Threads bearing precious memories now hang from the Cary Arts Center ceiling like championship banners.
There are wedding dresses, baby outfits and hand-me-downs from residents and their relatives, some of whom died years ago.
Visitors who tilt their chins skyward won’t see the outfits as they were worn, but as 60 rectangular panels that are framed – in the spirit of the art center’s roots as a school – like oval yearbook portraits of yore.
Over the last few months, artist Jan-Ru Wan worked with residents to refashion their meaningful clothing into more than 170 small works of art as part of her project, “In Clothes We Remember.”
Wan’s effort to highlight the human-material connection, which the town commissioned for $4,000, meant bringing the community together in a number of ways.
It offered about 16 women a chance to meet and share stories as they painted, screen-printed and embroidered the donated garments that now dangle from the arts center ceiling.
“With so many different people talking about their different cultures and art and fabric ... you’d be surprised by how fast the time goes by,” said Inge Wright, a native Austrian and Cary resident who donated clothing that her son wore as a child.
To celebrate Wan’s art, students of the center’s sewing classes upcycled some of their old clothes and held a “refashion show” during the exhibit unveiling on April 24.
The Cary Teen Council, a local volunteer organization, also filmed a 20-minute documentary on the project in which the teens talked to residents who participated in the project.
“I didn’t realize how much people would care about an article of clothing,” said Nupur Jain, a 13-year-old council member.
In the film, Antoinette Brown explains why she donated the Cub Scouts uniform her son wore in 1984. Roberta Morgan talks about her donation: the black dress she wore on a cruise she took with some lifelong friends. And Alice Ahmadeih recalls how she stumbled upon a dress she bought for her granddaughter.
“It might not look like much to you guys,” Ahmadeih said on camera. “But this meant the world to me.”
Wan, a textile artist and longtime art professor from Taiwan, came up with the idea to make art out of clothing about four years ago after her father died.
To remember him, she sewed together several of his shirts as part of a large installation she called “Do Not Iron For Me Anymore.”
“It was my out,” Wan said. “It helped me keep a part of him forever.”
Helen Stanfield said she participated in Wan’s Cary project because she, too, wanted to make something beautiful out of something tragic.
Stanfield donated an inspirational T-shirt that her family custom-made when her cousin was battling pancreatic cancer. The word “grititude” is emblazoned across the purple cotton.
“It means ‘raised in the south with attitude,’” she explained during the unveiling.
Stanfield’s cousin died last August. But the word “grititude” will peer out the second-story art center window for months to come. Stanfield used her phone to take photos of it during the unveiling.
“I love it. It’s beautiful,” Stanfield said. “The whole project is beautiful.”