and Linda Magee.


The Chatelaine

Apologies to those who thought this would be a beautifully crafted silver gadget for my waist band.

I made this version #2 of a chatelaine when I realised that my previous version #1 was just too long. It tended to slither between my legs on flights so the pockets at the bottom hovered around calf level, leaving me groping oddly under blankets.



I made a long strip of patchwork in multi coloured scraps, just sewing them together to make a band about 5" wide and a full 58 inches long. I sounds so ridiculous that I just checked it twice, but it is right. I sandwiched this and quilted it simply, knowing I was going to lose some in the centre when I shaped it.



I then tried it around my neck and marked where I needed it to narrow in , so the band at the centre back and actually touching my neck is only about 2 1/2 to 3" long, and it widens fast to curve slightly around my neck and sit like a priest's stole. It should be back to full width just below your neckline. Check that it is comfortable before you bind it.



When I trimmed I had left the back wider by about two centimetres (unquilted edge) on one side, and the front wider on the other. These extra widths I just folded over twice and machined as a binding - so on one side the front 'binds' the back and the other side it is the other way around. It helps me to remember which way to put it on. It actually matters as I like my pin cushion on the left so my right hand can slide pins in easily and naturally. You could easily bind both the same way.

At this stage I decided I like the plainer side better as a front, as I wanted interesting prints and shapes in my pockets. I finished the bottom as I had the sides, then  I folded up the bottom four inches on each side and stitched the sides and they became two pockets at the bottom, with the  patchwork side showing.



On 4" pocket on the right side I put a centre line of stitching so it holds threads firmly and a quick unpick (seam ripper). The quick unpick does not come on flights! I also put needles in this but they sometimes slide if I fold the chatelaine into a bag - and next time I think I would include a small needle case in the gap which fastens to protect the needles. Maybe one day I will make that anyway. Mostly the ones I use simply sit in the pin cushion, but tucked through, not sticking out. Angle your pins in so they do not stick too far out either.


The 4" pocket on the bottom at the left side holds my iPod or iPhone in planes, and sometimes even while I stitch at the machine as it can play me a talking book through headphones and comes with me if I get up and move around.


I made and quilted two other pockets.


I drew around my most commonly used scissors and quilted and faced a triangle that would hold them with just the handles sticking out. I also - just for fun, quilted a design of gold stitched scissors (smaller ones) on the front of the pocket before I attached it.


For flights, I added a tab above this, free in the centre but stitched at the sides, so I could attach a retractable security card holder for my airline acceptable scissors. These are fantastic Clover scissors which I bought at Addicted to Fabric. they are truly tiny, but sharp enough to trim fabric.

IMG_1937.JPG I attached this quite high on the right side so I could easily use the scissors while they were still attached. The top is level with the pin cushion.


IMG_1934.JPG IMG_1933.JPG

The other quilted and faced pocket sits on the left side below the pin cushion. It is a simple rectangle but for fun I used two daisies to signify that it is for my glasses. I wear glasses - but never for close work. As soon as I start sewing I take them off and it is terrific to know where they are - especially on flights or in classes. No more fumbling for bags and cases or knocking them off the silly fold out table when trying to clear it for a tray of food. Sometimes I wear this on flights without having any sewing with me - just to hold my glasses and phone or iPod and headphones as I travel.



I made a rectangular pincushion about the width of the chatelaine, and quilted it, folded it over and stitched almost all of it, then stuffed it and stitched it closed. I then just stitched around three edges. It has to sit above your breasts or it adds ridiculous levels of bulk in absolutely the wrong place. I like the pincushion on the flat part of my chest, just above the breast.


Important - when stitching on the pincushion (and I had to scrunch the tops in a bit to make it fit as the chatelaine narrowed) - stitch three sides only and stop. Insert something hard behind it so you do not stick pins into yourself - I used a piece of acetate (transparency plastic) folded in four as it is thin and light ( and near me on the table) - but effective - but cardboard or template plastic would do.


And that is pretty much it!



My SAQA Oceania Square

Desert Finds

I started my square by stretching fabric lightly between two frames in my backyard on a sunny day and painting it. I wanted a warm colour - like the silky sand that our feet slipped into as we walked, sometimes up to our ankles on the dunes. At the end of our fifteen day trip across the Sahara our feet were polished and smooth - I do not think they will ever look like that again.

The paint is HiLo and I really love it. I do not try to paint specific things with hard edges - but for colour backgrounds it is perfect. I blend as I go, I work with the fabric damp, I tinge pure colour with a few drops of black to make it feel more natural, and occasionally flick other colours into it while it is still wet. I also painted greys and blacks so I had fabric I could cut and piece.

Then I started having fun. I cut a piece to use as a background. As we travelled we had found wonderful tools - in most of the areas where we stopped. We had a rule - 'one thing a day could be picked up' as we wanted to leave the desert as close as possible to the way we found it.



