Hand quilting is a quiet endeavor and it gives me a lot of time to think, so occasionally I need to do a post that is not about a current project but just about my thoughts.
When I was 5 years old and someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said I want to be an artist. Did that happen? I will let others decide that but I have been thinking about art, and what is art, and since quilts have become my passion over the last 6 or 7 years are quilts art.
Let me begin by saying that I know there are as many opinions on this subject as there are artists, quilters, art critics and art historians. I am not the authority but I do have some thoughts on the subject and a few years of art history classes in college that might have had some influence. To begin we need to define art.
From the Oxford English Dictionary
Definition of art
• the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power: the art of the Renaissance great art is concerned with moral imperfections she studied art in Paris
• works produced by human creative skill and imagination: his collection of modern art an exhibition of Mexican art [as modifier]:an art critic
• creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture: she’s good at art
So do quilts express or apply human creative skill? I guess that depends on how you look at it. Is it an expression of human creative skill and imagination to buy a pattern or kit and put it together following the instructions? Or is that like the paint by number painting? Again it depends on how you look at it. My mother is an excellent seamstress. She does outstanding work and each garment she makes is an individual. Does that make her a fashion designer? She couldn’t begin to make a garment without a pattern…..but how she chooses the fabrics, and modifies the pattern makes the resulting product her own creation….an expression or application of human creative skill and imagination…the same goes for quilts, if the quilter chooses the fabrics and quilting designs to make the quilt an individual it IS an expression of human creative skill and imagination. The question of whether they are to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power is more difficult and I leave that the individual to decide.
Quilts have the problem in relation to this categorization because of their traditional functional use ….they really are (or at least were) made to keep us warm. But I believe that if simple warmth was the “primary” purpose other more simple options were available.
Lets go to the dictionary definition of a quilt
Definition of quilt
• a warm bed covering made of padding enclosed between layers of fabric and kept in place by lines of stitching, typically applied in a decorative design.
• a knitted or fabric bedspread with decorative stitching.
I’m not sure I like the knitted reference in the dictionary definition but setting that aside a quilt is a warm bed covering. So did quilt makers in the past ever intend that quilts be viewed as art? Or were they just making utility items? I don’t think we can know what a quilter 100 years ago was thinking. It might be inappropriate to put my thoughts into their heads but I will anyway. I am going to relate it to my mothers sewing again. My mother needed clothes for my sisters and her to wear. She took what materials she had and could afford and made them as beautiful as she could using her creativity, skill and imagination. Quilters did the same….they had a need for a warm bed covering and took the materials available to them and the skills they had and made them as beautiful as they could…that I say is an expression of human creative skill and imagination. Were they intended to hang on walls in museums? Of course not…they were intended to be used. Some of them, the really special ones, might have been mostly for show (think of the good china that only comes out a few times a year) but they were meant to be used on a bed.
So art is the expression of human creative skill and imagination and quilts are warm bed coverings can the two come together?
One of the functions of the artist is to make a statement of some kind. It may be a simple statement, the beauty of the landscape for example, but it is a statement. Somehow the artist is trying to communicate an idea, an emotion, or a purpose in their work. What is that purpose in a quilt? It depends on the quilt. Historically in many quilts , at least to me, the artist’s purpose/statement (in addition to creating a warm bed covering) was to create something beautiful…as in a landscape painting. To me that is art.
Today we have broadened the definition of quilt (and not everyone is on board with that) to be 3 layers of fabric sewn together,top batting and backing, and have removed the implied utility function…they can now be intended to hang on the wall. When I started quilting I just knew that I would never make a quilt that was anything but utilitarian…I thought that if it isn’t for a bed it isn’t a quilt. One of my quilts was made to be “artistic” but I made it large enough for a bed….and washable (that is a big thing for me….no raw edge applique….no glue….nothing to make it stiff….must be soft and usable as a functional bed covering)
I looked out my window on a winter day and saw the stark branches against the sky and thought that it was really interesting…and that even very simplified it would still represent that stark winter skyline and I could do that in a quilt….so this is the result
but recently I made a “quilt” that is not meant to be anything but art (you can decide if it is or not). I drew a picture….transferred it to fabric….hand quilted it and it’s only function is to hang on a wall.
I say it is an expression or application of human creative skill and imagination so I am calling it an art quilt. But who knows, if it is still around in 100 years some quilt historian might have a very different idea of what my intent was. I can imagine the thought process….it is exactly the proportions of a computer desk so it must have been intended as a dust cover since those computers at the time were so prone to attracting dust….people tend to read intent into objects based on their own experience and perceptions of a given era. The Idea of someone thinking the quilt was really a dust cove might be stretching the thought a bit far but I think it is very tempting for us to look at a quilt from the past and read into it our own perception of what the maker was thinking.
I have looked at hundreds of quilts, and I have made a bunch, and have hundreds more to make…and I can say that for me quilts are art…I don’t like all quilts but I don’t like all paintings either, I love Andrew Wyeth and hate Roy Lichtenstein but would never say one is an artist and the other is not.
We make art because there is something inside the creative person that needs to get out. Artists all have a desire to express what they feel and to create something of value. It’s a type of therapy or a form of meditation.
So attention quilters I say you ARE artists