Thursday, January 1, 2009

Technique? Or Art?

I recently read some criticism about art quilters: that they tend to be more interested in learning techniques than Art. But I’m not so sure that this is student driven, or that it’s a bad thing. I do feel that every option should be open, however, and that excellence be recognized. I have noticed in the last 3 years that I’ve been teaching workshops at various retreats and conferences that there is definitely an emphasis on learning specific techniques and on making a specific projects.

Michael James is reported to have caused considerable controversy by suggesting that quilters as a group are noticeably ignorant of contemporary art and design and that they prefer to learn specific techniques – ways of piecing, or f**ing (!) or appliqué or surface design. Why does this happen? Is this chance? The teachers’ choice? The students’ choice? Or the perception of the organizers as to what will be most popular?

In my own workshops I definitely focus on everyone (especially me!) learning more about art and the basic principles that aid in the composition of a successful design. ( Least you skeptics ask what a successful design is (!), I would define it operationally: What d’you want to communicate with your quilt? And – is that idea actually communicated? Do people want to look at it for a long time, and do they want to keep coming back to look at it? Does it reward their persistence?) Obviously you need to bear your audience in mind too – what would intrigue an Appalachian truck driver is not going to interest a New York art critic!

Which, by the way, is where some art quilters of note go wrong – they want to be collected by museums but at the same time sell to interior decorators – there’s probably some overlap in the taste of curators and designers, but I doubt it’s much.

I think it’s important to have a good basic knowledge of composition and design, and how to evaluate a potential design. It’s important to plan ahead, testing designs on paper, working first to be creative, then to evaluate. Right brain – left brain….a continual sequence. The emphasis of the workshops I teach is on the importance of learning more about art, and the thrill of taking the first steps on a long and fascinating journey. Those who take the class tell me this is the information they’ve been wanting – that they want solid art knowledge – they want to know why a piece is strong or weak and how to improve it. Many of the students are willing to put in the time necessary to learn more about colour, line, balance and so on.

There are, however, several reasons people take classes: some definitely do want to learn more about art, others are there for fun. There’s nothing wrong with being a “Sunday quilter”!! Others love to go every year and don’t really care which teacher they get because they meet up with friends and this is their annual holiday, others go because they want to go home with a finished piece plus the formula for making more such pieces. It isn’t always possible - or desirable – to try to satisfy all these needs within one class. I think it would be helpful to educate the people who set up the conferences to the need for all kinds of classes. I have actually had the experience of being told to keep the “art information” to a minimum and instead to encourage the people to make work as fast as they can so as to finish a piece before the end of the class!

Students have different agenda, and so do the organizers of the various conferences/guilds/retreats. I have met many students who sincerely want to improve their work and who recognize that there is a lot of work out there – frequently winning prizes – that is very weak. But I have met few organizers who feel that way. It actually really isn’t in their interests to do so. Think about it: if you are a business – d’you want to teach somebody something where they can make lots of things (and thus need to buy lots of supplies), or d’you want to set up a class where students are encouraged to slow down and think hard at each stage in the process……

The reason there has been so much emphasis on technique and very little attention paid to learning more about art is because the former sells more classes and products than the latter.

Also people have less and less time and are thus easily led into buying magazines or workshops that promise “fast and easy” results. I do not think it’s because there is anything lacking in Art Quiltmaking per se, nor in Art Quiltmakers! As long as those who want to learn about art within the context of quiltmaking can do so – all is well!!

And, if you have been, thanks for reading!!


PS for more abstract quilts based on the medieval buildings in my home town please visit my website!


Exuberantcolor/Wanda S Hanson said...

I think the technique thing is so popular because the student thinks if they learn your technique they will be able to automatically make quilts just like you. They don't understand that there is way more to it than that. Today's student is in a hurry.

Libby Fife said...

As usual, good post, so thank you. Most of the ladies I know and those who frequent the quilt shops in my area like to work from kits. The shops are geared towards this and not towards any kind of variation on the theme, so to speak. I think most traditional quilters are reassured by something recognizable.

I also think that knowing techniques provides a good starting foundation-different fusing options, applique methods and how to use different coloring mediums are all good starts. But what direction do you go in with your skills? You thoughts on learning composition techniques seem right on to me. Visiting museums, art galleries and quilt shows as well as self study and constructive feedback have been helpful for me at least.

For me anyway, I feel lucky that I have a desire to learn a little more-as much as I want in fact. Hopefully with planning my results will reflect this and my hobby will remain a fun thing:)

Barbara Strobel Lardon said...

