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?