I used Tsukineko inks and their stick applicators to draw out my small tools. I used several techniques for this - I sketched first in pencil and filled in completely in colour and I also left some as line drawings. I worked briefly with archaeologists when living in Jordan so I had drawn up some images with them and knew the conventions that many use to imply shadows - though my drawing process was quick and dirty in comparison.




SAQA Oceania Square - Auction


 I drew four small tools. I am really fascinated with these - rocks that have been in the region since the earth formed, altered and shaped by people from long ago. I feel that when I reach down to pick up a small piece I am the first person to touch it since that hand - probably more than 9,000 years ago, dropped it and lost it, or discarded it as not quite good enough.


SAQA Oceania Square - Auction


 I wanted another darker reference as a lot of the driving we did was over black rock, sometimes sharp edged, sometimes wind shaped and rounded, and the sand slid down in the cracks.

I found some pinwhale corduroy which bleaches gold and put pebbles on it, then lightly sprayed it with bleach. I let that sit in the sun until the colour looked interesting.

At around that point I completely forgot that I was supposed to be photographing my process and sewed it together and quilted it - so I am treating each section separately here.

I quilted around my rocks and put curves like contours in the backgrounds.

I pieced my favourite strip-pieced crosses to stand for the grids an archaeologist puts on the earth before and during the cutting process, and I quilted those in the ditch.

SAQA Oceania Square - Auction

  The sharp change between the pale gold of the sand and the darkness of the corduroy worried me. I knew that I was going to fix that and soften the edge - so I found my few remaining sticks of D'Uva Lithocoal. If anyone has this in a back room - I will buy it! Please. It is wonderful. It is a heat-fixable charcoal that acts like a willow charcoal. It is light and powdery when applied and will just fall off if you tip it so I work on an ironing board and draw, then cover with baking paper or parchment and iron it - and it is permanent.

SAQA Oceania Square - Auction


SAQA Oceania Square - Auction

 That is definitely better. The charcoal picks up the high points of the quilting, and leaves light colour in the ditch, just as sand fell between the rocks.

SAQA Oceania Square - Auction

 I quilted my greys from the handpainted fabric in contours, to reference mapping.


 SAQA Oceania Square - Auction

 I did not like the fact that one cross that looked prominent was cut off - so I quilted it in and painted it gold, then added more gold crosses.

SAQA Oceania Square - Auction


I face my work instead of binding it - I like the way a facing is quick and easy, but I also feel that it is more contemporary for art quilts - it gives a sleek edge and work goes right to the edge to inply that continuation beyond.


SAQA Oceania Square - Auction

 A sneak peek at the back - also painted fabric.



 And it is finished. Desert Finds, by Jenny Bowker

SAQA Oceania Square - Auction


100 - Celebrating Canberra

I am part of a group of artists who use quilting as our medium. We are called tACTile - because we all live in the Australian Capital Territory - the ACT.

This year is our capital city's birthday. To celebrate Canberra's centenary we decided - two years ago when we seemed to have masses of time - to make twenty pieces each. that is a total of 100 pieces. We applied for a beautiful Canberra gallery - The Belconnen Arts Centre - and got the booking to coincide with Canberra Quilters' annual show.

There are six people in tACTile. Dianne Firth, Helen Gray, Beth Miller, Beth and Trevor Reid who work together as a single artist, and me.

The show has been open since the 9th August - and I have been so busy that I have only just managed to get around to writing something about it.

I think the easiest way to show you our work is to allow the Artist's statements to do the talking. First - some general gallery images, then some individual work with that artist's statement. I apologise for the fact that I did not bring the catalogue home and so do not have the titles of the work. I also took the images on an iPad - which is not ideal - in less than perfect light. Excuses!

Gallery view

Gallery view

The artists are in alphabetical order - which puts me first!



My work is about the relationship between the city of Canberra and the people who live here.

I wanted to show that Canberra is a busy, lively, happy city, full of ordinary people working and living and bringing up their families. The myths of this city - that it is cold and unfriendly, and blamed for decisions made by Parliament - are not the realities of this special place.

I wanted my work to feel as if the viewer was flicking through my sketchbook, with occasional colour and text. I hoped Canberrans would feel connected to the work as they recognised the locations, and for people beyond Canberra to recognise the familiar in the things we do.

As I stitched the lines that created my people I was aware that one unbroken thread connected the buildings to the landscape – and the people to the buildings – as one continuous, flowing, living, active city. 

Jenny Bowker   Jenny Bowker   Jenny Bowker   Jenny Bowker



Walter Burley Griffin wrote a report to accompany his design for the new Federal Capital. He noted that the peculiar advantages of Canberra lay principally in five site characteristics: the mountain ranges for background; local mounts for aspect and prospect; hills and spurs as the termini of avenues and for the most important structures; valleys for habitation and industry; and the Molonglo River and flood basin for architectural effect, recreation and for the improvement of the climate.

