This month my master class assignment was to find examples of good and bad art quilts and critique one of each. Since it’s all to be anonymous and confidential I won’t be sharing this exercise with you. However, it got me thinking about the definition of an art quilt.
Here’s the definition used by the Art Quilt Association:
An art quilt is an original exploration of a concept or idea rather than the handing down of a “pattern”. It experiments with textile manipulation, color, texture and/or a diversity of mixed media. An Art Quilt often pushes quilt world boundaries. An Art Quilt should consist predominately of fiber or a fiber-like material with one or multiple layers which are held together with stitches or piercing of the layers.
defines an art quilt as:
a creative visual work that is layered and stitched or that references this form of stitched layered structure.
If I am asked to define an art quilt I say that first, it’s art. That is, work made by an artist who has something to say about the world, to the world. And that artist has chosen to use the medium and format of a quilt, defined as layers held together by stitching. And by choosing to use the medium/format of a quilt the artist should have some feeling or connection or commentary to make with or about traditional quilts, otherwise why not make a painting or photography or bronze sculpture?
I think sometimes the cart gets put before the horse in attempts to define an art quilt by what it’s made of. And I also believe that quilters who want to make art quilts would do well to take design/drawing/painting classes in addition to classes on making realistic looking waterfalls with angelina fiber. All too often I’ve heard would be art quilters say they can’t draw. OK, then learn. Drawing is a skill that can be mastered with practice, like matching points on triangles. Design is another skill that can be learned. Some people have an intuitive sense of design, but anyone can learn some ground rules.
In my observation quilters who come to art are more inclined than artists who come to quilting to overdo classes in techniques at the expense of art basics. Artists in all media need a good selection of tools in their creative toolboxes, but techniques are the means to an end, not the goal itself. The few artists I’ve known who have taken up fabric as their medium have learned just enough to operate a sewing machine and then they make up their own techniques with fabric to get their message across.
Yes, I too have taken many techniques classes, and realize that almost all of them danced around the issue of whether what the students made was actually art. I wouldn’t expect art from most classes devoted to techniques such as dyeing or silk screening as the aim is to produce fabrics to use in art. However, I think design should be important in classes to teach pictorial or landscape art quilting. However, sometimes students are told to posterize
a photo as their design, and much time is spent matching fabrics to the colors in the photo in a paint by number effort to duplicate the photo. This is simply a pattern by another name, in my book. If you love the photo that much as it is, why not hang it on your wall rather than attempt to copy it in fabric? But I understand why quilters would think this approach makes an art quilt as quilts that copy famous art have won awards at shows.
Deep breath … I’ve come to believe that the term art quilt has been misunderstood. Beading, improvisation, raw edges, surface design, etc., by themselves do not turn a quilt into art. I refer you to the definitions I began this rant with – that an art quilt is an original exploration of a concept or idea that just happens to be made with fiber. As Bob Hicks, former art critic of The Oregonian, said about art: “The truth is, all that matters is this: Does the work move you? Does it have integrity and skill and power? Does it suggest things beyond itself?” If I look at a quilt and react to it as a work of art, then that’s what I consider it. If I look at a quilt and my first thought is, what great shibori dyed fabric, then I probably don’t consider it a work of art.
Full disclosure: most of the quilts I make are not art. They are usually original work, they are sometimes graphic and contemporary, they often don’t follow standard quilting craft; but only a few suggest things beyond themselves or evoke an emotional response. And that effect is my ultimate goal.