Bonnie Zare’s feminist activism class paused for a moment. Meanwhile, throughout Virginia, a group of artists were busy turning rich and delicate silk fabrics into works of art and couture.

This was the beginning of Virginia Tech’s change to online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before spring break, Zare’s students were in the middle of planning a live auction to benefit Aarti for Girls, a home for abandoned children — mostly girls — in Kadapa, India, that also works to educate and empower women in the larger community through training and advocacy programs. The auction would feature the work of Virginia textile artists. 

The original plan was to present the auction during a joint event with the Virginia Tech Society of Indian Americans. Along with the auction, it would involve dance groups, general discussions about India, and presentations about the children’s home in Kadapa. But then the university canceled all in-person events. 

The class had to move forward in a different direction.

Zare, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, needed to make sure the class continued in its goal of merging scholarship and feminist activism with a global focus sensitive to diverse cultures without stereotyping them. Because of the change to a remote classroom, the class could not do two other campus-related projects. 

But the Aarti for Girls was different. Zare had set the fundraiser in motion before the start of the spring semester. 

She had first noticed the organization through the documentary film, “India’s Missing Girls” by Ashok Prasad. His portrayal of Aarti Home, now Aarti for Girls, inspired Zare to volunteer with the organization in 2008. In addition, she hosts workshops and study abroad experiences there, and is now a member of its international executive board.

Anticipating an opportunity to do a collaborative project involving artists in Virginia to support Aarti for Girls, Zare engaged students who had participated in a study abroad program in Indian social justice earlier in the winter. 

“When we visited Aarti for Girls, we went over to the city and bought cloth,” she said. “We stopped in a wholesale silk merchant’s store and had him cut fabric we chose into one-meter length samples. Then we brought those home and handed them out for $5 each to artists who wanted to take part. We encouraged people to make clothing, purses, wall hangings — anything they could think of to create.”

A Blacksburg community organization, the Quilting Party, agreed to help spread the word to its network that Zare’s students were doing a fundraiser for Aarti for Girls and needed textile artists to donate their work. New River Arts and Fiber dedicated display space to showcasing the fabric to entice other artists into participating. 

All this happened before spring break. When Virginia Tech announced online learning after an extended spring break, the class took the auction online.

“Each of us from the feminist activism course were committed to this event and chose not to give up,” said Autumn Ritchie, a recent graduate in sociology and criminology. “Through March and the beginning of April, each of us devoted our time to creating virtual flyers for promotion, reaching out to our community sponsors, and customizing a user-friendly online auction site.”

After some quick research, they found the online auction platform Auctria. 

“We felt very grateful for that platform,” Zare said. “One student attended a webinar about it, and we quickly re-skilled and retooled our actions to fit the online auction format. And that’s why I’m so proud of the students. To be honest, there’s that sinking feeling you get when you’re starting something new and wondering if you can pull it off. But I’m so glad we did, and I think even during our own personal difficulties, the success of this project is such a testament to the people who wanted to help.”

Kathy Combiths’ bags
Kathy Combiths received second place for her three bags, which sold at an online auction in mid-April. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Zare.

The auction took place in mid-April, and 117 people visited the site. Forty-eight made bids, and the class raised $1,150 for Aarti for Girls.

“I’m proud of all the work we were able to do for this project, despite everything going on in the world around us,” said Kiara Scott, a sustainable biomaterials major who used the auction for an honor’s project. “We dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort into it and sharing information about Aarti for Girls. We were able to do all these things — from planning and leading Zoom meetings, to making our website beautiful and functional, to creating the poster, fun facts, and short biographies for our social media posts — from our homes, and we were able to share it with so many people from all over.”

The owners of New River Art and Fiber, Jess Jones and Stella Boyer, joined Peggy Phillips Quesenberry, a collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management, in judging the artists’ entries.

Fifteen artists took part, many from the New River Valley, but also Floyd, Vinton, and Northern Virginia. Artists included Manju Batra, Gail Billingsley, Kathy Combiths, Sue Davis, Tina Freudenberger, Kathleen Gabrysch, Paula Golden, Barbara Hollinger, Suzanne Jackson, Bunnie Jordan, Carol Monti, Carole A. Nicholas, Ruth Rosborough, Karin Tauber, and Rachel Zare.

Award winners were Suzanne Jackson, first place; Kathy Combiths, second place; and the team of Tina Freudenberger and Carol Monti, whose collaborative art won the audience choice prize.

“When the class saw what the artists had created with the fabric, their jaws dropped,” Zare said. “I think that was one of the best moments — when the students saw the items that came back from the artists. The work was so beautiful, so colorful, so sophisticated, and so inspired.”

Written by Leslie King