With new techniques and materials available, quilters are creating ambitious fabric artworks that can hang next to any painting.
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Quilts—the word conjures bed covers made with tiny scraps of fabric stitched together with a layer of batting beneath a geometric or floral design. Yet today, a kaleidoscopic range of quilts is being made primarily to be displayed on walls. Those who call themselves studio quilters or textile artists create compelling images using traditional and modern techniques that blend classic and unexpected materials. Portraits, walls of graffiti, scenes of everyday life, graphics from ads and social concerns are all expressed with skills both learned at a grandparent’s knee and in M.F.A. lecture halls. Scaled to fill spaces from the diminutive to the enormous, quilts, once seen as craft only, now provoke and delight with the authority of fine art.
Consider Miriam Nathan-Robert’s marriage of digital and stitched surface design depicting everyday images from a subway station to a restaurant salt shaker. Alive with bold reds, oranges and yellow-greens, Ita Ziv’s abstract tableaus are drawn from nature and politics, but sometimes comprised of nylon bags and net. Collaged, feathered and painted, Pauline Burbidge’s grids swing from precise to acrobatic. Encounter Terrie Hancock Manget and her personal icons from fireworks to a flea market brimming with buttons, beads, ribbons, even pipe cleaners. All of these are reproduced in Masters: Art Quilts, (Lark, 2008), a thick volume that distills a list of influential artists in the field and reproduces outstanding examples of their work. It was curated and edited by Martha Sielman, executive director of the Studio Art Quilt Associates Inc., the world’s largest art-quilt organization. The remaining 36 artists in its pages are making equally evocative quilts. If there’s a unifying response to this art form, it’s, “I can’t believe that’s a quilt.”
There’s no question that many of the hands plying needle and thread in the 18th and 19th centuries made works of startling beauty, but it was the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 that revived interest in patchwork and appliqué. While some late 20th century stitchers worked to reproduce antique examples, others, often academically-schooled artists, turned to textiles with a new agenda. By then, Claes Oldenburg and Christo had introduced cloth as components or central media in their work. With cotton fabrics readily available and expanding in color and pattern, it was inevitable that they would be employed in new ways.
Penny McMorris, co-curator of “The Art Quilt,” an exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 1986, was a juror for Quilt National 2013, an international competition, and thus has witnessed the evolution of the art quilt genre over the past few decades. Always on the lookout for quilts she “wants to look at repeatedly, knowing they will appear better each time,” McMorris vividly recalls seeing this new direction in fiber when Nancy Crow’s quilt appeared in a show she organized in 1976. “Seeing Nancy’s quilt entranced me,” she says. “I’d sit and stare at it.”
Describing her work in a 1992 catalogue for a solo exhibition, Work in Transition, Crow says, “I want the simplest of means to achieve the most glorious of results.” Crow, who came from a family of painters and was trained as a ceramicist and weaver, early on realized that she preferred the “clean feel of cloth.” That drew her to experiment with traditional patterns in single efforts, but she eventually evolved to developing quilts in series, deepening her understanding of the endless potential for interaction between color and shape. To the commonly-heard question “is it art,” Crow replies, “People don’t call themselves art painters or art sculptors,” and leaves it to others to decide how to classify it. Currently, she is experimenting with large-scale monoprints on fabric incorporated into quilts.
Michael James began working with conventional fabrics in the 1970s. Now the Ardis James (no relation) Professor of Textiles, Clothing and Design at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, James believes using fabric was “a conscious reaction against the mainstream art of the time.” Speaking about the “aesthetic development of any art or craft” in his 1978 book, The Quiltmaker’s Handbook, James wrote that it is “dependent on original and highly personal responses to the design problem.” He already saw the increase of “so-called handcrafts” as a reflection of a society, “propelled beyond the industrial age.”
The International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the university originated with the encyclopedic quilt collection put together by Ardis and Robert James (Ardis, who died in 1985, was a Nebraska-born quilter and daughter of a quilter, and her husband was an oil-company executive). Having started with almost 1,000 works, the Center now has more than 4,000 and pronounces its collection the largest publicly held array of all-era quilts in the world. The staff rotates in-house and special exhibitions through the sustainable space created by architect Robert A.M. Stern. Carolyn Ducey, Curator of Collections, is excited about plans for a Stern-designed expansion that doubles the size of the museum. Ducey admits she finds acquiring contemporary quilts a challenge due to limited staff and funds. Dealing directly with artists, she says, “I regret we can’t always come to an agreement for sought-after contemporary work.”
