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Art Beat

July 28, 2005


The art of quilting


I HAVE MADE ONE QUILT IN MY LIFE. IT was very instructive. I learned that I never want to make another quilt again. Mind you, I'm glad I did it. I finished it just before my son was born and I love to see him snuggled up in it. It's a very decent first quilt and I'm proud of it, but quilting is just not my thing. Having made one, though, I was able to appreciate the work of the master quilters who displayed their work last weekend at the Redwood Empire Quilters Guild's "Heart of the Redwoods Quilt Show."Photo of "Hope" quilt by April Sproule

The Quilters Guild puts on a show every two years, primarily for the purpose of promotion and educating the community about quilting. Vendors sold supplies and there was a quilt auction to help raise funds for the organization, but mostly it was a display. It was not a competition either, which I liked. I've always been uncomfortable with the idea of art as a competition. I like to just look at the various things people have to offer, the different levels of skill and the different paths of interest people follow.

This particular display ranged from the weekend hobbyist to those who make their living producing exquisite "art" quilts.

[Photo of "Hope" quilt by April Sproule]

Looking around at this range got me thinking about the difference between "art" and "craft" and the connotations of the word "hobby." Jeanne Cissna was this year's Featured Quilter. She's been quilting for over 30 years and her quilts show an array of interests and techniques. She didn't seem comfortable with the word when I asked her if quilting was a hobby: It somehow implies that a thing is not very important, but quilting is a big part of her life. Her work is influenced by, and is in its own right, art. One of her quilts on display is titled "The Faces of Frida," Frida Kahlo being an artist that interested and inspired Jeanne. She is interested in other cultures and much of her work uses Asian, Mexican and African prints.

While art typically tells some personal story, quilting seems uniquely suited to infusing each piece with a sentimental specialness. Some quilts incorporate photographs (which are transferred onto fabric), scraps of fabric from personal items or materials with special themes (i.e., horses, dancers, etc.). One of Jeanne's pieces is very special as her husband, now deceased, designed the pattern for her. At the time, he was building an A-frame house and he thought it would make a great quilt design. Now the quilt is a treasured memento for her.

I spent some time with April Sproule, an extremely talented artist whose work includes fabric she dyes or hand paints, intricate quilting patterns, and exotic textiles. One characteristic of her work is her exquisite sense of color. She had a few quilts on display that show off her bold use of color, but her latest is different, all white and quilted with threads in five shades of taupe. The piece is a whole-cloth quilt -- in other words, it does not involve the piecework most of us think of when we think of quilts.

Actually a "quilt" is anything that has layers of fabric sandwiching a layer of batting -- "quilting" refers to the stitching that holds it all together. The quilting can be as simple as buttons distributed evenly, but, as in the case of April's work, it can be the main feature of the work.

Her piece was inspired by a style that originated in Wales in the 1800s. April was intrigued with the intricacy and quality of the quilting, the way the stitching "sculpts" the fabric, as she put it. By using white fabric and subtlety shaded quilting thread, she had the challenge of creating a striking piece with a very limited "vocabulary," as it were.

"All you have to make your impression is the thread," she stated. Apparently, that was all she needed -- the piece speaks loud and clear.

April and I got to talking about the distinction between "art" and "craft." Quilting is generally lumped in the "craft" category, but I've always wondered why exquisite crafts aren't "art" -- or perhaps the question should be why is "craft" less then "art." Perhaps it's not, perhaps they're just different, but there has been a general feeling that "art" is somehow the loftier of the two.

While we were talking, Sandi Globus (who opened up Ocean Wave Quilts in Trinidad several years ago) jumped into the conversation. She told us about an article on the Fiberarts Magazine website discussing just this question. In it, art critic Janet Koplos states that, "the foundation of any art work is knowledge of material and technique, and a wish to communicate something visually."

April brought up the point that when a piece focuses too much on the technique to adequately communicate an idea, it fails as an art piece. We generally think of craft as being more functional -- things that do something for us, but that are handmade and intended to be beautiful as well as functional. Perhaps it is because of their functionality that these kinds of things often emphasize technique to a fault.

An emphasis on decoration (as opposed to communication of an idea or emotion) is another thing that art critics find fault with. Koplos states that while there is "nothing inherently wrong with decorative work good art is broader." In other words, good art should have an emotional impact on the viewer. But it's difficult to say what might affect someone, and one person's decoration may be another's abstract art.

Personally, I was struck by the work of Donna Parker. Her quilts include a lot of work with a wedge ruler, creating concentric circles and rays of different colors. The technique is painstaking and impressive just for its level of skill. However, are the pieces decorative or abstract? I found them very appealing, and I couldn't tell you exactly why. Something about the work grabbed me, yet someone else might very well find it emotionless, and therefore not "art," according to Koplos' definition.

After pondering these heady questions with April and Sandi, I was amused by the juxtaposition between April's "Metamorphosis" of hand-painted silk crepe, and the quilt above it. "Flip Flops for Aunt Debba," by Sandra Sundell, includes piecework in a pattern of flip-flops, brightly colored fabrics reminiscent of gaudy Hawaiian shirts and embellishments such as rubber ducks and plastic flowers.

People have been arguing about the meaning of art for centuries, so I guess I'm never going to find a satisfactory definition. I think it's something that every human being does (whether or not they think they are creative) and therefore there are as many expressions of art as there are human beings. This quilt show, like any good art show and perhaps more so, shows off an exhilarating range of human responses to life, with all of its tragedies, oddities, despairs and triumphs. The most important thing for you to know is, if you think of quilting as the quaint hobby of an elderly lady, you need to go the next quilt show and be woken up.


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