What is an art quilt?
I’m doing something new, for me. I am working with my local art center to curate and hang a show of art quilts.
I’ve hung a lot of quilt shows. The main idea is to display Quilts of all kinds. And some of the Quilts will be art.
This show is different though. The primary mission of the center is to hang Art and this time the Art will be in the form of quilts. It's an interesting twist.
So what is an art quilt?
On its most superficial level, a quilt is designated an art quilt because its maker entered it in an art quilt category. And as soon as you mention categories, you have to go back to the category definitions in the rules of entry for the show. Sometimes there are helpful guide lines in the definitions. But not always; which throws the maker back on his or her own resources in figuring out what category their quilt is best suited to. And, sometimes, voila! It’s an art quilt!
I’ve looked at a lot of quilt show categories on the judging table. It’s not uncommon for a category to have some quilts that seem to be more appropriately placed in that category than others. Sometimes it’s easy to find the ones that don’t belong….an applique quilt in a pieced category, for example. Technique based categories are usually easy. It’s pieced or it’s not. It’s applique or it’s not.
But the categories that are not technique based…..like art quilts…are trickier to figure out. There is more subjectivity on the part of the maker when they select a category for their quilt. Is this quilt Art, or not? How do you know?
Is it the materials or techniques used? No, I don't think so. The maker has an idea, or a curiosity, or a concern. In an effort to express it, they may choose materials and techniques for a lot of different reasons: because it's what they have on hand, or it's something they always wanted to try to work with, or they feel confident they can manipulate the materials successfully, or they need a challenge, or they feel the materials are beautiful, or they hope the technique will give them the kind of line/shape/effect they want.....it could go on and on.
The materials and techniques are tools in the maker’s hand, not what is driving the hand. They are essential to the development of the idea, but they are also secondary to it.
So now the maker has an idea etc. and they have chosen their materials and cut and sewn and manipulated them with their chosen technique/s. Is it Art yet?
And now for a story! A long-ish time ago, before judging and blogging and all that stuff, I was walking a show that included an exhibition of 9/11 memorial quilts. Some of them were calm and sad and gentle and some of them were angry, and loud and horrific. There were a couple of women standing next to me who were talking loudly and unhappily: “These quilts are awful! They shouldn’t hang these!” “These quilts make me sick! What were they thinking?” Nerves had definately been touched.
At the time, I was aware that those quilts had an impact on my time in that show, that they added a heaviness and lump-in-the-stomach kind of feeling to that day, very different from my usual happy/excited/interested reaction to walking a show.
It was only later, as a CJ candidate, struggling with the art quilt question, that I figured out what had happened. The makers of those quilts had taken something in themselves...their anger, their sorrow, their fear…and plopped those things right smack dab into the viewers….some of whom did not react well. (That’s OK, art doesn’t have to match the couch.)
In a way, this exhibit was a slam dunk for art quilting…9/11 was, and continues to be, a hot button issue that can get a rise out of just about anyone, so those quilts didn’t have to work too hard to achieve their end. As soon as they upset the first viewer they became art quilts (even if the maker and the first viewer was the same person.)
I believe that an art quilt is a form of communication. It is a message sent from the quiltmaker to the viewer. It can convey a feeling, an atmosphere, an idea, a question, an experience……anything. It can be happy, horrible, sad, intriguing, infuriating, humorous…anything. It’s something that happens between two human beings.
And like any other form of communication, it takes some effort from both sides of the interaction. The quiltmaker worked to send the message, the viewer needs to make an effort to receive. I’ve used the phrase ‘stand in its presence’ before, in describing part of my initial evaluation of a quilt, trying, if only briefly, to let the quilt/quiltmaker talk to me. I think that’s very important in dealing with art quilts. A judge has to allow the message in before making any determination about the success or failure of the art.
And, of course, being a judge, I’m hoping the message is couched in great workmanship.
Stacy Koehler, Secretary, NACQJ
NQA Certified Judge
Qualified to Evaluate Masterpiece Quilts
Stacy Koehler became an NQA Certified Judge in 2005. She is a current member of the National Association of Certified Quilt Judges and has served as the new organization's Secretary. She loves quilts and quilters and believes that a well-judged quilt can be a positive influence in its maker's individual development and contribute to the continued growth of the art of quiltmaking.