Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Quilt National -- where are the pieced quilts??

I missed the opening of Quilt National this year, but was able to visit Athens last month and catch the show before it ended.  Unfortunately, if you miss the opening weekend, photography is verboten, so I can't give you a detailed review of the show.

Martha Sielman had an excellent article about QN in the latest SAQA Journal, and in case you missed it, I'll give you the recap.  She noted several trends in this exhibit:

Hand stitching: almost 20 percent of the pieces in the show were hand quilted; others used hand stitches as design elements.

Subdued palettes: at least 35 percent of the quilts were primarily neutrals, and many of those in color used muted tones.

Photo transfer: in more than 20 percent of the quilts

Machine stitched "drawing": like this wonderful quilt by Paula Kovarik, where the drawing is done through all layers.

Paula Kovarik, Round and Round it Goes, in QN '13

Sheers: lots of tulle and other sheers for color effects; a few quilts using transparency and shadows.

Recycled materials and found objects: most notably, the best in show was covered with stuff (yet it was one of the few quilts with embellishments).

But what struck me most about the show wasn't mentioned in Martha's article: the near-absence of the pieced quilt.  For this discussion, I define pieced quilt as one where the design and composition is achieved wholly or predominantly through piecing of fabrics.  To fit the definition, it has to be traditional piecing: no raw edges, no fusing.

That leaves out quilts that achieve their design through applique or collage of pieces of fabric, and those where surface design does all the work.  So, for instance, I didn't count Jan Myers-Newbury's magnificant shibori quilt as a pieced quilt; even though she has pieced different fabrics together, the design of the quilt comes primarily from the shibori.

So applying my definition, I counted only two pieced quilts in the entire exhibit, out of 85 total.  And this was disturbing.

You know that I make pieced quilts, so seeing only two representatives of my own kind of work in the pantheon of contemporary quilting made me feel marginalized and left out; like trying to be an Abstract Expressionist when everybody else had moved on to Pop Art and minimalism.

And this disturbs me.  I like the fact that the quilt world has been so adventurous in trying and accepting new techniques and approaches.  In particular, surface design has become so important and exciting in the last two decades.  But have we gotten so enamored of the new that we have totally disrespected and discarded the old?

I know that the results in any given show primarily reflect the likes and dislikes of its jurors, but they also reflect the zeitgeist of the larger art community.  And in a show as influential as QN, they also help shape the zeitgeist.  That's why it's so worrisome to think that pieced quilts, the foundation of our collective quilting sensibility, are so easily relegated to the margins of the premier venue for our art form.

It's not because pieced quilts are traditional and the art form has moved on -- piecing is simply a technique, and can be used to convey images and messages just as new and edgy as anything you'd find in phototransfer or other trendy technique.  And it's not because this pool of entries had no decent pieced quilts to choose from; forget about my own, but I know more than a dozen fine artists who submitted wonderful pieced quilts (I've seen many of them) that were rejected.

If indeed the pieced quilt is becoming passe, what does that mean for the art quilt community?  One possible moral of the story is that the basic techniques aren't good enough any more -- you gotta have a gimmick.  I don't see that as a desirable outcome.

Another possible reading is that piecing is going to become a lost art form, at least in the "art" part of the quilt world.  If piecing lives on only in the realm of the state fair and the quilt police, will it drown in the tedious tide of quarter-inch seam allowances and matching points, and lose all the wonderful vitality that it has achieved in the last thirty or forty years?

I hope I'm overreacting.  I hope pieced quilts will come back to QN '15 with a bang.  But I worry.

What do you think?



  1. Enlightening post. My work is pieced, and perhaps my technique makes my work passé. But sometimes an exhibit will reflect the jurors' tastes. Perhaps they prefer soft edges between design elements, lines that can be more readily expressed by surface design, painterly raw edge appliqué, or lines that are disguised by sheers or embellishment.

  2. I think that the pendulum will eventually swing back. It always does! But piecing has historically been the "poor relation" in the quilt world, given less admiration than applique or heavy hand quilting.
    Type "art quilt" in Google images, and you mostly get representational stuff, as if art and painting are synonymous.
    I don't care--what makes my heart race is geometry, bold form and color. That's what piecing does best.

