What IS An Art Quilt, Anyway?

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.

SAQA defines an art quilt as:
a creative visual work that is layered and stitched or that references this form of stitched layered structure.
Kathy Loomis, who doesn’t hold back her opinions, said:
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.


Filed under Art quilts, Commentary

54 responses to “What IS An Art Quilt, Anyway?

  1. Pingback: Another Perspective on Art Quilts | The Snarky Quilter

  2. sandy

    Painters look at landscapes and human models to “copy” them in their art all the time. To me, art is reproducing something. Whether it’s a copy of an actual scene in front of the artists eyes, or a copy of something the artist sees in their head, it makes no difference.
    As quilters, we are too hard on ourselves. I say we ARE artists. From the humblest beginner, making a nine patch quilt, to the experienced quilter who paints a scene from her head with fabric…..we are artists. That beginner saw that color combination that will create that pattern and made a piece of art out of the fabric, just as sure as the experienced quilter made that landscape quilt from a picture in his/her head.

  3. Jan

    The majority of people have to look at patterns/ paintings/landscapes to get inspiration, not everyone is blessed with creative visualisation
    Why should it bother anyone if a person creates a quilt/wallhanging
    from a painting or a pattern? It’s freedom of choice.
    Reading the Kathy Loomis article I feel she suffers from “incontestable superiority” and needs to get over her self.
    We are living in a ” designer” led mass produced world and having the ability to make something with our hands and heart should be seen as a blessing and a talent. We have to buy materials to be creative
    just like painters have to buy paint etc;etc;
    We can’t grow our own fabric but when we use that which we have bought we are being CREATIVE AND ARTISTIC.
    A few years ago at an art exhibition in London (UK) one of the winning entries was a heap of rubbish/garbage thrown down in the middle of the exhibition hall, people walking by it would pretend they understood the message the artist was conveying.. Suddenly, a little girl who was about 7, years old, said in a very loud voice look Daddy someone has been very bold and left all that rubbish on the floor?
    Rubbish is exactly what a lot of critics write.
    If people act cautious all the time nothing would ever be achieved.
    Rules are meant to be broken and this is especially true of creativity.
    If a person wants to make a quilt or paint a landscape that looks like an explosion in a paint factory do it it’s the only way to learn what

    • As a concrete person I rely on photos as a starting point for many of my quilts. I also have used others’ quilts as inspiration. To me the art part of an art quilt is the unique vision I create from my initial spark.

      • Jan

        Joanna, you have beautiful quilts.
        Your Heading Home quilt is really lovely.
        I’m teaching myself to quilt and don’t know anyone
        (in the physical sense) who is interested in quilt making.
        That’s why coming across work like your’s is so helpful.

      • It’s a hard go to teach yourself to quilt. If you have no quilters locally who can help you I hope you’ve found some resources online that can help. My guess is there’s classes on just about any aspect of quilting. If you want some suggestions, let me know.

      • Jan.

        Joanna, I would love some class recommendation thank you.
        When you have time will you please email me a list.

      • Here’s a link to a post I wrote about digital quilt classes https://snarkyquilter.wordpress.com/2015/11/25/digital-learning/. Craftsy.com has some free block of the month classes that go over many techniques. If you let me know what your interests are, I could hone in more on what might work.

      • Jan

        Joanna, Thanks for the info on online classes.
        Sometime ago I came across a class called Make a quilt from
        start to finish. I found it very good. It was with Annie’s Attic.
        I joined a few Craftsy classes. One class on Craftsy I was really
        looking forward to turned out to be big disappointment. It was an
        art fiber class. I can tell you the teacher spent so much time talking
        about herself I thought she was going to walk on water.
        Switched to another class which is more inspiring.
        I agree 100% with “To me the art part of an art quilt is the unique
        vision I create from my initial spark”

      • I learned with Craftsy that it’s a good idea to watch the class preview to see if you can handle the instructor’s style. Some have had annoying mannerisms that irked me. Others, as you found, aren’t especially helpful. My two favorite Craftsy classes have been Stupendous Stitches and Jane Dunnewold’s fabric dyeing class.

  4. I wonder whether what is, for the maker, an expression of an idea or exploration of a concept, necessarily comes across to the viewer as being that. I have recently been reading a book about creating luminosity, transparency, and luster in quilts and hope to make some quilts that explore those concepts and translate ideas in my mind to quilt form. But I doubt my quilts would come close to being art, even they are, for me, exploration of (artistic?) ideas.

    It would have been interesting to see what your classmates identified as good and bad art and why. Was there agreement?

    • As with any creative work, each reader/viewer brings his/her unique perspective to what that piece means. The creator may have intended one thing, but the work may spark other meanings. In my class the major common points for bad art were lack of a range of values and lack of a focal point. This was true no matter the degree of realism or abstraction.

