Sunday, August 8, 2010

Second-guessing the jury (or myself)

The Quiltart list has been talking about entries for prominent shows, and somebody said she was told that Quilt Visions jurors wanted to see three quilts to see if an artist was developing a particular voice.  Several other people opined that if so, this was awful, not fair, etc. 

“Maybe I'm being a curmudgeon,” one wrote, “but I also wonder then, how someone who is new to the art quilting world but produces good stuff is going to send in three worthy entries. There has to be a first time.  I also know several quilters who produce incredible work, but are incredibly slow – their pieces tend to be big and they are not prolific.”

I have to weigh in against the curmudgeon.  The last time I served on a jury we had a discussion on just this subject and decided that we had a bias toward the artist who has produced a body of work.  That’s an indication – not proof, but an indication – that the person is dedicated, serious and developed beyond the early stages of experimentation.

So how about the slow-but-wonderful quilter?  Well, perhaps the person who has produced only one great quilt in the two-year allotted time span for Visions or Quilt National is at a slight disadvantage.  After all, it means only three seconds in front of the jurors’ eyes instead of nine on the first run-through, which reduces the chances of making a good impression.  But if the quilt is really great, it certainly can overcome that disadvantage. 

But wait.  The slow-but-wonderful quilter is not the one that I’m biased against.  I’m biased against the quilter who has three pieces, but the pieces don’t seem to be emanating from the same brain.  That’s the situation that sends me little whiffs of “dilettante” or “beginner” and makes me wonder if this person is ready for the exposure of a premier show.  If I were contemplating an entry to an important show and I had only one excellent piece, I think I’d enter just that one rather than the excellent one plus two unrelated, not-so-great pieces.  I might even enter just one rather than an excellent one plus two other unrelated excellent ones.

Does this mean jurors are prejudiced against beginners?  Well, in my opinion, yes.  Not because they’re beginners, but because they haven’t yet reached a level of accomplishment that deserves recognition.  In the quilting world there are plenty of venues for beginners, but Visions and Quilt National are not among them. 
There is such a thing as paying your dues before you get the good opportunities.  I don’t advocate that artists should send a resume along with their digital images and entry fee, but it usually doesn’t take a resume to differentiate an apprentice from a journeyman.  One tipoff is that whole "body of work" concept.
Many quilters who want to play in the big leagues of Visions and Quilt National spend a lot of time psyching out the juries they’re trying to impress.  Should I submit a body of work rather than unrelated pieces?  If so, which body of work?  What if I only have two pieces in the body of work?  Maybe we’re overanalyzing the situation and shooting ourselves in the foot, but hey, you have to have something to think about when you’re lying in bed in the middle of the night not sleeping.

I had serious conversations with myself at the beginning of the year when I knew it was time to get busy on my Quilt National entry, which is due in early September.  My problem was having three distinct bodies of work. 

One was the “postage quilts” like those at the top of the right column of this page.  I liked that work a lot, had had very good luck with it recently in juried competitions (Quilt National ’09 and Fiberart International 2010), and had two new ones in progress. 
A second one was the fine-line piecing that I have been doing for several years, most recently a couple of huge quilts for an invitational exhibit curated by Nancy Crow.  Earlier quilts from this body of work had a so-so record with juries, accepted in two nice shows (one of these, Crazed 1,  is shown farther down in the right-hand column) but rejected in two others, including Quilt Visions, but I thought I was on a roll coming off the year of work I had put into the latest pieces.

A third one was a new 3-D approach that I had been thinking about but had not yet executed.  I thought it would be exciting and different, and would probably appeal to juries because it wasn’t like everything else they would be looking at; even if it wasn’t great it would get extra points for originality. 
I knew I wanted to submit all three entries from the same type of work, but which one to choose?  After much agonizing I decided to go with the fine-line piecing.  Perhaps I was foolish to abandon the postage quilts, which were on a winning streak.  But I want my quilting persona to be firmly grounded in piecing rather than in “novelty” approaches, and three novelty quilts in a row in big shows might dangerously signal that I had abandoned my roots.  Similarly, I thought it was too risky to spend eight months on a totally new approach that might turn out to be a failed experiment.

I suspect a lot of other quilters have gone or are going through similar agonies of decision-making about Quilt National, either several months ago as they decided what to work on this year, or now as they decide which of their finished works they will use for their entry.  And the joke is that we have no idea why a particular juror, or a particular jury, is going to decide yes or no.

Will the strategy work?  Will the Red Sox win the World Series?  Stay tuned for the drama of October. 


  1. Really great points. Art quilters at all stages can learn something from this.

  2. Kathleen, I can't thank you enough for putting this into all the right words....great job! I'm one of those who got into Visions this time around with only ONE (my first) submission. And I am also one of those artists who speaks in multiple tongues. If I had to make the same thing all the time I'd be looney and very bored! I have added your blog to my Bloglines favorites, keep posting! Regards, Debbie Bein ( (

  3. Educational post and good comments. This is a topic that could probably use three or four posts. What does it mean to have a body of work?
    Debbie's post seems to indicate that it means working in the same thing all the time. I think if each piece in the body shows growth, thought, skill and technical development then working the same thing with variation can be a tremendous learning experience. Later pieces may apply this knowledge.
    Beautifully, intelligently designed work, skillfully executed will always stand out. This gives beginners with this skill set, the same opportunity as experienced folks. Question - would some one with a good sense of design, and outstanding skills be a beginner or are these developed with time and experience?
    Aside, as a resident of San Diego and a member of Quilt Visions, I visit the gallery frequently. There are always small exhibits of based around a theme. The work ranges from the unsightly to the extremely good, but all is accepted. This may be a place to get started while building a body of work and your own personal identity as an artist.

  4. Hmmm. Makes me wonder why a beginner - such as myself - should ever bother to enter these shows. A piece of work should stand on it's own merit, period. If you want to judge a 'body of work', then judge the whole body of work and not individual pieces. What does it matter if a chosen piece came from a 'dilettante'??? Is that individual piece worthy of being chosen? Yes? Then what's the issue?

    Further, most artists have a certain style and that's fine. However, it seems you're implying that not having a specific, identifiable style is unworthy. Exploring different media, styles, etc. does not prevent one from producing excellent work.

    So a serious question - for beginners whose work would be clearly out of place at a mainstream quilt show yet is still too 'dilettante' for Quilt National or Visions, what other options are there for entering shows?