Thursday, January 15, 2015

IHQ 2 -- really sloppy work

What I'm finding as I go through the "International Honor Quilt" boxes is fascinating, so I'll share some of it with you as I work.  My first observation is that much of the handwork is truly bad.

I wasn't aware of the IHQ project in the 1980s but I would have imagined it to be a magnet for accomplished needlewomen to show off their skills while honoring somebody they admire.  And there were obviously many people like that; I'll show you lots of examples if you stay tuned.  But there were also a lot of women whose desire to participate far outran their sewing skills -- and that didn't stop them.

Which I find admirable, in a way.

So often needlework is judged solely on its technical quality -- look at all those dull, boring and artistically empty works that win blue ribbons at the state fair because they were quilted at 24 stitches per inch or knitted on size 0 needles -- and many people think their goal is simply to get better at the stitches, rather than getting better at the aesthetics.  Many people, for instance, have been sewing or knitting or whatever for decades and it has never crossed their minds to work without using somebody else's patterns.

So I might have imagined that women without excellent sewing skills would have shied away from the project, embarrassed to submit work that wasn't up to Quilt Police standards.  But clearly I was wrong.

If I were feeling pessimistic I might take this as bad news, another nail in the coffin of needlework as fine art; if needlework displayed in a museum or gallery looks like amateur hour doesn't it make it harder for us serious artists to be taken seriously?

If I were feeling cynical I might make comparisons to the postmodern practice of sloppy craft, in which Famous Artists are free to do slapdash work, but I don't believe that these panels are in the same ballpark.  The Famous Artists are trying mightily to Make Art, whereas these ladies were just trying to make a statement about somebody they admire.

I've always been a snob about craftsmanship, practicing it myself and admiring it when I see it on others' work.  So I'm conflicted about the occasional lousy craft I'm finding in the IHQ panels. And the fact that these panels are so obviously earnest and sincere somehow makes it worse (apparently my thinking has been corrupted by the pervasive irony that hadn't quite taken hold when the IHQ was made).

I hashed this out at great length last week during a road trip with my art buddy Marti Plager (we've done a lot of good art thinking on more than a decade of road trips).  After much back and forth, Marti said, "Well, Kathy, this is just something you're going to have to come to terms with."  And she is so right.

What do you think?


  1. Looking at the photos you posted along with your post immediately brought to mind the AIDS Names quilts--a lot of the work was not technically proficient, but the heart and desire to remember someone was. I am always moved when I see those quilts. I would love to see more of what's in those boxes.

  2. I think the sincerity is what makes it great. Shari's example of the Names Project quilt speaks to exactly what I mean. Those stitchers and sewists and creators felt something and did not let their fear of being judged stand in the way of sending their creation out into the world. I am absolutely certain that they had seen examples of excellent stitching--consider the era in which they grew up. They simply were not bowed by it. Good for them. I am grateful to whoever accepted their pieces rather than turning them away, telling them they were not good enough.

  3. I, too, am a snob about workmanship-craftmanship but as I look back on some older pieces I have made--I can certainly see improvement in some areas and shrinkage of skills in others---but I think if you look at these pieces as folk art---which they are--the distractions are not so glaring. Sylvia in Beaumont Texas