MTSU Guides International Project Showcasing Artists with Disabilities

MTSU VSA international quilt

An MTSU-coordinated labor of love, pieced together by a group of international artists and friends to celebrate the arts, education and cultural exchanges, is now being spotlighted in Washington, D.C.

The beautiful handcrafted quilt, comprising 81 specially designed squares contributed by 38 countries and 36 states, combines talents from Tunisia to Texas into a massive piece of fiber art recognizing the abilities and friendships of artists around the world. 

It's currently on display in the main gallery of the U.S. Department of State’s Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, D.C., through late July. It will be formally presented to Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith July 24 at the U.S. Capitol and then will become a permanent part of the State Department's Arts in Embassies traveling worldwide exhibit.

The quilt is the crown jewel of VSA’s "40 Days Around the World" Digital Arts Festival, an online celebration of international arts exchanges involving artists with disabilities in 60 countries and 37 states. 

Organizers developed the digital "festival," which goes live Tuesday, June 16, at http://40days.vsatn.org with the first of its 40 projects and concludes July 26, to commemorate VSA's 40th anniversary as well as the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

VSA Tennessee is a statewide nonprofit organization that provides resources, tools and opportunities for arts programming for people with disabilities. It's an affiliate of VSA, the international organization on arts and disabilities founded by Smith in 1974 and formerly known as Very Special Arts, which merged with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2011 to expand its services.  WMOT also participated with an exchange of radio programs with Ireland.

VSA Tennessee Executive Director Lori Kissinger, an instructor in MTSU's Department of Organizational Communication, spearheaded the entire project with the help of several of her students and volunteers. 

They developed the website, worked with artists, coordinated special events for participants and handled publicity for the international effort. One exchange, for example, saw young artists with autism in East Tennessee and Vietnam share photos, drawings and poetry about the mountain ranges that each group calls home. 

You can learn more about the "40 Days" project in a special video at

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Once the squares for the quilt began arriving, MTSU professor Lauren Rudd of the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Design gathered student volunteers to help put the quilt together with the aid of hardworking local artists.

“What became immediately apparent was that these were not ordinary quilt squares,” Kissinger recalled. “Some were woven on a loom, some were intricately embroidered, some were batik, some were a silk screen; the list goes on. Each quilt square was a unique piece of art.

“Then came the stories. There is the story of the teenager who learned through working on this quilt that college was an option for her future. There was the young girl who demonstrated such immediate passion and aptitude for sewing that it is believed she may have found her life’s vocation. There was the country whose children got so immersed in expressing what makes their country unique that they created an entire packet of squares. The (VSA) affiliate couldn’t select just one, so they sent them all to us and said that we would have to make that decision.

“It was the stories that breathed life into the quilt. … They spoke of how the arts can open doors in education, how the arts can lay out a path to careers and how the arts can break down barriers in communication.”

Kissinger was part of a May 29 event when the quilt went on display at the U.S. State Department headquarters. At that event, she learned that the U.S. Department of Civil Rights is interested in creating a book about the quilt and its stories to accompany it around the world.

"There are several popular metaphors for our diverse, pluralistic American society, but the quilt may be the best of the lot,” a State Department official said at the May event. 

“This quilt illustrates America’s fundamental belief that our strength comes from unity. Globally, this quilt reflects the strength of U.S. diplomacy as we stitch together international relations to foster global peace and security."

The MTSU wordmark on a Raider blue and white eight-point star is the first quilt block. Its center block depicts a bright pink-and-purple plush applique hand in the universal sign-language gesture for “I love you.”

“Two young girls suggested that the quilt should have one square that did not represent any one state or country or organization ... [but] should represent love because that is the universal language,” Kissinger explained. “They believed that love was the driving force behind the entire project and what had kept this project together.”

Kissinger's students regularly help with VSA events at MTSU as part of her experiential learning classes, coordinating events like each autumn’s National Christmas Tree decorating party and the "Golden Ratio Project," an international arts education exchange performance.