  3. I agree that it will swing around. And, remember, while QN is a great show, 85 quilts is pretty small. In the larger venues, pieced is a category - it's about the technique and the art. Never let a curator become your inner voice. I hear my painter friends complain all the time about the curated shows they try to enter and some of their work is fabulous (to me, anyway). Keep doing what you love and put it out where it can be seen. If QN doesn't accept it, then send it to another one...It's about the journey.

  4. I'm hoping that it was just the jurors and not a trend as I too think the piecing is so important as a design element.

  5. QN13's selection is a reflection of the jurors. Didn't QN11 have many pieced quilts and a juror who pieces her own work?
    I'm not disheartened and will continue to piece as long as it suits me. Getting into juried shows would be great, but I can't second guess jurors. My goal is to appeal to and engage viewers, however few or many.

  6. I think this is nothing other than a reflection of the jury.

    They had a biased against this type of work so they rejected some amazing art as a result.

    Whatever - next year someone else will jury the show and the pieced work will be accepted again.

    This is why I almost never enter juried shows - I have better things to do. I'm passing on pretty much everything this year - including art quilt elements which I think might be due soon. I don't care what the jury thinks. Plus they want flashing lights on the work at AQE. yawn.

  7. PS - I knew before the jury results were out that there would be few pieced quilts in 2013. I almost didn't enter for that reason. Next time - I'll listen to my intuition. Waste of time and money to enter a show when you know the jury dislikes your work.

  8. PPS - I was just accepted into the American Craft Council show in Baltimore. A much bigger pond than Quitl National (which is really rather small and unknown in the world beyond the art quilt world). ACC is apparently fans of pieced work as I know another artist that does pieced work that was also accepted.

  9. Just finished entering AQE with pieced quilts, no flashing lights or geegaws. Won't be discouraged when my work doesn't get in. But I can't read jurors well enough to know when not to enter; guess that comes with more experience.

  10. I first learned of Art Quilts by way of Nancy Crow's work, many many years ago. That still defines the kind of art quilt I love - pieced and hand quilted. I've become less and less interested in art quilts as the years go by as that kind of work has decreased. But don't fear that the only kind of piecing is that loved by the Quilt Police and Judged shows. There are a lot of us who love the more casual piecing of Gee's Bend and utility quilts - but generally don't enter any kind of show...

  11. Kathy,

    I read your article with great admiration for how clearly you state the role of piecing. In my work, it is the construction, deconstruction, and rearrangement, along with reconstruction, that I find unlike any other way to work. Not printing, not painting, not sculpture, not anything else. And using QN as an example is fine, but I see that your article is asking a very large question about the technique and its rank, history, and popularity. You are hitting the nail on the head when you talk about its vitality. And so, if that energy can only be achieved with piecing, to convey what only piecing can do, then it will continue. Design is always paramount, and if the path to compose calls for piecing, then that is what I will use. I use the tool that does the job.

  12. I attended the exhibit and also noticed the lack of piecing. During the opening weekend, the jury held a panel discussion and said they didn't worry about balancing the show, they only chose the best pieces entered. But they kicked out any work they considered "derivative" of another artist--I wonder if this means they knocked out all bold, pieced work due to "being derivative" of Nancy Crow? If that's the case, mixed media work could be seen as derivative of Jane Dunnewald and others.

  13. Great post thank you, particularly for me the lines...
    One possible moral of the story is that the basic techniques aren't good enough any more -- you gotta have a gimmick.
    This worries me about many Exhibitions. As a viewer I love to see and make quilts that could be "used" as quilts.

  14. In contrast, the graphic design world is all about geometric motifs these days, with a lot of work looking patchwork quilt-like. Whatever the current trends, I'll never stop piecing.

  15. I thought there were far too many quilts that depended on photographs printed onto the fabric - even to the point of the company printing the fabric being mentioned in the descriptive labels!! I feel that quilts should be manipulated fabric: pieced or appliqued or both, but not just a substrate for a photo with maybe (or maybe not!) a lump or two of fabric appended.

  16. Great post! I have always loved the piecing part of fiber art most although I continue to experiment and include other surface treatments in my work. I don't see this trend of leaving the classic past behind limited to fiber. As a clay artist I see it happening in the clay field as well where it seems 'everyone' is screen printing on clay, adding more and more surface decoration and leaving the traditional form with a classic glazing behind. I think we will come full circle just as crafts and getting back to basics in living has come full circle with renewed interest.