Monday, October 31, 2011

The Q word

I wrote last week about Denise Burge, an artist and quiltmaker from Cincinnati who was recently a visiting artist at the Kentucky School of Art.  In addition to the lecture I attended, she also participated in a panel discussion "Contemporary Art Quilts and Conversation" at the Kentucky Museum of Art + Craft. 

While much of the discussion was the same old discussion you've heard many times before, I was struck by one of Denise's remarks, in response to the same old question of whether you call your work quilts or fiber art or something else.

"As soon as you say the word quilt their eyes glaze over -- either with pleasure or disdain.  There's an instant response to the word," she said.

I lit up in instant sympathy, because I have noticed this response too.  In non-art audiences, it usually elicits the comment, "My grandmother made quilts!"  And immediately I'm in a box that is hard to get out of, as I try to explain that my quilts go on the wall, not on the bed; are made by machine, not by hand; and deal with political issues.  In art audiences, I get the disdain. 

To forestall this response, I rarely use the Q word unless I'm in a gathering where I know everybody else is a quilter too.  That is, in general art circles, or undifferentiated cocktail parties, I tend to be as unspecific as possible, fessing up to fiber art or mixed media or maybe just "art."

But Denise takes the opposite tack.  "I embrace that word 'quilt' a lot because I'm interested in what that word means.  When I take that word away from the description I lose a lot.  Whenever you think of quilts you think of sweetness and light, nostalgia -- you can incorporate that into your work and exploit the resonance.  I think of quilts as layered objects, historical objects, recycled objects.  The combination of the physical nature of the quilt with the emotional resonance makes it a powerful tool for the artist."

This stance works particularly well because her work is tied closely to her memories of home, in the Appalachian mountains, a culture particularly associated with quilts.  When she makes work about the destruction of the environment, it fits perfectly with the metaphor of the quilt as the traditional home.

Many people who work with the quilt format, however, don't have such immediate connections between their subject matter and the traditional feelings about quilts.  The emotional resonance that Denise talks about might not work as well to reinforce the meanings that these artists want to convey.  I wrestle with this issue a lot, not just in whether I should call my work by the Q word but whether I should even work in the Q medium.  So far I've resolved it by having it both ways: I make quilts but I hesitate to call them quilts.  Not sure if this makes me a hypocrite or a pragmatist, or if it even really matters.

What do you think?


  1. i don't get that same reaction, maybe because i am a male quilter. people usually seem a bit shocked, then want to know more.

  2. I feel like I live a dual existence - in the fine art world I am a fiber artist (and that work is not quilts - and in the quilt world they are quilts. I might add that I'm not making art quilts here, I'm making stuff to teach in workshops and designing patterns to sell. I've made art quilts in the past, but I'm no longer inspired to play in that realm... probably because I find my fine art work more satisfying. I also really don't like how quilts still get judged like craft rather than critiqued as art (yes I know - huge and hairy conversation!) While I don't hesitate to speak about my fine art in with quilt people, I keep the quilts hidden from the art people because of the disrespect for the "craft." It's tough enough to be an artist that works in fiber without the additional disdain and disregard offered to quilt makers. Thank you, tho, for the comment from Denise about the emotional response to the quilts - certainly worth a good ponder. I find that there is a "material memory" that seems to be part of the response to my fiber work that goes beyond merely art made from thread, and I think we may be encountering parts of the same emotional theme...

  3. I've thought about this a lot, also. Being stubborn and an English teacher, I have decided to continue to use the word "quilt" for what I make. It is accurate, and people need to learn that quilt does not equal bedspread.
    It's a matter of connotation rather than denotation, which my 8th grade teacher illustrated with this example:
    "You wouldn't say you were having dead chicken for dinner, but you wouldn't eat a live one."
    Thanks, Mrs. Hove--you taught me more important things than I learned in any college grammar class.

  4. Hate it when folks start talking about their grandma's quilts. It automatically puts me on the defensive. I'm not fond of the Art Quilt moniker either. Do painters call their work Art Paintings? NO! Do sculptors call their work Art Sculptures? No. So, for now, I am just saying I am an artist. If people ask what medium I use, I say quilts and then start that verbal tap dancing we all do. Somehow fiber seems too fibrous.

  5. I resist all classification. Do we need it? Why? An art teacher of mine once told me not to worry about having a "style". A style, he said, is something others impose on you. I feel the same way about classification. I make art and I don't care what you want to call it. I am not going to spend any time worrying about it...

  6. I take the marketing perspective and my description fits the audience to whom I'm speaking. If I'm in my sewing guild meeting, well, I'd better differentiate and say 'art quilt' or 'bed quilt' (or lap or baby,etc.) so we're all on the same page. If I'm with artists who don't know me or my work, then textile or fiber art works well. If it is random J.Q.Public, then I choose the label based on what response I want to get and on the length of the conversation I'm interested in having. Sometimes it's like asking "how are you" - some people are actually interested, some aren't.

  7. Ah, and then there's the P word (..patchwork..)..

    I like "quilt" because it has fewer connotations of gift-of-blanket here in the UK, but the patchwork (what your granny makes from scraps) sets my teeth on edge a little. I do a lot of talks, where I produce approximately 100 pieces from a big tin suitcase and talk about how and what I do. I always start with a big quilt on a table, and by saying "I don't make Bed Quilts - look, this one has a sleeve, it keeps a large wall warm...

    Unlikely shapes (I like long-and-thin) tend to dispel the assumption that all quilts must have a function...

    Helen Howes

  8. I say "I am a fiber artist and I use fabric and thread for my paint and canvas. I make quilts for the walls." With these two sentences I usually can tell if the questioner gets it and is interested enough for more.