Tuesday, January 25, 2011

should we call them art or art quilts?

As I sit in my studio sewing my latest quilt together, I have been wondering what is an art quilt? Is the requirement that the art be quilted detrimental to the concept? Now I can also see how the term art quilt came into being when people began first exploring the full potential of quilts and needed to define the new movement. Quilts are something both familiar and accessible--indeed doesn't everyone have some relationship with a quilt?  But has the time for this term come and gone? I don't know.  In some works clearly the quilting adds to the meaning of the piece. I think of the quilts of Susan Shie who uses a crazy machine quilting on top of her intricate detailed paintings to reference the traditions of quilting. My friend Jude Larzelere who uses machine quilting to add texture to her explorations of light and space. Or the geometric abstractions of Lisa Call whose lines are accentuated by rows of quilting.

But then I remember Jeanne Williamson. Now she has been a very talented and innovative quilt maker with one of her quilts even on the cover of a recent Quilt National exhibit. However, a couple years ago she felt she was being limited by the process of quilt making and instead became a mixed media artist. Check out her art--the fences that define boundaries and the process of time at http://www.jeannewilliamson.com  Looking at her career, it seems to me that her work has grown exponentially by leaving aside the need to quilt her pieces.

During my lunch break I was reading in The Surface Design Journal a great article by Joanne Mattera Affinities: Fiber and Wax. If you don't already belong, the Journal of the Surface Design Association provides one of the most thought provoking analysis of contemporary fiber art that I have found and is well worth the price of membership. Do check out The Surface Design Association.

Joanne Mattera is a wonderful encaustic painter who uses color and geometry to create what she calls "lush minimalism." Her blog is another one that I follow regularly.  In the article she begins by noting that although Jasper Johns used fabric and wax to make his iconic flags, he was not interested in the materials but in--as Joanne Mattera points out--"things the mind already knows." And of course there is the art of Louise Bourgeois who is known for her use of materials including textiles to create her art--but again her art was not limited  or defined by her materials but instead by ideas.  Mattera wonders if this isn't the time "for all of us to eliminate the adjectives we use to define ourselves as artists."

An interesting idea. I think about it as I finish the quilt. My routine, sew the blocks together, cover the seam with a binding and whip stitch the binding down.

Lots of work but I like how it looks and feel that my quilts gain meaning by their references to traditional quilting and the use of commercially available fabrics.  I am intrigued by the repetition of the block formation and the intensity of the quilting--a human touch that brings memories. I even like the fact that some of my quilts could actually get put on a bed and used but I don't feel that makes them any less art.

However,  I wonder if some of the so-called art quilts add the quilting just to be considered an art quilt.  Some seem so far removed from a bed quilt that perhaps they should better be considered textile art than a quilt. Others seem to be painting on fabric where the quilting seems almost to hold down the power of the piece in a way perhaps not intended. There are those where the techniques seem the main focus of the piece. And others--well, in the words of a former poetry instructor of mine can be referred to as personal expressions. Not that there is anything wrong with that...

Now I don't have the answers but I do ponder. If the work is art--whatever that means--then it may not need to be defined as an art quilt but maybe--to use the words suggested again by Joanne Mattera--as art with a textile sensitivity or maybe art that references quilts--or maybe just plain art.  Interesting idea. I haven't worked it out in my mind yet but maybe it is worth thinking about? Or is it? Am I off the wall? Have you considered it? Or have I just been doing too much hand sewing?


  1. Ann, not only have I considered it, I live it! I think your quote from Joanne says it for me " her art was not limited or defined by her materials but instead by ideas." My opinion, but I really wonder at the direction of the art quilt movement. I wonder if it is all about the process, gizmos or 'new'/hot techniques? Again, my opinion, but when I see the word 'just playing' in someone's description of their work, I imediately tune out. I suppose there is a place for this sort of thing, my art school would say 'in your sketch book!" I love this subject, and the question of "what is your art about"? I 100% agree on your take on the Surface Design Journal, they seem to have a good grasp on the fiber world as a whole.
    Thanks for posting.

  2. Thank you so much Lori for your post. I am so glad I am not alone. I am especially taken with your concern for the art quilt movement. It is a big and important topic that needs to be talked discussed IMHO.

  3. Ann, thanks for the mention. Much as I love materiality, I find that adjective elimination has become my informal mission. In that spirit, may I point out that I am not an "encaustic painter" but a painter. I love encaustic, but I also work in gouache on paper, in acrylic or oil on canvas, and recently, with intaglio printmalking. Love your work!

  4. Thanks Joanne. You are absolutely right that I should have referred to you as a painter or maybe as an artist. Sorry about that.