The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
But Is It Art?
About a month ago, I began graduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) to pursue my MFA in Writing.
I didn’t apply to any other university: It was SAIC or nothing. This is because the school strongly encourages working across artistic disciplines. The sculpture students are encouraged to take courses in the fashion department, the writing students (that’s me!) are encouraged to take classes in the textile department, and so on.
Quilt Barn: If a quilt is painted, is it art? Barn near Scio, Ohio. Photo: Wikipedia.
They had me at “textile.”
I’m finding that in art school, there’s a lot of talk about art. When I tell fellow students about my work — yes, I’m finally allowed to call my writing and quilting “my work,” which I think is part of what I’m paying for— everyone gets very excited because we can have the “Is a quilt
It’s not a new topic.
When the Whitney Museum of American Art installed the watershed “Abstract Design In American Quilts” exhibit in 1971, this conversation got louder than it had ever been. For the first time in history, American patchwork quilts were hung on the walls of a museum as art objects. But were they art?
Quilts had hung on the walls of state fair pavilions, certainly, and small numbers of quilts have been held in major museum collections, but until Jonathan Holstein and Gail Van der Hoof brought “Abstract” to New York City that year, quilts weren’t art: they were just
When the New York Times critics lauded the exhibit as the best art show in New York in ten years, plenty of people (read: old white guys) scoffed. The quilts were nice looking, sure, but art? Leave that to Josef Albers and Cy Twombly (read: old white guys.)
When the Studio/Art quilters exploded in numbers and work in the 1980s, the conversation about quilts being art — or not —heated up. Now, quilts weren’t just being taken off the bed and put on the walls, they were being made for the walls. (Nancy Crow would flip if Little Cousin Tommy tried to use Our Lady of Guadalupe for a binkie.)
Albers: I’ll take Heather Jones any day. Josef Albers, Homage to the Square, 1965.
The quilts of the early Studio/Art movement were set apart from more traditional quilts because they were emotionally charged, personal, political. Some were also just funny (I’m thinking of so much by Jean Ray Laury.) Think about it: How many funny quilts were there before the 1980s? We’re not counting mismatched borders.
And that’s key for the students in my program when we discuss whether or not a quilt is art. When an object is made to express an intentionally deeper meaning, or some implied irony, or is emotionally charged on purpose in context, it enters the world of art. A basic, “workaday” patchwork quilt falls more into the world of “craft,” one student suggested.
“But what if that simple nine-patch made in 1908 was made by a woman to express the grief of her late husband?” I said. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky; I’m just genuinely interested. “Why isn’t that art? Maybe nobody cared enough to recognize what she was doing with the quilt. And if she poured her grief into the dark colors of the quilt and stitched it to help her get over the death, doesn’t that imply meaning?”
This isn’t even approaching the question of what makes art “good.”
But by that time, we had reached the counter at Starbucks and, like countless other graduate school conversations, we were distracted by the deep need for coffee.
San Jose Museum: Quilts on the walls! What do we do??? “Collecting New York Beauty Quilts: Bill Volckening's Passion" exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, 2013. Image: Wikipedia.
Entire theses have been written on whether or not a quilt — any quilt — is art. Museum curators dedicate their lives to these kinds of questions. Scholars who have way, way more school than I do at this point look at the art vs. craft concept with intelligence and passion, thank goodness.
It’s been just over a month, but I have learned more about the craft (there’s that word again) of writing and how it relates to my quilt making than I have in years of doing both, side by side, on my own.
But the best part, the part I think I’m paying for, is the conversation.