My artwork focuses on these five site characteristics. I have referenced the contribution of surveyor, architect and landscape architect through the use of their three main methods of graphic representation: the perspective, the section and the plan. Each site characteristic has been explored in terms of these three modes of representation. The horizontal arrangement of the five sections to create a panorama has been informed by the way Marion Mahoney Griffin used sections to illustrate the city plan.

The selection of materials is also symbolic. Felt was chosen to symbolise solidness of earth and the opaqueness of cloud, while net was chosen to symbolise the transparency of air and water. The colours of orange, grey and black reference earth, air and water.

Finally, in five framed works, the Molonglo River system has been dissected into five key parts; river, tributary, lake, basin, and wetland.

Dianne Firth   Dianne Firth Dianne Firth Dianne Firth


I apologise for the quality of the photographs of Helen Gray's work. The work is huge and the wall has a window on either side and one narrow one below - so it is backlit. Please look again at the gallery view above for a better distance view of part of it showing the wonderful Sparkling Lake.


Architect Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin planned the ideal city with a lake as its heart.

A photo of a family home, a dairy, on the banks of the Molonglo River where Lake Burley Griffin is now situated, hangs on the wall of a friend’s home.  ‘Riverview’, one of a dozen dairies along the river described as ‘not much more than a creek’.

Conversations produced a wealth of stories about the making of Canberra, the city planned from vast open plains.  Stories of a time before the damning of the river, of distant hills and big skies, of a golf course and a race track, of sports fields and more. And then of carting the silt ‘like there was no tomorrow’ to make the nature strips of our suburbs.

March 2013 and the centenary of the city is celebrated around the lake. Robyn Archer got it right. The lake sparkled with activity, became a stage surrounded by fun and festivity, as an eclectic fleet of water craft entertained with music and colour. Canberrans came to hear the music, see the acts, watch the light displays, enjoy the food and each others company; no fuss, picnic basket and rug, dogs on leash, bicycles and strollers, all around the central basin of the lake in the heart of this spacious, elegant city.

It would have made Walter and Marions’ hearts sing.

Helen Gray  Helen Gray



Cyclone Tracey, which devastated Darwin in 1974, was the catalyst for many Territorian families to relocate to the southern states. Our young family was no exception and we moved to Canberra in August 1975.

For this exhibition I decided to have a combination of pieces that represented the work of the Griffin legacy but also have a more modern approach to how Canberra has grown since my arrival in 1975.  I found that most of my work has been done in sections to showcase this theme.

The Bush Capital section represents the Indigenous trees that are local to the area and also the introduced trees that have been planted in abundance to create a natural harmony.  The trees that I have chosen are the Blakely’s Red Gum and the Crab Apple.  For each tree I have chosen to represent the bark, the leaf, the flower and also the fruit in the case of the Crab Apple.

The floral and faunal emblems, the Royal Bluebell, and the Gang-gang Cockatoo represent the A.C.T. government, whereas, the festivals are part of the many that are celebrated throughout the year and are enjoyed by the locals and tourist alike.

The choice of the location had to be represented as Canberra is surrounded by the beautiful Brindabella Mountains, the wide open plains and easy access to the snow, sea and Sydney. The landmark, Telstra Tower has become a symbol for most travelling Canberrians where upon sighting the tower we know we are almost home.

I am hoping that as the public view my work they will realize that not only is Canberra the Capital of Australia, the political seat, but a rich and vibrant city to live in.

Beth Miller   Beth Miller   Beth Miller   Beth Miller


Beth and Trevor REID

There are many reasons to love Canberra, two that come to mind immediately are the design of the city and its suburbs, the avenues, boulevards and roundabouts that make the city unique.  The proximity of the bush, the fact that the city is married to the natural environment, hence the reference ‘Bush Capital’. 

It is this marriage of bush and city, the design for four seasons, the heat of summer, the colour of autumn, the chill of winter (prompting an extra quilt on the bed) and the joy of spring that make this city our home.  Coming to Canberra in the early 80’s we were struck by the way the suburbs disappeared into the bush, the corridors of green that came right into the city centre and the feeling that Canberra was one big country town.

One of the first exhibitions we saw in coming to Canberra was an exhibition of Walter Burley Griffins plans and the striking elevations drawn  and painted by his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, these were displayed, along with Coulter’s panorama, at Regatta  Point and made a lasting impression. Although the city is much changed from these first images, it remains a unique and elegant place to live.

Beth and Trevor Reid Beth and Trevor Reid Beth and Trevor Reid


It is a beautiful exhibition. I have missed one major element - maybe I will put that in tomorrow.