Friday, April 25, 2014

Innovation -- good or bad?

I was thrilled last year when my quilt won best in show at "Innovations in Fiber Art VI," co-sponsored by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts in California and the Surface Design Association.  It was especially sweet because one of the juror/judges was Joan Schultze, one of my idols from way back.

And I was pleased again to learn that the Surface Design Journal, SDA's publication, was going to review the show.  So when the magazine came this week I quickly skipped to what they had said about my piece:

"Given the Innovations title of the exhibition, it is interesting that the Best in Show Award went to Kathleen Loomis of Kentucky for Crazed 16: Suburban Dream, a pieced and machine-sewn patchwork wall panel of striped commercial cotton fabrics.  No doubt a visual tour de force, this complex mosaic of small squares and rectangles builds a sense of movement that captures the obsessive-compulsiveness of quilting -- but does it represent innovation?"

The reviewer also noted that "beyond some of the experimental media, such as plastic medical ID bracelets,the exhibition could be considered somewhat traditional in terms of formats.  Wall pieces dominated with few exceptions."

I took these remarks as a great compliment, even the obsessive-compulsive part (because I have frequently described my work in the same words).  I was mildly amused to see it described as a patchwork wall panel, but OK.  But the parts about innovation got me to thinking -- what's so great about innovation, and what's so questionable about traditional formats?

The reviewer's comments brought to mind those made by Pauline Verbeek-Cowart, one of the 2011 Quilt National jurors, who wrote, "Not a single entry in my opinion represented that leap into new territory, or challenged conventional notions of the medium and stood as a radical new approach. ... I was hoping for some sort of embrace of these new materials and tools.  I was prepared to see digital embroidery, laser cutting, conductive thread and light-emitting diodes (quilts are layered; there are pockets, perfect for hiding and holding wires and batteries), or photochromic pigments. These are just a few of the materials and processes that fiber artists are exploring at the moment (and have been for years)."

Well, if they've been exploring this stuff for years, how innovative are they?  Haven't we been seeing digital embroidery on quilts for decades?  The quilt/art world is admittedly slow to embrace new techniques and materials.  I still laugh that in 2003 Quilt National gave its award for "Most Innovative Use of the Medium" to Michael James for a piece that was produced on a large-format printer, decades after people had started using phototransfer in quilts.  But is this bad?

I'm not sure I would be thrilled and inspired to see a room full of fiber pieces that light up or change colors or conduct electricity.  I suspect the ratio of gee-whiz to art would be higher than I normally enjoy.  Just as painting is not dead, traditional fiber formats still have much to endear them to artists.

True, many shows have "innovation" or a variant in their titles, and many more announce in their call for entries that they want new and innovative work.  I suspect this is a knee-jerk reaction because it seems like a good thing to write in the brochure. (I've probably done it myself, because I've been tapped to write a bunch of brochures and news releases and juror statements.)

I agree that new formats and materials should be welcomed in fiber art shows.  I am happy when shows rewrite restrictive rules to be more inclusive and less quilt-police-like.  But encouraging the new shouldn't mean dissing the old.  (Here's what I wrote about Quilt National last year, along the same lines.)

Am I just saying this because I love and work in a traditional format?  I don't think so.  I believe that when you choose to work in a "materials-based art" you do so because something about that material -- and its traditional, more functional history -- calls to you.  If so, then materials-based artists -- whether in fiber, ceramics, glass, metal or wood -- may be less inclined to go full-out avant-garde than artists who paint, sculpt or work in video, sound, chocolate syrup or other inherently radical fields.  But hey, it seems to go with the territory.

I further believe that if you choose to sponsor or jury or review a show of materials-based art, you should respect that traditional history and recognize that many of the practitioners don't want to escape it quite yet, and that's not necessarily bad.

What do you think?


  1. What I find interesting is that often they want innovative, but then restrict how deep the item can be. Or state they will not accept 3D. So, sure it is because those can be difficult to ship to different venues. But I think we could be a lot more innovative if we weren't restricted to walls.
    I loved Kathy York's work with the city. I only saw it online, and I saw QN's method of display was great for it. But then (and I may have got this wrong) suddenly the rules were tightened up and if she had wanted to carry on that technique with a different theme or something, it would no longer qualify.

  2. My Kathleen, that is quite a lot to think about. Firstly, CONGRATULATIONS on your win - Best in Show is really special.
    As to your question, I don't think either tradition or innovation can of themselves be good or bad. Art is a from of expression. I think it is dangerous to assume that nothing new can be expressed with traditional materials, or that the use of 'innovative' materials means that what is expressed is radically new or meaningful. In both cases, what counts is how the artist expresses him/herself thought their his/her chosen material and how that expression communicates itself to the viewer.

  3. Here! Here! I agree with you and can't say it any better than you did.
    Love your piece and I think you deserved to win, what a lovely piece and I am guessing it took more than a weekend to get the quilt done!

    Happy Sewing

  4. I want fine art-"innovative" does not need to be the goal. It must first be great art. If it pushes the medium, fine. But much of "innovative" art is really "innovative" craft. Your prize at Sebastapol was well deserved for your fine art.

  5. You are right: I think that the organisers are always looking for new criteria, they are looking for more diversity of content for their exhibitions that will in turn attract more visitors - but innovation is a problematic area.

    I agree that work should not be judged only, or even largely on whether it uses whizz bang techniques or materials for their own sake. Innovation can be in the choice of subject matter shown in quilt form, for instance, just as much as in materials or techniques, but appropriate respect to validity should be apparent, whatever is new.

    In 2009 I received the award for Innovation at the European Quilt Triennial - for a whole cloth quilt digitally developed, but manifest in traditional materials and quilting - and the overall exhibition winner was Mirjam Pet Jacobs' Timeless in Time, a beautiful film accompanied by a more conventional quilt. That was far more innovative than mine, but I guess they could not give her both awards. Lucky for me.

  6. I agree with all said above. Sometimes it seems like the "innovations" are just the latest fad. You can look back through the Quilt National catalogs and see what was trendy around that time: digital images printed on fabric, surface design techniques, angelina fibers, etc.

    You can be innovative with traditional materials and design.

    I don't always think "innovative" equates to good art.

  7. I think it is a highly questionable thing to ask for something 'innovative'. I have had innovative pieces that still got juried out and you don't get told why. I think great art speaks for itself, whether it is innovative or not, and the innovativeness should not be the ultimate criterion. Plus it enters another subjective aspect into the whole thing - if I think that's innovative, fine, will the jury think so likewise - and once we've had batteries for a light chain hidden in some pockets, that's done for, isn't it? The next one who does it is copying, and if the same person does it again, s/he's just repeating herself?!

  8. Too much focus on technique. The judges have lost sight of the fact that this is art, not just an illustration of technique. I love your piece.

  9. I'll take updated contemporary classics over trends any day of the week.