Just recently I was scanning a message board for artists who work in the quilt medium and I began to find messages relating to an article in the Fall 2010 edition of Surface Design Journal. The title of the article was THE ART QUILT: A CRITICAL PERSPECTIVE and it was written by Michael James.
I do not know Michael James but I know his work and his reputation for speaking his mind and for being a good but tough teacher. I was intrigued by the tone of some of the email messages on the message board and I made a point of securing a copy of this magazine so I could read the article. I just recently joined the Surface Design Association and had missed receiving that issue of the journal.
When the magazine arrived I went right to my studio and read the article. It was only a few pages long but what a delight! In the first paragraph James states that the article is an opinion piece and declares that as such it is subjective but informed by "training and education, experience, culture, and other factors." He further outlines what a critique is, what it involves and how it generally concludes.
I was appreiative of his statement in regards to how he choose the work he discussed in the article. He used the phrase in "my judgement" and called the work good - meaning that is was successful in meeting his criteria for what good work was to him. He stated that for him "good/successful work was: thoughtful and/or inventive, demonstrates seriousness of purpose, and seems to arise from a process of inquiry that is both intellectual and emotional."
The author continues by discussing the work of several artists working in fiber, outlining their approach and the reasons he is presenting them as examples of good work. There were several of the artists whose he worte about that are personal favorites of mine and several more who were included in an additional list he included in the article of aritsts he felt were making excellent work. There were also names not included on the list that surprised me but this was Michael's personal list and so it represented his choices. Midway through the article I found the paragraph that I think is what many people found upsetting.
James makes his personal observation that most of the out-of-the-box thinking is being expressed by artists outside the US. He ponders if this is due to our "propensity to bond" with those of like mind and questions the results of what he calls the "workshop industry" and the "seen it before" shows like Quilt National. OK, now I see why this is upsetting. But wait!
For me, Michael James is expressing something I have heard many people say and something I myself have felt. Not specifically about one show but many shows. I agree with him that there are shows that are just plain disappointing and it is also true that many people go to class after class but never seem to develop anything unique.
Why would either of these things be true? Well, as to the quality of the shows I think we are still going through a clarification or formulation of what we are making. Traditional quilts have a relatively long history while the approach we call studio quilts have been recognized perhaps only 50 years.
As to why people go to so many workshops I think has something to do with the fact that the majority of people working in our field do not have an art education even thought they are well educated. I feel most of the workshop attendees are seeking to improve their work and are determined, dedicated and motivated to learn all they can to get to the best work they can make. I have an art education but it took me years to lay aside the mental imagery of traditional quilts to get to more original work. I'm still working on that. Yes, there are those who run from one class to another "trying on" the latest fad but that is a dead-end path just as it is in any field.
James article made me think of two topics of conversation that I hear and participate in on a regular basis. One is the topic of "why isn't our work shown in more museums - galleries- etc. and the other is "why are we not attracting more young artists" to our field.
I believe the answer to the museum issue is that much of our work is presented as being strictly about the visual experience and the "content" is seldom discussed. My personal belief is that content is always there....whether you acknowledge it or not and whether you understand it or not and we need to write more about our work and the work of others who are making good work. We need to encourage work that is challenging and we need to challenge ourselves! We need to be more fearless in what we try and how we work. We need to "face off" with the disappointment of not getting into every show we enter. We need to enter shows other than "quilt" shows. We need to look at work other than quilts!!! We need to read and talk and challenge each other. I still hear jokes about the rules of the "quilt police" but that reference shouldn't ever be made if you are making art.
I visited a well known and highly respected show on the west coast a couple of years ago with a young man who is involved in creative technology and has an art degree from a well respected art school. I asked him what he thought about the show as he wasn't showing much enthuasium. He just shrugged and said " Well, there just isn't anything here that's cutting edge." He was right.
I don't think we have to wire our work to computers (althought I saw a work just this year which did incorporate a computer), we don't have to start working in spaceage plastic (but that might be interesting), but I believe we do need to dig a lot harder and a lot deeper to find a place from which to work. If we do that, and we are successful in changing the image people have when the word "quilt" is spoken, younger artists will begin to filter into our medium and when they do the medium will be blown wide-open!
I want to encourage organizations that sponsor competitive exhibitions to include jurors from outside the quilt establishment. Jurors from outside the quilt world will bring a fresh vision and a fresh voice to the shows. They will likely make some decisions that we won't like or agree with but I've never heard of a show that made everyone happy. At the very least this would be a wonderful opportunity to present work to a new audience and and broaden the appreciation of the work that is being made.
So thank you Michael James. Thank you for venturing to speak your truth and for sharing your thoughts and your vision.
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