  5. Visiting from Melanie’s reblog. I think traditional quilts can be artful or not artful, depending on fabric and layout choices. I would say it is a difference of degree to get on to art quilts, which for the most part abandon traditional block designs. (However, some early Quilt National art quilts still made use of traditional blocks.)

    I think the “three layer held together by stitches” is an important part of the definition; otherwise one has fiber art, not quilt art.

    While I agree that elements and principles of design should be primary in art quilts, I am not sure about your first quoted definition. I wonder about concept and idea–wouldn’t that eliminate modern abstract design? Nor do I think it needs to employ mixed media or manipulated fabric; of course some do–just not essential.

    As to Kathy Loomis’ statement, I question her last demand of quilt art. We do not ask painters to have “feeling or connection or commentary” about paint nor sculptors about marble or whatever, so why quilters?

    I agree with your comments about working too closely from photographs; I think they are useful as starters, but that one should abstract from them and leave them behind.

    I enjoyed reading your blog and thinking these thoughts. Although it doesn’t much modify my work (which runs the whole gamut), I enjoy teasing out meaning.

    • I quoted the various definitions of art quilt to show the difficulties of coming up with a good one. And I think that design principles apply just as much to traditional block pattern quilts. Think about quilts where the sashing seems too thick or too thin. That’s a proportion issue, ie., design.

  6. Pip

    An interesting read, I’m glad you mentioned the “posterize a photo” technique, I have often thought the same, why bother with matching threads or fabric and spending all that time making an exact copy of a photo.

    • The people I’ve talked to who have done such classes seem quite invested in their fabric copies. I just don’t get it, but I realize that they are taking pride in craftsmanship.

  7. Thanks for this interesting post. My guild had a speaker Monday who is a “quilt artist.” She said she came to an understanding several years ago that really it is all in technique, and she learned a lot of techniques, so now she makes art quilts instead of “traditional” quilts. She was an engaging speaker and showed us a lot of her works, some of them very interesting, and that I liked. But … I would not buy her quilts as artwork. They, for the most part, didn’t show that she had also learned much about design. And, for the most part, didn’t seem to have much to say. That may sound very snobby of me, but that was my opinion.

    Here is my opinion: if someone is an artist, it doesn’t depend on the medium and doesn’t need to be qualified by medium. We don’t call paint artists “paint artists.” We call them artists. (Similar but different: when we speak of female pilots, we shouldn’t call them “women pilots.” They are pilots, just as we would say of the men…) Labels… !!! 🙂

    • But we do speak of “painters” and “sculptors” as well as calling them “artists.” If we were to do likewise and call ourselves “quilters,” the comments about grandma’s quilts would pour forth.

    • As various commenters have noted, the current feeling is if you says it’s art, then that’s what it is. Of course, others always have the option to disagree.

      • I’m okay with that. I do know that I’d rather hang a very interesting “traditional” quilt on my wall than an uninteresting “art” quilt. So the labels again aren’t very important for this purpose.

      • This seems to change the question from “Is it art?” to “Is it good or bad art?” And I think it a good change. Otherwise “good” is embedded in the concept of “art,” and I don’t think it should be.

      • Oh my, if people have issues with whether something is indeed art, I don’t think it will be pretty when “good” or “bad” is involved. As my original class assignment was to find examples of good and bad art quilts, I think some judgment was baked in.

  8. Sue

    Interesting topic, and thanks Melanie for pointing me to this post. For myself, I do sometimes want to make a quilt that follows a pattern, by using traditional blocks, because there is such a great deal of skill involved in doing those well, in the color selection, and execution, and I enjoy the activity of precise piecing once in awhile. There is an art to doing this well but I don’t think of it as capital A Art. When I am thinking “art quilt” I really expect something quite unique. I mostly shy away from representational styles. It always surprises me how earnestly some people try to replicate someone else’s exact work, and have seen this in techniques classes a lot. FWIW I have a hard time understanding a quilt rendition of a Van Gogh painting. The Committee in my head, or the ones that review my submittals, may tell me that mine are not art, but it is the process itself that is art to me. Whether I am creating good art or bad art, is another matter entirely!

    • I think an appreciation of the skill involved in making a quilt is a constant whether the product is traditional or not. However, I have seen quilts where the skill level is outstanding but the product isn’t. My hope is that traditional quilters will take time to look at art work and arty quilters will re-examine the many fine examples of traditional quilting. There’s room for mutual learning.

  9. I’ve been so obsessed with “Art Quilts” and I’m meaning to at least try making one at some point in my life. It’s good to read this post now cos it actually got me thinking of the whole concept.The point about learning design and drawing is great, hadn’t thought of doing that first. Few videos or tutorials I’ve seen around advises that you use a picture as the inspiration or even recreate the picture. But you are right, if you like the picture as is why recreate it in fabric. For me I’m just fascinated by the fact that it’s possible to recreate a picture and make it appear so real in fabric but what’d I know? Still trying to figure out Quilting so the Art part is yet to come.

