Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What is an art quilt? Why does this question make me sigh?

There’s a new thread of discussion this week on Quiltart (the email list of 2000+ art quilters around the world) over the definition of art quilts.

One person wrote in, “The only thing that we agree on is that an Art Quilt is hung on a wall. Some think that because it has beads on it -- it's an Art Quilt. Here's one of our main disagreements: Some think that machine embroidery (programmed) on most of the quilt would equate to an Art Quilt. While I think that free-motion machine embroidery is a more artistic form of expression than a programmed one.”

Then somebody else wrote, “What some people think is an art quilt is something that is non-objective. No object can be identified. In truth, art quilts can be both representational and abstract. Some say that it is about being original. But in reality, you can take a traditional design and use contemporary fabrics and call it an art quilt. You can take traditional blocks and reinvent them into unusual balance. You can make a traditional block and use mixed media paint, paper and threads. This is another type of art quilt.”

Another contribution: “Does an Art Quilt have to go on the wall or could it also be a free-standing scuptural piece (sewn through three layers of course!)?”

All this makes me want to unsubscribe from the list and beat my head against the wall.

One of the things I find discouraging about the “art quilt” world – I put the phrase in quotes because I have a lot of problems with it – is that so many of its residents get all hung up on what seem to me to be trivial and wrong-headed issues and so few focus on what’s important: making art.

I occasionally teach a workshop called “art quilt basics” and I start by saying that the phrase “art quilt” has two parts – art and quilt. Almost always, people know more about one than the other. I ask participants to tell me which way they’re coming from, because that affects what they need to know next. People who already know how to make quilts need to know more about art (design, composition, color, etc.). People who already know the principles of art need to know how to make a quilt (piecing, quilting, finishing, etc.)

I think the trivial issues raised in this particular discussion – and in so many other discussions on the Quiltart list -- are all coming from the quilting end of the spectrum. People who have made some quilts are trying to get more arty, whatever that means to them, but are seizing on all the wrong means to accomplish that.

I’m not meaning to trash the Quiltart list. It’s a wonderful and vigorous community that I have been a part of for more than a dozen years, and it puts me in touch with many, many fellow artists and opportunities. But in the inevitable way of the Internet, Gresham’s Law often applies and bad discussion drives out good. And those discussions only reflect what’s going on in the heads of thousands of people, whether or not they write in and post their opinions.

So people who like quilts decide they want to become less traditional and more arty – how to do that? Maybe it’s through materials: putting beads or Angelina fibers or felting or seashells on top of the quilt. Maybe it’s through technique: using free-motion quilting or phototransfer or fusing or raw-edge applique. Maybe it’s through subject matter: being more or less representational, or choosing edgy themes.

Incurable optimists might find this situation heartwarming, seeing people yearning to let their inner artists out. (These are the same optimists who will confidently assure the most awkward newbie that yes, your quilt is ART and it is GREAT!! and don’t let anybody else tell you it’s not!!!)

But pessimist/cynics can find it discouraging, seeing people who “want to make art” but have no artistic vision to express. They’re the same people who send in work to the Stampington magazines, technically magnificent but everybody uses the same rubber stamp du jour of a Victorian lady or a bluebird.

I could rant on, but will cut to the chase. If I am asked to define an art quilt I say that first, it’s art. That is, work made by an artist who has something to say about the world, to the world. And that artist has chosen to use the medium and format of a quilt, defined as layers held together by stitching. And by choosing to use the medium/format of a quilt the artist should have some feeling or connection or commentary to make with or about traditional quilts, otherwise why not make a painting or photography or bronze sculpture?


  1. I think that it's so difficult to define art quilt because it's simply to know what a quilt is, and how to do a quilt, but is very hard to understand what art is and how to make it.
    I mean, I can study tons of books about art... history of art, techniques, composition, colours, but at the end may be I'm still not an artist.
    I think that most people think that "art" is synonimous of "strange" or "not traditional".
    I think that there's more.

    I'm one of these quilters that wants to do less traditional quilts, and may be that one day I'll be able to do an art quilt... but I'm convinced that that day I will be not conscious about what I'll be doing.
    I mean I don't think that it's sufficent to say "now I'm doing and art quilt" to do an art quilt.


  2. I'm sorry for the day the term art quilt was coined. I just wish I could say I'm an artist and I work with fabric. Maybe I'll just start saying that. Anyway, I understand the quandary of orkaloca but to her/him I'll say that I think intention is a Big part of the process of making art because intention alters now you think and how you proceed and all the decisions you make. You may start out making art but it isn't very good but it can still be art. You may grow and develop into a very fine artist but you will know when that happens. I must also be honest and say that years ago I had the opportunity to teach at a university and had classes that were a mixture of students who wanted to study art and students who wanted to study construction science. I've seen those CS students make some wonderful things that were definitely art but they couldn't see how wonderful what they had created was. However, they had had the intention to make art even if only for a grade.

  3. Kathie - I always cringe when the cycle of QA posts once again has the "what is an art quilt" query. I love your definition. I just helped to jury by fiberart guild's 2010 show. There were so many pieces submitted that just missed the mark completely as a piece of art. The other two jurors and I wondered if we should have a meeting devoted to discussing art principles.

  4. I prefer the annual "what is an art quilt?" discussion to the endless "What is and isn't art?" that I'm exposed to among writers. At least the quilt part is pretty well defined.

    Terry, I always say I make fabric art. So far, I haven't quilted any of it.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  5. In graduate school a million years ago, I had the opportunity to study with a renowned graphic designer, Toshiro Katayama. He was once explaining what the difference was between art and design. Design has constraints. It has to fulfill a certain set of requirements. Art has no constraints and no requirements. I believe that this applies to artists who work with fabric. When asked about what I do, I am an artist that works with fabric as my medium.

  6. Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    I'm beating my head against the wall along with you. I just told Dina (from class on Sunday)about quiltart but warned her about the "what is art" discussions.

  7. Thank you for your sensible thoughts on this matter.
    As a quilter of far too many years my quilt buddies were shocked when i signed up for a 2 year Art Foundation Course and have virtually stopped quilting ( if they saw the amount of project work i get they would understand better!!). I wanted to create more artistically but did not know where to start. I am getting a thorough understanding of creating art - moving right out of my comfort zone learning to draw and paint and loving nearly every moment of it.
    Hopefully at the end of the 2 years i will return to quilting with a new vision that will move me in new directions.
    BTW I have printed your 4 questions from a few days ago into my journal and have been applying them to all of my work - including my quilts retrospectively with very interesting results.

  8. First of all, all art is built from craft. You learn the craft of painting, for instance... what you do with what you learned is the art. The same applies to any other medium... I'm tired of people always differenciating between art done with a brush and art done by, say, fabric. Art is art is art.

  9. Further, if you think what you have made is art, then it is art... what someone else thinks about it is their business, not yours. Your's is to make art.