Another Perspective on Art Quilts

Quite by chance I came across the text of a talk Jane Dunnewold gave in 2011 at the Form/Not Function art quilt exhibit. I was looking for examples of work by Ellen Oppenheimer and followed a Google images link to Jane’s now inactive blog.

2011 was the year I decided to attempt original designs and leave the harbor of quilt patterns and blocks. I began by sewing together scraps left from a paper piecing project and composing them into a design. I was reading Jean Wells’ book, Intuitive Color & Design, at the time.

Nothing Gold Can StayBecause making this quilt gave me such joy I decided to continue on the art quilt path. The joy came from the thrill of making it up as I went.

But, back to Jane. She came up with six categories in which to group art quilts which I think stand up well. I urge you to read this if you read no other part of her talk.

She points out that art quilting is dominated by women and has evolved its own organizations and venues for shows. Then she asks, “Have we created a textile ghetto by being willing to develop our own venues?” She also notes that a male quilter said men get involved in an area when there’s money in it. Cynical, yes; true, possibly.

I spent some time studying the following statement Jane makes:
“And what about the charge that art quilters don’t take critical analysis seriously? There is a palpable tension between the desire to welcome newcomers/beginners non-judgmentally and the reality of the importance of refining standards of excellence, so that collectors will take art quilts seriously.”

I find myself back to the same questions I raised in my post about is it art? I don’t think anyone changed his/her mind after reading that, but it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one with such thoughts.

I believe that if you want to gain mastery of any artistic medium you need to hear informed opinions of your works’ strengths and weaknesses and work to enhance the former and address the latter. I’m part of an art quilt critique group that has become more show and tell than critiquing, in part due to the very different skill levels of the participants.

Here some of the responses to Jane’s post that made me think. I don’t know if I agree with the comments but they echo perspectives I struggle with:

-I really welcome your comments because at last I am hearing things that are critically analyzing the issues. Especially whether art quilters are willing to enter the fine art mainstream using fine art parameters. Like the basics of good composition, knowledge of the elements and principles of art and making reference to the history of art in general. [emphasis added by me] It seems we need to embrace all aspects of art and be willing to abandon some of the traditional formats and techniques in order to be truly creative with this medium.

-I continue to be put off by the plethora of articles and books on the market which approach art quilting as if it were merely a trendy, ‘quick and easy’ craft project, step-by-stepping the art form into a kind of homogenized eye candy. I came to this discipline from a painting/print making background. Certainly there have always been similarly simplistic ‘how-to’ publications about those media but they don’t irk me like the art quilt articles – not sure why. Probably has to do with my fears that my standing as a professional artist is compromised by association with the concept in the banner of many articles “you don’t have to know how to draw/be an artist to make this” (art quilts).
Lack of critical standards and guidelines for what constitutes original vs. derivative work make me squeamish about identifying myself as an art quilter; I feel less limited with the identity ‘fiber artist’, and terming the work I make mixed media textiles.

-I think every media will have its large pool of neophytes and a few masters. Perhaps it’s more a product of our predominantly female mind-set in this genre that we want to see ALL our sisters regarded as Masters and are loath to admit that any one of us, let alone the majority, are really more like amateurs.

You have identified that many art quilters do not have an art education. I suspect that this is why we are not taking the art world by storm — the majority have not been trained to see museums and galleries as venues to actively seek out. We grew up in, and are afraid to leave, the comfort of the quilt-specific womb we’ve created. [emphasis added by me] You’ve also pointed out that a good many of those who do have an art education, have garnered a degree of recognition in the greater art world. I propose that the proportion of those who try and succeed is similar to the ratio in other media. We are just so close (via forums like QuiltArt, SAQA, and our self created venues) that we miss their entrees into the art world because we are too focused on the larger numbers who stay close to home.

Neither Jane nor I (most assuredly not I) have the answers, but I’ll be mulling these issues as I strive to create art that can take its place in the larger art world.




Filed under Art quilts, Commentary

12 responses to “Another Perspective on Art Quilts

  1. I can’t help but think back to my days of teaching Freshman Composition. We had to ease students into giving and receiving constructive criticism. Perhaps the same needs to be done when starting a group for receiving critiques.
    In terms of receiving, we emphasized listening and not defending. Questions for clarification or examples were okay, just not defensive comments that would shut down critique. Then just saying ‘Thank you.’ Then going home and thinking about the critiques an deciding which to accept and try to follow and which to reject (and to think about why–beyond I don’t have time or I don’t want to. Something related to their goal for the piece and how the critique advances or detracts from it.

    • I can’t think of a better frame of mind for being critiqued than listening and not defending. You make yourself vulnerable when you put your work on the table for others to assess, and any critique group needs to build trust among its members. As I noticed in this season’s Project Runway, some designers believe their work is good, no matter what the experts say. Of course, that person was the first asked to leave. Don’t know if there’s a lesson there.

