Monday, July 11, 2011

Getting past the workshop

I have visited and written reviews of four fiber art shows in the last couple of weeks, and in one of them I committed a terrible gaffe.  Don't go looking back and trying to identify it, because I apologized to the person I maligned and took the offending remarks down.  But some time has passed, and I want to revisit the issue.

One of the pieces I described as "from a Famous Quilter workshop," but went on to say that I liked the work a lot.  The artist wrote me and said that yes, she had indeed attended a Famous Quilter workshop, but hadn't made this piece in the workshop; rather this was her original work from a later date.

I was really wrong to say the piece was "from a Famous Quilter workshop," because I had no knowledge of when or how it was made.  The reason I made the remark was that it had several of the hallmarks of the FQ: several specific techniques, a certain use of stitching, a certain supply list.  I should have been more careful in my words. 

But if this particular piece wasn't made in the FQ workshop, and it still looked like it had been, is there really a qualitative difference?  If the FQ teaches five things, and somebody's work continues to exhibit those five things, doesn't the FQ influence still cast a powerful shadow?   To what extent should this bother the workshop participant, or those who view her work, or those who might want to bar her from exhibiting that work?

I speak to you as a workshop junkie.  I have spent 16 weeks studying at the Crow Barn over the last several years, 15 of those with Nancy Crow.  Nancy has had a huge influence on me, I admire her work, and some of the things I made in my early times with  her could probably be identified by cognoscenti as derivative.  But I think that in more recent years -- and after I graduated from workshops with class assignments to self-directed "master classes" -- I've moved past the point of taking ideas from Nancy, because my own ideas have developed to the point where they can stand alone.

There's nothing wrong with taking workshops from Famous Quilters.  Among other things, it helps support the people whose work you admire, and of course you learn a thing or two and have fun for several days.  But I think if you're a serious quilter you want to learn to make your own work rather than just riff off the style and techniques of somebody else.  The challenge of workshops is first, while you're there, to learn as much as you can.  And second, after you come home, to analyze what you intend to incorporate from that workshop into your original work, and how much you need to change to make it your own.

This doesn't happen overnight.  The first couple of pieces you make after you come home are still going to look derivative, but if there are elements you like, keep going.  If you are rigorous in evaluating your own work, and keep asking yourself  "am I making this mine, or is it still the FQ lookalike?" you should soon move beyond the actual workshop quilt, and then beyond the virtual workshop quilt, to the truly original quilt.  Sometimes that means you have to quit doing something you really liked, or at least transmogrify it to something different.  But it's usually worth it.

Here's an example, from one of the first Nancy Crow workshops I ever took, in the fall of 2003.  This one was called Sets and Variables II and as you can see, work by many different participants (one photo per participant) all looked very similar.  I've kept up with many of those people, and can testify that we've mostly stopped looking like Nancy wannabes and developed our own styles.

The original: a small unfinished piece by Nancy Crow.

Here's my piece.  The rest are from others in the class.  Don't we all look a lot alike?


  1. on derivative works:
    go to google and click the images link, then google the following two phrases in this order:

    gees bend quilts
    nancy crow quilts

    love them all!

  2. Bravo! I just spent last evening browsing,first, through "Gee's Bend: The Women And Their Quilts", then moved on to "Nancy Crow". Dare I even mention the obvious similarities.

  3. Yes yes yes, I agree that there are so many out there that have the stamp of Nancy on their work and they never quite move on to their own style. I think part of this is the notion/dogma that THIS IS THE WAY TO MAKE QUILTS gets ingrained in the brain, and when a smidge of a personal idea rises it is immediately compared to the CONCEPT and maybe gets squashed.
    Also, we use the strip or the square and the wonky setting and cannot do much to make it more OUR OWN now than it is has been done over and over and over ad infinitum.

  4. which causes someone from a far country, who has noticed similarities by groupies of NC and others, to ask:

    What is the draw for repeatedly attending workshops by a certain big name? It must be very difficult to move on to something your own.

    What are big names doing to get people to act/think/work on their own? Perhaps after 2 or 3 workshops big names should say 'let someone else have a turn' or take some time out now and think on your own 2 feet' or at least 'go learn from someone else for a bit'.

    Sandy in the UK
    perhaps glad she doesn't have the funds or inclination to be a groupie.

  5. The timing of this post is perfect for me, I just had a 2 day class from Melinda Bula at Sisters. The class project was from a pattern, and I am very happy to do this and learn her techniques. But I've been thinking about how I can make more pieces from what I've learned but not make them look like her work. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "If you are rigorous in evaluating your own work, and keep asking yourself "am I making this mine, or is it still the FQ lookalike?" It is a process, each piece can be part of your growth as an artist if you let it.

  6. Work “in the style of” has been around for as long as artists have had teaching studios -- or have known other artists. In other words, forever. It does not mean, necessarily, that any particular work lacks authenticity, originality, or sincerity. (There are, for example, works from Braque and Picasso that are so similar they are virtually indistinguishable. Should we be howling that Braque and Picasso are not real artists? )

    Perhaps we should be heartened rather than dismayed that this peculiar thing called art quilting has evolved sufficiently to have stars in the firmament and established forms that provide context for working and viewing. It may now be that the challenge when looking at something is not to say “Derivative. Bah!” and move on but rather to look and say “Given that this is ‘in the style of,’ what has this artist brought to the game? To what purpose has she chosen this form and how well or ill are the form and purpose matched and expressed? ”

    And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

    See also Jane Dunnewold’s essay posted here:


  7. All of which begs the question, is there anything new under the sun? I use the same materials as the FQ but our content is light years apart. And I have had discussions with FQ about not wanting to rip her technique off (which she has assured me I am not). To me the content is the message. But is you are doing strip or freeform piecing ala Nancy Crow, how much can you change the content? Or is it the coloring, the spacing, the stitching. whatever.