I’ve found it difficult when talking to non-quilters to explain the difference between an art quilt that might win Quilt National and one that might win in the Art Quilt category at IQA or AQS shows. The term “art quilt” covers so many different possibilities that I thought it would be interesting to see if any specific directions could be noted within the art quilt world.
Big quilt shows mainly categorize quilts by size – which I’ve always thought kind of weird – I suppose size does matter?? Apparently they would think so! But in the Art world as a whole size is not of much account…you never hear of the School of Small paintings! The Mona Lisa is arguably one of the most famous paintings in the world and is actually quite small.
A categorization system could not be one dimensional for quilts could be classified on different variables. For example you could have a landscape that was realistic, or a landscape that was imagined or distorted. You could have a small blue quilt, a large blue one etc. Perhaps a system that relates to the original concept would make sense.
There are very traditional quilts that are more or less copies of old pieced block patterns in modern materials. Then there are traditional quilts that manipulate the old block patterns : Jinny Beyer was one of the first to start a whole movement like this. She manipulated the old blocks into different shapes like diamond or rhomboids, she added in lines and took out lines, but her starting point was always the traditional block. Nancy Halpern also worked from the traditional block but pushed it further, sectioning it and repeating sections, or devising new one-patch shapes – not just the traditional square or triangle but endless tesselating quadrilaterals! After her, Sylvia Einstein also worked with the traditional block but manipulated color, value and texture so expertly that it gave the quilt a fresh dynamic look that was unexpected and dramatic. Following from that Nelda Warkentin took the same square block but updated it with her rich surface design and layering techniques.
And so we can see The Block gradually moving away from the traditional pattern but still bearing block characteristics of a specific repeated shape, which is sometimes varied in size.
The Block that Wasn’t: Natural or spontaneous arrangements
The Shape Quilt.
The block originally was an arrangement of shapes within a grid however loosely defined. But when the African American quilters of Oakland and people like Anna Williams and Rosie Lee Tompkins developed highly imaginative variations on the original patterns by dropping some of the “rules” that over time had solidified – things like straight lines, matching colours, symmetry etc, the grid itself was often also dropped. This opened up many possibilities for arranging the myriad different shapes which can be cut from fabric into interesting, pleasing compositions. Parallel loosening of traditional compositional arrangments were also seen in other fields. For example, in flower arranging..instead of the old pyramidal placement of blooms, with symmetry and balance considered paramount, now many flower arrangers pick up the blooms loosely in their hands, shuffle them briefly then insert into a vase for a “natural” look. The “natural” look also appeared in fashion – it used to be that you didn’t wear a formal jacket with a workaday garment like jeans – now that is hot! Never let your underwear show, now it’s on the outside!
Traditional image quilts were frequently floral, but local scenes were often described in cloth. This type of quilt also has persisted and changed over time. As in the art world there are flowers, landscapes, animal scenes, cityscapes, seascapes, portraits, still lifes and illustrations. This type of work has changed similarly though to a lesser extent than the block quilt. The AQS type of image quilt is probably more realistically and tightly conceived than the QN type of image quilt which may be more painterly, more impressionistic. The Art Quilter is concerned, as is the painter, with the more formal aspects of her composition: unity/tension/rhythm etc – translating the imagery rather than attempting to reproduce it. Though I do feel that the advent of the digital print is a some retrograde step for this type of work. A photograph on fabric is still a photograph, and probably a less good one because fabric is coarser than most photographic paper.
Embellished or Surface Texture Quilts
Traditional embellished quilts were the embroidered crazy quilts so popular in the over fussy over decorated Victorian era. Today we see a full range of quilts that are just about the surface and nothing but the surface: about beads, about stitching, about a specific surface design process like discharge. Then there are quilts that have a different beginning: block, shape or image where the quilter has enhanced (0r tried to enhance!) the quilt with some surface manipulation. the best of these quilts are those where the basic design and the embellishment are completely married together to form a unified whole. The quilts of Dorothy Caldwell inspired by the traditional kantha cloths of India where stitch and shape come together to create the main theme or idea are a wonderful example of this.
All of the above categories (and there may be many more I’m just not bringing to mind – please add them in the comments!) can be made in a Very traditional way, a Very Non-traditional way and somewhere in the middle. The goals of each position differ, but the same categories occur in both traditional and contemporary.
So, how do I answer my own question of how to tell the difference between an AQS quilt and a QN one? I think it is more in how you approach the task, and how you carry it out rather than in the basic category ofquilt. How much are you guided by the “rules”, how much d’you want the unexpected to happen? D’you want to create something totally unusual? Or d’you conceive of a fresh look at an old idea?
so, if you have been, thanks for reading! Elizabeth