I wrote yesterday about the conversation on the Quiltart list: whether Quilting Arts magazine has lost its focus on art. Some people, including me, thought the magazine has gotten too repetitive, too simple, writing about little projects rather than about big art.
Other list members jumped in to defend Quilting Arts. Several pointed out, and I have to agree, that there are many relative beginners who benefit greatly from a magazine that encourages you to make original designs and experiment with new ideas. And the focus on relatively small work – artist trading cards (2.5 x 3.5 inches) and “inchies” (1 inch square) have been popular formats – is good for people with limited time to devote to art and craft. Still others regard their work as a hobby rather than a serious vocation or avocation, and are happy to make nice things without worrying about artistic development.
But one commenter in particular rattled my cage. “Not everyone, no matter how passionately they desire, can take workshops from the best and the brightest in our field to learn the new techniques and get a handle on how to use some of the wonderful new products,” she wrote. “There is a need for opportunities to see and learn how to do some of the newest techniques in our fabulous world of making quilted art. Who is going to dispute that?”
Well, I’m going to dispute it. I would even argue that one of the factors holding us back from greater artistic achievement is the lure of new techniques and products. It’s so easy to equate technique with inspiration, when in reality technique should be so much lower on the food chain.
I read a fascinating and disturbing book last year, “Seven Days in the Art World,” which among other things talked about how grad students and their prof at California Institute of the Arts conduct a critique session. (Click here for a wonderful review/discussion of the book in “Art in America.”) What comes back to me today is the CalArts guiding principle, “No technique before need.”
I happen to think that’s a dumb principle in many walks of life and art. It’s so much easier to produce decent works of art if you have mastered some basic technique. For instance, if you’re a painter, you can get down to work when inspiration strikes without having to first figure out how to stretch and prime your canvas, and go down to the art supply store and read labels to find out whether you want oils or acrylics. If you’re a quilter, you can get down to work without having to first figure out what kind of fabric to buy, how to piece, how to quilt, how to make the thing lie flat, how to put a sleeve on the back.
That said, I’ll defend the principle as it applies to advanced practitioners. If I really need to screenprint a design onto my fabric, I can learn how to do it. If I need to machine embroider precision lettering onto my quilt, I’ll figure out where to get a machine and how to program it. But if I don’t want or need to do those things, why spend time learning them? That question applies even more when you start talking about products and equipment. Why buy a sewing machine with advanced embroidery or needle-felting capabilities, a package of Transfer Artist Paper or Angelina fibers or a bolt of Misty Fuse, if you don’t need them?
But the desire to learn and buy the latest techniques and products, as the Quiltart correspondent seems to think is essential, isn’t just a way to waste time and money. I think it’s actually counterproductive, even for people who don't consider themselves serious artists.
Why? Because having learned the technique or bought the product, the natural inclination is to use it in your next piece. Your work gets motivated by somebody else’s trend rather than by your own ideas. And your work tends to jump around in response to what was in the magazine this month instead of growing organically out of your previous work. Devotion to the latest techniques and products is like attention deficit disorder. You never focus on one thing long enough to make it pay off.
I sometimes reflect on what my long-dead grandmother would think if she visited my studio. She would be amazed and delighted at the rotary cutter and its attendant mats and rulers, and at the fact that the sewing machine is computerized and can make a row of zigzags or little flowers. She’d be particularly enamored of the knee lift lever. But that’s it as far as equipment envy.
She might be surprised that my quilts don’t use traditional patterns, but once I explained how in the half-century since her death quilts have come off the bed and moved to the wall as art, I’m sure she’d understand. She might be surprised at my elaborate free-motion quilting, but when I showed her the darning foot she would know exactly how it worked in this context.
And this is the most important part – as she looked at my quilts, she wouldn’t find any technique that she didn’t understand perfectly. It’s just piecing, and quilting. She did those things a hundred years ago, and I’m doing them today. I don’t think much about technique any more, just about design and meaning. And that’s what I wish more of for my fellow citizens of the fiber art world.