Tuesday, February 8, 2011

sometimes size does matter

Recently I have been thinking about large quilts and the works of art that have inspired them. It began when I got yet another call for submissions by the Studio Art Quilt Association. Now those who have been following my blog know that I have a love/hate relationship with SAQA and the "art quilt" movement in particular. I think they do have done a reasonable of defining an art quilt movement and certainly the individuals who founded and direct the group are hard working kind people. But I also think in their efforts there is a push to a homogeneity that hurts the movements.

This time they are seeking quilts for a series of presentations about what an art quilt is--a noble and worthy cause. Some of the work will be permanently included in a museum. I would love to participate but yet again they request that the quilts be no bigger than 12 inches on any one side.  Twelve inches!! Can you imagine what a 12 inch section of my work looks like? Even my placemats are bigger than 12 inches on any one side. Garrumph!! And this is not the first time they have made similar size restrictions. I would love to participate in their annual auction but again 12 inches!!!

To be fair to them, SAQA says this size makes it easy to ship the pieces by Priority Mail. A reasonable concern but.... And this is a big BUT. If the purpose of this particular exhibit is to educate the public as what the contemporary art quilt movement is about, then shouldn't they make arrangements to show art quilts in all the sizes they come in. Now they do have opportunities that I can participate in--the portfolio is just images. Some shows take work of other sizes. But if the purpose of this particular show is to define what an art quilt is aren't they doing a disservice to the art quilt community by having these size limitations? Shouldn't art be the size it is meant to be?

Now don't get me wrong--there are also many smaller pieces that I love. Think of those wonderful Persian miniatures--each so complete and perfect. Can you imagine them enlarged to room size--wouldn't they just be cartoonish? Or the delicate perfect etchings of Rembrandt? Clearly they need this intimacy. There are even miniature quilts so perfect in their stitchery that I come back to them again and again. Made larger they would just be another patchwork quilt.

But right now I am drawn to the power of large--or should I say LARGE--works of art. I think of the  paintings by Morris Louis--huge fearless sweeps of color and movement. Jackson Pollock--so much color and detail. The design apparent from a distance. The installations of Eva Hesse--rows of similar structures dominating the room. One structure by itself is almost trivial. It is the group that adds the power to the piece. Even the Cluny Tapestries at the Cloisters--don't the Lady and the Unicorn have to be larger than life?  

My mind returns to Sky Above the Clouds IV by Georgia O'Keefe--have you ever seen it? Rows and rows of clouds. She had flown above the clouds and tried to capture the feeling and expanse of the sky.  I reread how she painted it in a garage--working nonstop to get it finished before the temperature got too cold.  The work itself is 96 x 288 inches.  That's 8 feet by 24 feet if my math is right. It is so big that when she first framed the canvas with 2x4s--it broke the 2x4s. It is so big they had to make a special door to get it into the Art Institute of Chicago. Wonderful. It is so big that they couldn't move it to San Francisco to show it there. Now, it's been a while since I have seen it--my parents used to live in southern Illinois and I would take the train to visit them A stop over to visit the painting was always a delight. I remember looking at it and feeling dwarfed by it. You can see a picture of it here.

One of those pieces tucked away in the back of my mind.Usually I don't remember exactly what it looks like--but always I am trying to capture the splendor and enormity of the sky that it helped inspire in me.  Just consider prairie sky--it was 96 x 110 inches.

Prairie dawn--a mere 96x96 inches.

Or even endless sky:

Now endless sky is actually only 45 x 45 inches. Not as big as the others but just the right size for this quilt. It conveys the feeling that I want of the sky reaching up forever. Expanding overhead and seeming to dwarf the viewer. It is this power--the power of the repetition of the blocks, the power of the size of the quilt and the fabrics that can be individually examined but then become part of the canvas of the quilt that is important to me. Can you see the influence of O'Keefe in this quilt?

What would these pieces look like if I just included a 12 x 12 inch sample--a mere nothing. Just piecing, patchwork. The individual blocks I use are 8 x 8 inches. Not even worth showing you.

And this is where I think that SAQA by having rules about the size of quilts is creating a status quo of their own. Doesn't this result in work that often looks the same? Now clearly some quiltmakers work in smaller sizes and this requirement is easy for them. Others have work where small sections can stand alone. Or they make test pieces that are small. For them it is probably not an issue.

So why I don't just make a piece that is 12 x 12 with the same amount of detail?  Even if I could technically do it--and I don't think the cotton fabrics that I like would allow it--the piece still would not have that all encompassing power of a large quilt that takes over the space with its size. Changing the size of my quilts--even if I am going from 45 x 45 to 96 x 96--requires me to rethink everything since size is important to my work. The feeling is different. The power is different.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion of the role of SAQA in the art quilt world. In a recent lecture Jane Dunnewold mentions that the quilt world is dominated by women. While there is nothing wrong with that--and indeed a lot right with that--doesn't the requirement of small intimate pieces reinforce this trend and the homogeneity of the art quilt world. Check out her essay here. And yes, probably one of the reasons I love the O'Keefe work is that it was made by one very determined powerful woman.

Quilts also can have this power and importance. Shouldn't SAQA in its effort to define what is an art quilt also try to capture this feeling? After all, if commentators are worried about the art quilt movement becoming something more isn't this precisely where they should focus? Not on sections of the quilt or intimate samplers--not that there is anything wrong with them--but without the larger works can the entire scope of the movement be seen.  If we are going to take ourselves seriously as artists shouldn't the art be the size it is meant to be??

It seems to me there are lots of ways they could do this--they could include larger quilts in their presentation. Sure, it might cost more for shipping but that might be worth it. At the very least they could create a supplemental Power Point presentation. For the Niche Awards I got to send a framed 8 1/2 x 11 image of my quilt rainbow hills. Another easy and inexpensive solution.

What do you think? Do you make large pieces? Do you find a difference between the intimate studies and the larger pieces? Do you feel the size of the work can add to the power of the work?


  1. Note: I just received this wonderful and very prompt response from Dr. Sandra Sider who is the President of SAQA. She gave me authority to publish it and I would like to share it with you.

    Dear Ann,

    I have long admired both your work and your writing, and would love to see you do some articles for the SAQA Journal.

    You make some good points in your blog, and as a critic I absolutely agree about the power of larger work. In our mission statement, SAQA does not make any mention of size, and we do try to have exhibitions with published catalogues (such as Twelve Voices) without any size restrictions on the quilts. However, for the sake of practical convenience and for presentation on the Internet, we have to restrict the sizes of the trunk show and the auction pieces. SAQA does have a nice PowerPoint presentation including larger quilts that can be used for educational purposes, and any member is welcome to incorporate that into a lecture. In addition, our annual Portfolio features many large quilts, and that is the vehicle through which we define our work professionally.

    I appreciated your email, and would be happy for you to post my response in your blog. (Please note that I do not participate in the SAQA Yahoo group, simply because I don't have the time.)

    All the best,

    Dr. Sandra Sider
    SAQA President

  2. Ann,
    I agree with all your points but as an artist I have made such amazing discoveries about myself and my art by working with constraints. So I can't wait to see what happens when you work small!!!

  3. Thanks Kathy. A number of years ago when I worked in silk and wool, I did work small. Not sure I'm in the mood to do that just yet--but you never know.