I am a visual artist known in the community of art quilters. Most people in this community (with notable exceptions) are dedicated hobbyists. Some are traditional quilters creating wall hangings. Others work as artists using the tools and materials found in functional quilts. In the world of fine art the vast majority of art quilters are rightly labeled as crafters. The most obvious reason, to me, is the community clinging to the concept of a “quilt”.
I came into this world by accident. I had been a public school art teacher with a BFA and a Master’s in art who could manage studio time on weekends and maybe six weeks in the summer. I came across an interview with Faith Ringold in a classroom video. It turned out she initially “quilted” her paintings to reduce shipping costs. The idea of a soft canvas intrigued me for two reasons. First it was a practical solution to reduce the costs I incurred when exhibiting my work. Secondarily it was a way for me to stand out in the sea of painters and mixed media artists.
Serendipity played a role in my move into art quilts after a visit to a medical facility. I inquired about a piece of art made out of fabric in the lobby. It was not framed. It hung floating above the wall on a rod encased by plexiglass. As it turned out, the Doctor I was visiting made that piece. She referred me to a group that called itself Contemporary Quilters. That was my starting point.
When I first joined the group I saw members as crafters who were determined to move into the art world. I never found anyone there who had formal art training or anyone who did not place a high value on process and technique. This was strange to me coming from a world where the key question in the contemporary art studio was pushing the limits, questioning the norms, and rattling the cage of established artists.
I thought back on entry into this world when I ran across a post from an art quilter that made me question the community. It was a picture of their sketchbook. The page was open with poorly executed circles of watercolor in muddy primary colors. As an art teacher, I would immediately think this was a three year old’s painting on copy paper. I would give it a smiley sticker knowing that this was the infancy in visual communication. Art quilter followers did not share my view. For these followers, this was what “real” artists do.
Being an artist is not a declaration, it’s hard work. It is not merely technical mastery, it involves digging deep into intellectual and emotional territory. Taking a minute to paint some circles and having the hubris to share these as an example of an artist’s sketchbook to your coaching clients, collectors, and many followers; is playing art theater. It is not being an artist. It makes me question the world of art quilters.
The vast majority of art quilters are limited by not having an academic background in the visual arts. It is common for art quilters to attend a variety of workshops from people who create a style that is admired by others in the community who become mimics. Many art quilters are attracted to working creatively after careers that are centered on productivity. They have plenty of money and time. The desire to make comes without the background knowledge found in art history and understanding contemporary art. I found many want to find a formula instead of authentically finding their own path. The resulting work is too frequently an aesthetically pleasing object that misses the opportunity to push limits or challenge norms.
Some move up the community’s food chain into juried exhibitions and become teachers and coaches for other art quilters. Never having to take Art History classes, life drawing, painting, printmaking, or any other media is a deficit. The majority of top art quilters’ work is formulaic by design to create a path for teaching their technique and jurors tend to select these top makers that will attract people at quilt shows or other exhibition spaces.
The art quilt community is often offended by not being considered “real” artists. That is true on one level. Historically quilts and other textiles were not attributed to the maker, therefore their value was diminished. In addition to being a woman’s work, quilting was seen by art historians as low art: craft. The Bauhaus movement in the early 20th century began changing that paradigm, however their attempts to level the playing field for crafts expanded the opportunity to use materials like fabric.
In contrast, artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Lukas Samaras used fabric. In Rauschenberg’s case a quilt in “Bed” created in 1955 is included the permanent collect at MOMA . Contemporary artist Bisa Butler who creates portraits using fabric, is being shown in major exhibitions and art fairs. Her work is highly valued. The difference is that artist like Ms. Butler have formal training. She used fabric as a material, but did not use the term art quilt. Instead she placed her work in the context of portraiture.
My academic background taught me, as an artist; to create my own composition grounded in meaning. In the art quilt world this system seems topsy turvy. The typical entry in art quilt exhibitions has a theme which has the artist responding to meaning associated with that exhibition, and not the artist controlling the meaning of their own work. Art Quilts by definition must be layered and stitched which adds another point of control.
These exhibitions are juried based on technique and addressing the theme. Awards are given with a check attached. At quilt shows exhibition awards are frequently sponsored by vendors who want to sell products. In juried exhibitions outside quilt shows the artist may get juried in, but assumes the cost of shipping, is paying to compete with hundreds of entries for a fraction of the slots, and the relationship with the exhibition has time limits. Your art might be on display for weeks or be committed for years. That one piece might be seen by large numbers of people; but your body of work is not.
In art school there is a portfolio system. The artist produces a number of pieces that worked through an idea, solved a visual problem, and resulted in a group of related works of art. In my own studio practice I have found it natural to make a series or even to work on several series at once. After creating a portfolio an artist then finds a gallery or exhibition space to show their collection of work that will hopefully attract collectors. The artist’s work is seen in context.
Feeling discomfort is a good thing. It’s a sign that I need to continue on my own path. Although I admire the art quilt movement, I don’t think it’s fully my home and that’s OK.