  2. I’ve had your post open most of the day, since I read it this morning. I also read the linked post, and skimmed through the comments. There are a couple of different issues, beyond how to categorize art quilts. One is how to move from quilt-specific venues for exhibition into the “art” world, or whether that’s even desirable. One is how to move quilters to elevate their work. Too many thoughts of mine to include them all. First I would say not very many people are really interested in “elevating” their work. They like to make, they like to try different techniques, they like to show or give or sometimes even sell their efforts to some others. Their audience (which includes themselves) doesn’t demand anything else. I think this is true of makers of all kinds, of quilts and paintings and pottery and music. I think this is true even if they practice regularly. And I think it is all okay, if that makes them happy.

    But to elevate their work they need to push themselves, to study and to try and to fail and to take criticism. And even with that, it might not happen, because while they may have (and be able to build) skill, they might not have the actual talent required.

    One problem is finding a trustworthy critic. Another is finding an able teacher. For me, while I can self-assess my medallions (now, after dozens of them and lots of study and a lot of practice at assessment), I don’t have the means to evaluate any art quilting I might attempt beyond whether I like it or not. For me to move in that direction, I’d be entering unfamiliar territory with neither a teacher nor a critic to help. It would feel pretty uncomfortable. So I get the issues of those who choose not to move their work to a different place or different level.

    • Melanie, thanks for taking the time to thoroughly consider the Dunnewold article and my comments on it. Certainly there’s a big difference in the goals of people who enjoy making quilts and people who aspire to make art. Dunnewold is addressing the latter. Many of the comments address numerous spinoff issues, such as craft vs. art. As I delve more into the art quilt world I realize that some of what that world calls art isn’t, really. I don’t mean to take away anyone’s enjoyment of that kind of making, but I think there’s some self-deception going on. Goodness knows I consider very little of what I make to be art. But, if you want to call yourself an artist you need to be willing to deal with the discomfort (such as opening your work to critiques) that may come with it. And I think you’re wise to be clear about your artistic goals. There’s no reason to go the art quilt route if it’s not where you want to be.

  3. Barbara

    I was in a small group where we did a challenge each month and “critiqued” each others work. It was very disappointing, mostly praise, and when I tried to introduce even mild critique, it was met with defensiveness. I don’t think many people have learned to embrace constructive comments. People have a hard time stepping back from the feeling that they are being attacked and found wanting and instead realize that they are valued and the successful elements of their work are appreciated and the ones where the work falls short are pointed out so they are aware. No one ever has to believe or accept a critique, but one needs to be open in order to learn and improve. I am lucky enough to have a brilliant artist friend who gives me insights into my own work that amaze me and help me to hone my skills.
    I had previously been involved with a writers’ organization where work was vigorously critiqued and one actually learned and improved their work from the experience. Early on participants were encouraged to shut up and listen to what every one said, and take what was useful, discard what was not, and understand that people were not judging them but examining their work, praising the good, illuminating the flaws. I wish I had such a quilter’s group but I don’t even know many non-traditional quilters in my locale.

    • I think you’ve put your finger on why critique of art quilts is seldom done – artists can’t separate themselves from their work. Too often any negative remarks are taken as personal attacks. I think a critique group can work as long as everyone involved works from the same guidelines and can view comments as designed to improve the work, not tear down the maker. You make good points about the need to be open, yet to feel free to decline to act on comments after consideration.

  4. Susan S

    One must be prepared if one wants a real critique. I asked for and got a critique from Elizabeth Barton. It was very helpful in making me think. I was a wee bit taken aback when she suggestion that I actually had 3 different quilts in one. After a couple of days of nursing a tiny bit of bruising, I decided she is correct. That doesn’t mean I don’t like my quilt any longer, it means I will think more carefully about the next one I make.

  5. Judith K Campbell

    These are indeed thought-provoking concepts. I came to ‘art quilting’ through the desire to enhance my traditional quilts… and fell in love. My art background was non-existent, hobbled by a youth of not being able to make things exactly like the teacher. I think many of our colleagues suffer from similar beginnings.

    In a traditional guild, I have never heard anyone talk about the artistic aspects or value of a piece. In an art quilt group, with a variety of skill level participants, there is much nurturing, but no critiquing. Occasionally, someone will ask for advice on a piece.

    We handicap ourselves by not speaking out about the artistic nature of what we do. We need to critique ourselves and those around us to learn. Unfortunately, good little girls are kind to each other.

    What is the answer? Wish I knew…

    • Ah yes, that injunction to be kind drummed into our heads. And yet, we then go and comment on the piece behind the person’s back. Of course, often the creator makes it clear she doesn’t want to hear anything bad about it. It may boil down to whether you’re interested in getting better at your work or simply want to make more quilts. I would hesitate to inject critiquing into a traditional guild, given the upset reactions I’ve seen to mildly negative comments from quilt show judges. However, if you call what you make an art quilt, then I feel you’re buying into all aspects of the art world, including critiquing.

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