Monday, November 1, 2010

Fabrication -- good or bad?

I wrote recently about how fabrication -- a code word for having other people make your work to your specifications -- is regarded differently in the fiber art world than in the mainstream art world.  Among mainstream artists, especially sculptors, it's not just OK but sometimes good to delegate the actual execution to somebody else.

Donald Judd, for instance, thought that it was important to remove the artist's hand from the work of art; he didn't want the making to be a distraction keeping viewers from contemplating the idea.  He didn't want people wondering why he chose this particular piece of plywood, so he had somebody else choose.  "He was one of the first artists to articulate how an artistic practice can be based on removing rather than adding the personal preferences, aesthetics and value judgments from art making," said the curator of a Judd exhibit shown in Portland earlier this year.

That's a mind-boggling statement -- the idea that the artist's personal choices should be removed from his art -- and one that I don't think I can buy into.  I love Judd's boxes but I'm not going to emulate his concept of art.  But that's not what I want to write about today. 

In my recent post, one of the readers left a comment:  "And as to having someone else fabricate the work, isn't that essentially what the point of patterns is? I do the design and you make the work."

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.  In the quilt world, both possibilities exist, side by side at your local quilt shop.  You can buy a pattern and execute it with your own choice of colors and prints -- that's not fabrication, because your preferences and aesthetics play an important role in how it comes out.  (I would also say that's not art, even though many "art quilt" shows are populated with quilts made from patterns.)

Or you can buy a pattern and make it up with exactly the same fabrics as specified by the designer (or maybe you're lucky enough to find the fabrics right there in a kit).  That's fabrication, just like Donald Judd.  Except in the quilt world, you can get your fabricated piece up on the wall of a public venue with your name on it, while in the mainstream art world the fabricated piece goes on the wall with Judd's name on it.

The world of quilt shows encompasses a vast spectrum of what is or is not considered acceptable.  Quilts made from kits -- aka fabricated -- are not permitted in many shows, and certainly not in what I consider the top-tier art quilt venues.  Even quilts made from patterns are ruled out at the top end of the show spectrum.

But that's describing works where the name on the wall is the name of the maker.  How about if the name on the wall is the name of the designer?

There's a spectrum here, too, based on what aspects of the fabrication are done by others.  It's OK to purchase a piece of fabric dyed or painted or printed by somebody else and make a quilt out of it, provided you cut it into small pieces first; it's may or may not be OK to just purchase it and plonk it down as the main image.  Hiring out the quilting is OK; hiring out the piecing is not.  If you hire out the quilting, in some shows you have to name the quilter; in others you have to enter under both names.  Sometimes a quilt is sold or wins a big prize and the two makers end up in arguments over how to split the money.

If it's OK to hire out quilting, would it be OK for me to hire somebody to "quilt" the little rectangles that that make up my postage stamp quilts?  (No artistic decision-making required, I would just say "I want stitching about 1/8 inch apart, three shades of green thread.")  Would it be OK for me to hire somebody to sew the rectangles into columns?  (Again, no decision-making, I would say "here's the pile; sew them in order, leave about a quarter-inch of space in between.") 

But why is it OK to hire somebody to do my quilting but not OK to hire somebody to do my piecing?  Is it because the piecing requires so much more skill and artistry than the quilting?  I say not true, and submit as evidence the following detail shot.  I argue that the quilting on this piece shows far more of the artist's intent than the piecing, and I could have far more easily hired somebody to sew those straight lines than to do the quilting.

I could produce a lot more art if I could get help from a studio assistant or fabricator in doing the time-consuming piecing and stitching, just as the mainstream sculptors who send their blueprints out to the metal shop to be executed can make a lot more work than if they were hammering and welding away themselves.

Another reader of the earlier post commented, "To call a quilt your own work, does it follow that you must specify exactly what the person you are having quilt it do?"  I say yes, and that's pretty much what the art quilt world says too.  Nancy Crow is gracious to name her quilters on the wall signs (in much smaller type than her own name) but it's understood that they are following precise directions, not their own artistic instincts.

So my question remains, if it's OK to do that for quilting, then why not for other aspects of making a quilt?  And does that convention hint that we quilt artists view our work through a different lens than mainstream artists do?  I'm going to keep thinking about this, so stay tuned.  Meanwhile, what do you think?


  1. Hi Kathy, firstly Congratulations on the Best of Show at QAQ! and secondly, thank you for your posts on my blog...always thoughtful.
    I know of several Big Name art quilters who do have their sewing or some aspect of their construction done by assistants. There is one who works mainly with fused fabric - the fusing being done ahead of time by assistants; another who works with small pieces very carefully cut out and assembled - this work being done by an assistant....
    so there are bound to be a lot more..but I don't think it's important.
    There is (as you have mentioned) a strong tradition in the art world for assistants. LeWitt, for example, always just left written instructions for his wall paintings. And Turrell has computer technicians work out most of the special effects of his light constructions - and tractor drivers and engineers with major earth moving vehicles for the land art...
    I think the important thing is: Who makes the ARTISTIC decisions? If you are lucky enough to have the loot and can find the right person to can do it. There seem to be more "rules" in the quilt world, but I think that's because it was considered "craft" only. And craft means who did the craftsmanship and therefore the craftspersons would need to be named. As art quilts move away from being solely a craft and into art then who did the fabrication becomes less important.

  2. Elizabeth -- thank you for all your kind words!!

    prompted by your comments I went back and checked the rules for four or five big-time quilt shows and apparently the "requirement" that nobody help you with your sewing exists only in my imagination. now all I need is a studio assistant

  3. Kathleen,

    Providing the artist behind any work gets the credit it shouldn't matter who does the work.

    Best of luck finding an assistant who follows instructions well .... most quilters have an independent streak even if they never design anything totally original.

    Judy B

  4. Each and every time I go to a quilt show I get my hackles up when I see the dreaded 'quilted by' name further down, as an afterthought. Each person that worked on that piece should be listed under 'Maker'. As your photo demonstrates, quilting is as much a part of the overall design as the piecing/appliqueing.

    Nancy Crow may 'graciously' list her quilters yet she's not the one who made those marks. Even if they followed her exact design, I have a huge issue with this. Art cannot be wholesaled out, piecemeal. That's production work, not art. Perhaps she 'designed' those pieces, but in my personal opinion she did not completely *create* them. I get the impression this is a direct snobbishness about art vs craft. The 'artist' creates the concept and hires the 'little people' to get on with the distasteful business of actually producing work. The fact that she gets away with this - and has done for decades - means the 'art' world approves of this.