    • My suggestion is to start jotting down sketches of your ideas for your art quilt. You can use pencil, torn paper, crayons, whatever. Then pick the ones you like best and work up some variations, again on a small scale. Take a photo of your choice(s) and look at it as if from a distance. See if you like the design. If you do, then you’re ready to begin your quilt.

  10. Kit Dunsmore

    A tricky topic. The whole quilts-as-art thing is complicated by the many years of traditional quilts that get labeled “craft”. To me, it’s all craft and it’s all art. Of course, you are right about the maker’s intentions, but that’s not always clear, either. A person can aspire to make Art (the capital A kind) and fail miserably (according to the Art Critics). It is hard to see the art in a quilt that is a duplicate of one someone else made. Really, that’s usually more skill than art.

    I would love to get rid of both categories (art and craft) and just go with “do I like it?” Because in the end that’s what all of this really boils down to — personal opinion.

    • As to failure, it’s bad only if it stops you from ever trying again. Failure to me means I tried to work outside my comfort zone; I pushed my limits. I do try to analyze why a work is a failure in order to make different mistakes next time rather than repeat previous ones.

  11. Ann Scott

    Wow, such a thought provoking post. There are, I’m sure, as many opinions as there are artists, quilt makers and observers. I couldn’t agree more regarding “…quilters who want to make art quilts would do well to take design/drawing/painting classes…” I consider the quilts you have made and shared here to be art… but I stepped over a chalk drawing on the sidewalk this morning and said “Oh, an artist lives here.” I have a very liberal view of what constitutes “art”!

    • Thanks for giving my work the benefit of the doubt. I think the hard part of art creation is to go beyond self expression to work that is meaningful to others. That usually takes self-discipline and self-knowledge.

  12. Reblogged this on Catbird Quilt Studio and commented:
    As you know, I’m intrigued by categorizing, why we do it, and what category names really mean, if anything. Here is a great post by my friend Joanna the Snarky Quilter on “art quilts.” What is an art quilt, anyway? Don’t we all make art? What do you think? Please post comments and questions on the original post. Thanks for reading this interesting piece.

  13. Sounds like part of the issue is Originality. I do think that Quilting Art is a completely different thing than copying a pattern (and kudos to those who can so well). The bravery, ingenuity and freedom to experiment with design is indeed a Brave Frontier to explore. It is also the one that give the stamp of uniqueness that makes it Art.

  14. jennyklyon

    I am loving this discussion and I thoroughly enjoyed your well thought out post. I wish I had something pithy to add to the mix. I frequently ask myself whether what I am making is “real” art. I tend to feel inferior to those who have had formal training.

    But in reality I know that formal training does not make an artist. What I do gives me joy and that is what I hope others find in their work also. I definitely noticed lots of unoriginal work in my EB Design class but also thought, well if it gives them joy, great.

    I definitely agree that much of what passes for “art” in the art quilt work is not. And maybe some of that work is mine, grin!

    • It’s indeed hard to separate the joy of creation, the process, from whether the end product is art. And I do hope artists who work in fabric would conquer their feeling they aren’t “real” artists. I’d like to point out that artists for centuries have worked on a spectrum from “pure” art to decorative objects. Think about Picasso’s ceramic pitchers and his pictures.

  15. This was really interesting to read. I guess the whole discussion is complicated by the simple fact that the question “what is art?” seems so impossible to answer. I like that you are asking that larger question and focusing on the “art” in art quilt, rather than the “quilt.” Art, whatever it is, seems to be the goal or outcome, quilting is the medium.

    • I think that’s the point Kathy Loomis was making – whether quilting is the means or the end. There are effects that quilting lends itself to better than other media. I’m thinking here of kaleidoscope quilts or those rich Amish quilts. Such quilts are all about their quilty-ness. In some cases they transcend the craft to become art.

  16. Sandy

    In my many years of quilting obsession, I’ve decided that I just don’t pay much attention to “definitions”. In my opinion, every single quilt is a work of art. A canvas that uses fabric as the medium. Perhaps some would disagree with me, when I want to enter my quilt in a contest. But why should we work so hard to categorize our work?

    • For me it goes back to the maker’s intention. Some makers want to make a quilt exactly like the one on the shop wall. Others want to design their own. And here we can get into the squishy line between craft and art. My post was a reaction to the quilts labeled as art that my fellow students presented as part of their critiques. I don’t view art quilts as being on a higher plane than any other type of quilt. I do think they try to be art first, a quilt second.

      • Sandy

        Yes but, if an oil painter paints a copy of Starry Nights, isn’t that art? So, if a quilter copies a quilt that they see, isn’t that art too?

      • I guess I don’t see a conscious attempt to replicate someone else’s art as creating art myself as there’s no originality in it. I can see where an attempt to duplicate a work of art could be a design and technique learning tool.

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