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.