James is committed to documenting art-quilt history and supervises graduate students researching the lives and works of notable fabric artists. He has also exhibits his own work for four decades; most recently he was included in an exhibition at the Southwest School of Art in San Antonio. His Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance (1985) was among the earliest art quilts acquired for the Newark Museum by Curator of Decorative Art Ulysses Grant Dietz.
Dietz continues to acquire contemporary quilts, recently American Gothic by Luke Haynes, the third in Haynes’ American Context series. He looks for works that “echo the traditional format,” but have a “narrative or a conceptual idea” rather than being strictly “self-referential.”
Other major museums that collect art quilts include the Brooklyn Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Museum of Art and Design in New York and Smithsonian’s American Art Museum in the Renwick Gallery. Whether contemporary quilts are classed fine art or textile craft depends on the mission of the museum and curators’ definitions. Dietz, whose tenure at the Newark Museum spans the discussion about studio quilts, acknowledges, “They may be created as art, but not all are museum quality.” For him, a work must go beyond idea and execution “to achieve the [artist’s] intention.”
Visions Art Museum, in San Diego, focuses on contemporary quilts and textiles. The museum, which opened in 2007 as the outgrowth of a juried show, is committed to the “promotion and appreciation…of fiber as fine art.” Visions, which stages regular solo retrospectives, will present shows of longtime quilt artists Ree Nancarrow and Caryl Bryer Faller-Gentry in the upcoming 2013–14 season, while also establishing a program of traveling exhibitions. Collectors Warren and Nancy Brekensiek recently donated “Full Deck,” originally a traveling Smithsonian exhibition, to the museum. The 1995 show was curated by Sue Pierre, who invited 54 widely varied quilt artists to represent all four suits of a deck of playing cards.
Other quilt-centric institutions showing a mix of the latest and the oldest are the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Ky., and the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Mass. Both museums have diverse collections, with New England holding groundbreaking quilts done by Ruth McDowell and Nancy Halpern. The Texas Quilt Museum in LaGrange welcomes and organizes traveling shows and always presents contemporary works in one gallery. In 2013, traveling contemporary shows “Seasonal Palette” and “Masters II: Art Quilts.” were hosted by the National and New England museums, respectively.
Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) organized “Palettes,” curated by Kathleen McCabe and Vicki Mangum, and “Masters,” curated by Martha Sielman, the group’s executive director. These were just two of many set up by the organization. This non-profit, which Sielman describes as a “virtual network,” is made up of artists, collectors, curators, gallery professionals and corporate sponsors worldwide, linked only by the internet, will celebrates a quarter century of collaboration in 2014. With more than 3,200 members, SAQA continues to expand the definition of art quilts as “creative visual work that is layered and stitched, or that references this form of layered structure.”
SAQA functions as a hub for mutual support, critique sessions, public relations, as well as a conduit for online sales. “In some ways,” says Sielman, commenting on SAQA’s multiple roles, “it’s a virtual quilting bee.” In the last 10 years, the Associates have quadrupled their ranks and grown more diverse. Masters: Art Quilts, Vol. 2 (Lark, 2011), demonstrates the continuing influx of passionate artists such as Isabella Baykova, whose embroidery-encrusted fantasies flow to netherworlds. Then turn to Karin Franzen’s photorealist water birds as they sensuously stretch their bleached, immersion-dyed, screen-printed limbs. Adding texture to fractured geometrics enhances the playful spirit rising from Reiko Naganuma’s work.
Back in 1978, a desire to showcase this burgeoning wealth of new textile expression led Nancy Crow and her colleagues to establish Quilt National. Still considered a major proving ground for quilt art, the 2013 biennial, the 18th show, displays dozens of fiber constructions in the Dairy Barn gallery in Athens, Ohio. Kathleen Dawson, QN’s director, notes that the quilts continue to have an impact during the two years after the initial hanging, as the show travels to other venues. Among the pieces sent to viewers in Missouri, Minnesota and California this year were Mary Ann Tipple’s switchable portrait panels inspired by family photos, Katie Pasquini Masoput’s painted suede and satin and John Lefelhocz’s butterfly-embellished Mona Lisa.
Sielman sees Quilt National as a bellwether for trends in art quilts. Analyzing the 83 works chosen this year, she notes a new, “prevalence of text as an important design element.” As for materials and techniques, she says that many artists are using sheer fabrics “to create subtle color” and, increasingly, photo transfer.
