The One About Quilts

This is a piece I finished recently, and it's pretty obviously about making quilts. Before you read on, leave a comment and let me know what your initial thoughts are when seeing this!

Regardless of what I was thinking when putting this together, my real purpose is to start a conversation.

At first the idea for "QUILT$" was mostly about the commercialization and corporatization of the quilt making process. I was thinking about how the marketing of quilt making products, tools, and techniques seems to have encroached on my creative process; how I am subject to sewing/quilting/crafting ads whenever I'm online, to seeing soft-marketing through  brand ambassadorships, through heavy use of branding when creative folks share work online via @mentions and #tags.

But as I began making, I realized it was about so much more. It wasn't lost on everyone when I shared pics of this piece on Instagram that the word repeated three times is inspired by those "GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS" signs (think Vegas, baby) objectifying women. I can personally speak to being disregarded as an artist because I am a woman, from a high school art teacher telling me I'd definitely get all "A's"  if I wore more miniskirts - to a university professor dismissing my artwork as "department store window display" and telling me I might be better served marrying the right man or switching majors.

Quilting has, for the most part, been the dominion of women. I feel this connection deeply, a thread going back through the quilt-making women that came before me, as well as the constraints of being judged and restricted by my gender. My generation grew up watching endless reruns of Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, movies like How to Marry a Millionaire, Singing in the Rain, any Elvis movie (ugh!) and more, all burning the image of the Ideal American Woman into our adolescent minds.

My generation also endured countless music videos portraying women as, well, pretty much sexy accessories. Just watch about an hour of 80's videos and see for yourself.

Also on my mind was the problematic dual-view of quilts as both art (judged on artistic merits of shape, line, balance, overall composition, use of materials, etc.) and in the crafting tradition of quilts (judged through the lense of quilt making techniques like binding, patchwork, sewing techniques, etc).

In the tradition of art exhibits, shows, and competitions, work is original. Artists are creating work that may be inspired by other artists, but the work is brand new, and their own creation (mostly, but let's not bring the tradition of outsourced creativity into this one). Art is usually judged on merits like composition, use of line & shape, use of dark & light, use of materials, the communicated message or meaning, etc. Feedback given to artists can help with honing skills, with better communicating visually, and can help an artist to grow and explore new ways of creating.

In the tradition of quilt shows, quilts are made either following another person's designs or patterns (which can include explicit instructions for all the materials to be used, including fabric choices), can be based on another person's original design (derivative), or can be original works. Because judging includes works made following other people's instructions, merits such as overall composition or use of pattern or fabrics doesn't really apply equally. So, along with judging some original quilt works compositionally, quilts can be heavily judged on mastery of skills and specific techniques, and possibly include adherence to established practices. Feedback from judges can help quilt makers fine-tune skills, work harder to learn specific techniques, but may not do much to help people grow beyond established quilt making practices.

Personally, I make a distinction between my work that is art (made to be hung up and seen, and NOT made to be used as a blanket), and my work that is quilting, made to wrap and cuddle a human being. I love having my work seen by a wider audience, and getting in a quilt show is a great way for me to reach people with my art. However, it means that I have my work judged as a quilt, which I'd rather not do because I don't feel the feedback regarding my adherence to specific quilt making techniques makes me a better artist. It's a double-edged sword I'm willing to live with.

I really made this piece to fit my design board in my "sewing lounge" and it looks perfect in this spot. And, seeing as how this quilt was just rejected for the QuiltCon 2022 show, it's here to stay.

Tell me what this piece makes you think about, or tell me about an experience you've had with your personal art or quilt work.


Anonymous said…
This is such a (fiercely) intelligent and provocative essay, and I thank you for writing it. I lurk frequently on your blog — even though my own foray into actual quilt-making is rudimentary at best, I love quilts (and sewing machines themselves, sigh) and the online quilting community, and I find your work, to say nothing of your thoughts about your work and about the creative process generally, to be stimulating and original. Very grateful to have read this, and hope you will continue to share your opinions; they are valuable and important. Many thanks.
Erika Mulvenna said…
Hey @anonymous, I want to thank you so much for commenting! It sounds like you may be a fellow sewing machine collector (can you REALLY have too many?), and I appreciate your thoughts. Cheers - Erika

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