I agree with comments that have been made but I must say I am guilty when I was new quilter of using kits, working traditionally, taking a class to learn how to use a product and then using it inappropriately just to use it. For me it was part of the growing process over the years. It made me more aware of what I was about vs other artists. It made me more skilled using my machine, it made me understand some of the new products that can give you an effect you are looking for, and it helped me learn more about fabric, thread, and so much more. Now as I venture out into my own style and my own techniques, some successful some not, I feel like I have done my homework first. The regret is more about the quilt world keeping me in this structured world too long. It was only when IQA brought their show to Chicago that I began to see journaling, art quilts and fabrics
that were eye opening. It made me start hunting the internet for more information, subscribing to magazines that specialized in innovative quilting, textiles and
design, and blogging.
This year for the first time I was so dissappointed in our local guild's quilt show. Not only were there many many repetitive quilts coming from a class all the quilters took together, but there were very few quilts quilted by the creator. Instead they were all shipped out to a longarm quilter who then did an overall pattern across the top, many times having nothing to do with the design on the quilt. I love the guild for its charity work, its bringing together of women, its information on new
products and new shops etc., but I have to look elsewhere for creativity. One place I go is to your blog. You have made me think so much more about each choice I make as I create. Thank you.

Jackie said...

Happy New Year to you, Elizabeth! I hope it's a productive one for you, don't see why it won't be with all you create and share. Thank you.

Having skipped traditional quilting almost totally in my development, I find that I could use some of those techniques now and then--hand applique, for example. I find those classes deadly and learn as I require on my own with the help of friends. I am pleased to see more and more handwork in your work and in your blog, that's heartening when sometimes art quilts seem to be less and less about quilting.

Regarding the profitability of art quilt supplies vs. traditional kits, etc., I think there are masses of items I'd love to try out but don't have access to. There are many things that could be sold at retreats besides kits, fabrics, and the usual supplies. There are pots of money waiting to be made. It would take some thought and organization, but it would be great fun to go to 'camp' with innovative supplies.

I imagine that I am building on the work of my grandmother; I don't want or need to re-create the wheel. There are constraints to quilting as there are with any art, but I choose this medium. It's up to me to develop as many skills as possible--hand applique as well as f**ing and to discern where each will fill the niche. So techniques have their place but the over-riding raison d'etre is art.

Kay Koeper Sorensen said...

You just have to somehow "sneak" art and design principles into technique classes!
Sometimes it is a tricky thing to do and some students aren't ready for it but it can be done.
And those people who "get it" will thank you later.

Connie in Alabama said...

Thank you for teaching art design and composition, instead of just focusing on technique. After having used other people's patterns and techniques for a long time, I took a beginning class with Nancy Crow one and a half years ago. Wow, was this difficult, having to compose on my own! After continuing to experiment with a few more small quilts, and finding that they didn't "work," I realized that I needed to learn design principles and practice them. I downloaded quite a bit of material on design and composition from the internet. Most of this past year has been for composition study. I have taken a painting class with composition principles, done a few small fused quilts with paper and fabric, and created some quick small compositions on a needlefelting machine. Nothing suitable for a show. Everything was done with a focus on practicing design principles. Now I'm back to quilting (after another class with Nancy Crow), and I'm much happier with the pieces I'm doing. I hope to be able to take one of your classes, but in the meantime I truly enjoy reading your blog and bringing your perspective to my struggles in creating art quilts.

Nina Marie said...

Count me as quilter/artist that has enough tools to fill her whole toolbox. I find learning a new technique only bogs down my creative process. Now I've taken 5 week long design classes and have learned new things in each one. Each teacher/artist had their own voice. The design classes always fill at QBL and they are a true blessing.

Margaret McCarthy Hunt said...

Speaking of new tools...flipping thru a catalog saw a clipper for the triangle things on patterns...thought theres one tool i can live without and WHAT will they try to sell the gadget oriented seamstress next??...
but as to your original post flipping thru a well known art quilt book a while back a friend and I realized that many of what were called "art quilts" hardly qualified for the name ...definitely some art classes needed...maybe they looked better in person? I know everyones taste in art is different but we had two B A s in art and one Masters in Art so it made me wonder if we were the only ones till i read this i need to get back to logging in 10000 hours with my watercolors and maybe some artquilts...maybe...wheres my knitting?!

Hilary said...

Sadly, it is possible to see a well designed quilt that has been badly constructed and by the same token a beautifully constructed quilt which has no design merit.
We need to have the tools for both aspects.
We need to understand how to construct a quilt. We need to know how to use those tools and which techniques to use to achieve our goals.
But we need to have the tools (knowledge) of good design to make a great piece of art. And that's where being aware of good art, contemporary or old masters, is desirable.
The other ingredient is content - it's what makes a quilt unique. If it comes from the heart, from personal knowledge and experience, if it reflects our honest feelings and opinions then I believe we are on our way to a great quilt.