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Painting It Forward – A COVID-19 Quilt Project Grows in Virginia

Read about the Purcellville artist who picked up her paintbrush and started a grassroots community art project.

Diane Canney at work in her studio, painting panels for the COVID-19 Honor Quilt. (Photo: Mike Canney)

Alexandria, VA – Diane Canney is a force of nature.

Faced with months of isolation arising from a worldwide pandemic, having to manage two wineries and five vineyards impacted by COVID-19 business closures, and myriad other obstacles that kept her from celebrating her mother’s 95th birthday last month (her mother is quarantined in Florida), Diane Canney did not simply grin and bear it. This Purcellville artist picked up her paintbrush and started a grassroots community art project: The COVID-19 US Honor Quilt.

Diane was watching a PBS documentary on the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt when the idea came to her that what the world needs now is to begin the healing process together, joined by a collective desire to act. What better way than creativity to express not only the common experience of isolation and fear but also gratitude for the courage and sacrifice of first responders and frontline workers?

The AIDS Quilt was conceived by Cleve Jones in 1985 to memorialize the lives lost to HIV/AIDS. It was displayed on the National Mall in 1987, 1996, and most recently July 2012. Once completed, at 54 tons and 1.2 million square miles of fabric, it became the largest community art project in the world.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed on the National Mall in July, 2012 Photo Kelly MacConomy

Diane explains that the COVID-19 Honor Quilt differs in that it is both a tribute to the medical workers, caregivers, grocery and sales clerks, educators, EMTs, firemen and police who have been braving the front lines of the pandemic, and a memorial to victims of the pandemic and the heartbroken who grieve for them.

A panel for the COVID-19 Honor Quilt painted by artist and founder Diane Canney. (Photo: Scott MacConomy)

Diane has made the project a gift to her mother, Phyllis Byrum Liedtke, who inspired her to start the quilt and foundation. Phyllis told her, “Diane! You have so much energy. It’s not like you to sit on the sidelines! Why don’t you do something like you always do to make this situation better?”

Kickstarting a nonprofit foundation and grassroots community art project is no cakewalk even in the best of times. To say COVID-19 complicated Diane’s earnest efforts is an understatement. But a veteran philanthropist and community arts activist like Diane Canney was not deterred. She fielded the curves of an ongoing quarantine, curtailed fundraising events, no organization, no money, and no time due to a world turned upside down.

Partnering with the Artistic Fuel Foundation and Loudoun Arts, Diane and her husband Mike Canney offered the use of their 50 West Vineyards winery and wine clubhouse with panoramic views of the Bull Run Mountains to the inaugural Loudoun Arts Film Festival, where they will also launch the quilt project.

This young artist painted an image of the World Trade Center honoring the bravery of first responders during a crisis such as on 9/11. Photo by Scott MacConomy

The LAFF will feature wine, popular food trucks, art, live music, and virtual award-winning/Indie film showcases as well as a pop-up drive-in for nighttime screenings. The quilt will be unveiled September 17, the second weekend of the film festival, which was epically organized by local artist and Leesburg gallery owner Kaeley Boyle and filmmaker/screenwriter Owen Palmiotti. Despite their best-laid, year-in-the-making plans being capsized by the coronavirus, the film festival is going on September 10-13 and 17-19.

COVID-19 Honor Quilt project founder Diane Canney and filmmaker/screenwriter Owen Palmiotti, co-founder of the Loudoun Arts Film Festival joined in the painting of quilt panels. Photo Scott MacConomy

Quilting traditions in America, and especially in the South, have a rich history of recording births, marriages, and deaths. Much like the metaphor of joining pieces of a fabric together to create a whole, Diane notes that, “The quilt is like a mosaic, but instead tiles or glass, we are weaving squares of fabric together, shaping a canvas like a painting, grief and sorrow juxtaposed with valor and triumph of the human spirit as we get through this together, one day at a time.”

Healing together one panel at a time is the mission of the COVID-19 US Honor Quilt Foundation. Diane hopes to take the assembled quilt across Virginia and beyond, gaining momentum from state to state. She has reached out to the Smithsonian, hoping to join in the ultimate display on the National Mall as part of the COVID-19 Memorial Quilt Act introduced in Congress by Representative Andre Carson (D-Indiana) this past June.

The COVID-19 Quilt panel contributed by Phyllis Byrum Liedtke who inspired the COVID quilt art project. (Photo: Diane Canney)

Quilt panels are 10 1/2”x 10 1/2” and can be made of any fabric material. The quilt doesn’t have to involve sewing. Painting, mixed media, fabric markers, and photo-on-fabric imaging are all part of the creative movement. Quilters of all ages and ability are welcome to contribute artwork for the project. Panels become part of the community textile art installation as well as logged into the online website registry.

Diane plans to place a large HOPE sign on the hillside leading to the winery and clubhouse (“…something like the HOLLYWOOD sign, only not quite so ginormous!”) where the COVID quilt panels will be assembled for view. Come out to 50 West on September 17 for a few great views: the scenery, the films, the art, and the quilt. Stay for the great music, the fun food, and authentic fine Virginia wine. Together we can make a better world. Together we will heal.

8-foot high letters spelling HOPE will display some of the COVID19 quilt panels during the Loudoun Arts Film Festival at 50 West at Vineyards in Middleburg. Photo Scott MacConomy

After all, helping people and doing good is what makes us happy.

To participate or for more information on the COVID-19 US Honor Quilt go to

Email: [email protected]

Write: COVID-19 US Honor Quilt Project PO Box 2610, Purcellville. VA. 20134

Phone: 703-725-2495

On Facebook: COVID-19 US Honor and Memorial Quilt

ICYMI: Art League Hosts Exhibition by Alexandria Artist Noah Williams, Opening Sept. 10

Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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