Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Houston winners

The huge Houston quilt show happened two weeks ago, and I wasn't there.  Although I like to attend this show, and have done so many times in the past, this year it didn't work out for me to be there.  What I love about the show is the huge variety of vendors, and the many special exhibits.  (Those outside the International Quilt Association juried show, which constitutes only about half of the quilts.)

Shelley Brenner Baird, Seeing Around Corners, (details) in the SAQA Sightlines exhibit at Houston

What I don't love about the show are the winners.

They're on view on the IQA site, and as I scrolled down the very long page -- one fine thing about IQA is that they give lots of prizes -- it struck me that the big winners all look alike.  They're all symmetrical, bordered, full of fussy, intricate little appliqued or pieced bits.  Most of them read as monochromatic, even though the little bits might be in contrasting colors. 

I particularly noted that the Master Award for Traditional Artistry winner and the Master Award for Contemporary Artistry winner, displayed side by side on the website, could easily have been interchanged -- I could see no difference in character, sensibility, technique, composition, fabric or color that would lead one to be seen as traditional and the other to be seen as contemporary.

As you keep scrolling, finally you come to one that's not cut from the same cookie, made by Naomi Adams, which won the Future of Quilting award.  On the IQA site it looks like a section from a nice knitted sweater; on Naomi's blog it reveals itself as an intriguing 3-D woven piece.

Keep scrolling, and finally you get to the "category awards," in such genres as "art-abstract, small,"  "art-naturescapes,"  "art-people, portraits and figures," "art-pictorial,"  "art-painted surface," and seventeen other slices and dices.  I find this proliferation of categories depressing as well as daunting.  What if you make a quilt with a little girl standing in front of an old truck with mountains in the background?  Do you enter it in naturescapes or pictorial or people, portraits and figures?  What is gained by having so many categories except the opportunity to give more ribbons to a lot of quilts that look a whole lot alike?

Certainly the many, many pictorial categories in shows like this encourage quilters to make pictorial quilts, which I am not a fan of.  I think the medium of fabric is not particularly suited to representational images, especially those copied from photos.  Even those that are executed well tend to be sentimental and sweet.  Nancy Crow once commented that she prefers abstract designs for quilts "because pictorial quilts are too easy" in composition.

Let me run through the subjects of the winning representational quilts.  Trees by a path, trees by a lake, trees in snow, trees with a sunset, trees with two women walking.  Orange flowers, yellow flowers, white flowers, purple flowers.  Buildings by the oceanside, buildings by the lakeside, sailboats.  A woman in a garden, women in a marketplace, a child in a marketplace, people on the street, people in the desert, a man in the desert, a man in a doorway, a doorway.  A cat, a dog, a tortoise, three different birds, farm animals.  And those were just the winners; I suspect there were a lot more flowers, birds and trees in the rest of the entries.

Decorative, most of them, but there were only a few that would have called me for a closer look had I been walking down the aisles in Houston.  Is it just me, cynical and snobbish, who gets tired of pretty and interchangeable quilts?  Is it just me who wishes the quilt world would set its sights a bit higher, its boundaries a bit wider?

I'll write more on this subject later this week.  Meanwhile, what do you think?


  1. You already noted that the photo of Naomi Adams quilt did not show it very well, so perhaps the same is true of the pictorial quilts? Afterall, in a lot of reproductions, Monet's painting are just more waterlilies and haystacks. It is not till you see them in person that you really see them. And think how many representational painters who were overlooked during the "abstract is all" phase of painting are now being reevaluated. It's OK to like what you like, but it is also OK for others to like what they like. As for the micro-divisions of the categories, I'm with you there. It's way too many!

  2. I think the quilt world is big enough for everyone who expresses themselves with fiber. I see all types of quilts as the steps I, for one, have climbed in my quest to "say" what I need to say. In my experience, I need and want all the positive reinforcement I can get as I grow in my art and I surround myself with people who nurture and encourage me in what I've done and help me learn those skills I still have to learn in "finding my voice." As the philosopher suggested, it's a journey, not a destination.

  3. I was amazed, as I scrolled and scrolled, at how consistently I preferred the third place winner to the first place. I'm sure seeing them in person makes a difference, but I'm still amazed. The only exceptions were Wearable Art, which hardly counts, and Innovative Piecing, where I liked them all equally.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  4. You are not alone in these impressions !!! Only a very few representational quilts work well for my eyes...

  5. I've been reading all your posts on this topic and you've given lots of excellent food for thought, as have others that left comments.

    My two cents: Ultimately, most quilters are just that - quilters. They're not 'artists', however one chooses to define it, nor do they call themselves artists.

    I worked in a quilt shop for several years and belonged to local quilt guilds. At least 90% of those customers and guild members were simply after some creativity and beauty. They're attracted to the sentimental - and to cloth, specifically - precisely because it's comforting and lovely. Most of the population has no interest in statement art, for whatever reasons. Non-art quilters are no different.

    I do not have formal art training, however I'm aware of the principals of design. I disagree that most 'big show' winners don't display good design principals. I do agree, however, that show winners tend to have a 'generic', homogeneous look. Yet even Quilt National pieces have a certain homogeneous look! (A huge sore spot with me, but that's another discussion). Seems to be the nature of the beast - mainstream vs art quilting, with each one valuing specific characteristics. IMO, one isn't any more worthy than the other. If good design and technique are present, then content is subjective. Show winners - whatever type - will reflect what's currently valued.

    I adore both mainstream and art quilts. They each have beauty and something to say.