Collector Jack Walsh considers Quilt National a primary source for works that are breaking new ground. Inspired by a Michael James quilt, Walsh decided to study the art form. After meeting Penny McMorris in 1992, Walsh relied on her knowledge and his enthusiasm to build a broad collection that documents the movement. “The work is mixed-media worthy of standing in any art show,” says McMorris, who has worked with Ardis and Robert James, served on the International Quilt Study Center board and is co-founder of The Electric Quilt Company.
Walsh intends “to support the artists by providing visibility and gaining recognition for them.” He loans the work for museum exhibitions—this fall at the Morris Museum in Morristown, N.J., and in 2014 at the Johnson Art Museum at Cornell University, the Arts Alive program at Elmira College and the Texas Quilt Museum in LaGrange. About 10 percent of his purchases are open-ended commissions intended to spur creativity and “remove concerns about selling.” He notes that one artist reported that this freedom to experiment enabled her to take her work in an entirely new direction.
While many studio quilters deal directly with collectors, there are galleries that show and sell the work. Art quilts are often included in the Snyderman Works Gallery’s International Fiber Biennial, but as Philadelphia owner Rick Snyderman notes, the work still lacks an auction history that would help establish value. Aware that quilts are not always recognized as art, Cathy Izzo and Dale Riehl opened ArtQuilt Gallery·NYC in Manhattan’s aesthetic hub, Chelsea. Riehl knows there’s “hardly any consistent marketplace infrastructure” for art quilts but believes this is a good time to collect. He cites a “robust” variety available and prices from $1,000 for smaller hangings to $16,000 for pieces of room-riveting scale. Clients are sometime fellow quilt-makers who know the quilts featured in upcoming solo exhibitions for artists such as Maya Chaimovich, Kate Stiassni and Cécile Trentini. Past group projects such as “Material Witness: New Work from the Manhattan Quilter’s Guild,” affirmed the high caliber of images by artists Luke Haynes, Paula Nadelstern, Daphne Taylor, Robin Schwalb, Ludmilla Uspenskaya and Teresa Barkley. Passersby are regularly enticed inside by the work and are often astonished that the artworks on the walls are quilts. This confirms Izzo’s and Riehl’s belief that “this is an especially accessible, compelling art form.”
Fiber artist Marilyn Henrion also shows her work in Chelsea at the Noho Gallery. Though her work was already in private and museum collections, Henrion juggled teaching and studio time for many years. In 1999, she joined the Noho, a cooperative artist-run gallery, and focused solely on studio production. With both literature and the city around her informing her work, Henrion’s rhythmic, color-charged designs are always hand stitched. She believes “the presence of the human hand is integral.” Seeking deeper dimensionality, she may add related fiber techniques such as needle punching and rug hooking to her hands-on work. Recently, her Soft City series utilized digital photo transfer of architectural details from her SoHo neighborhood. Commenting on Soft City, Ed McCormack, co-publisher of Gallery & Studio, notes that “the allusion made to gaping portals and windows resembling the eye sockets of skulls.” For McCormack, “even Henrion’s most abstract work has tangential elements.” He sees another example of this “phantom presence” in Disturbances, Henrion’s hand-made stitched silk series in response to September 11.
Saturated with hand stitches and found objects, Brooke Atherton’s SpringField was awarded Best of Show at Quilt National 2013. Atherton constructs art quilts depicting pastoral and disastrous journeys by joining hand-worked units. Securing elements with adhesive and using supporting bamboo allows for space-conscious variations when her pieces are hung. Explaining that her initial plans “often digress, or just get lost,” Atherton says, “I seriously consider the effects of time as an element.” Not only does she incorporate calendars, measuring devices and maps in her surface design, the artist also tests her burning, dyeing, rusting and fusing techniques to ensure they will not shorten the life of her finished piece. Represented by Toucan Gallery in her home town, Billings, Mont., she also reaches audiences at Quilt National and Quilt Visions shows. SpringField was one of six art quilts purchased by Walsh at the 2013 biennial.
The threads that connect quilts with fine art are strengthening. Diverse in message, media and methods, these textile creations continue to energize. With barely a generation of work to consider, there’s a need for more museum exhibitions and greater gallery presence. Wider criticism will improve collector awareness and build confidence in emerging and experienced artists. Faith Ringgold, whose work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, has long been represented by Chelsea’s ACA Gallery. In 2001, Ringgold said of those viewing her painted story quilts, “They’re looking at a painting and they’re able to accept it better because it is also a quilt.” Today a widening circle of viewers celebrate quilts as art.
By Barbara Wysocki