Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thank You Michael James

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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  1. I've heard about this article too. I joined SDA to get the journal, but too late for the fall journal so I just ordered so I can read this article! So much of what I see in quilt magazines seems to be about the technique of the day, less about the idea or content. Such a big topic, more than I can express in a blog comment. I like strong opinions but sometimes get myself in trouble trying to express my own.

  2. Hi Terry,
    Thanks for posting this. You make some excellent points. Although I'm not in the "quilt world", I can see some similarities to the "encaustic world." The problem is that people get focused on the medium rather than on the individual works themselves. You're correct about content being vital and also emotional connection to the work.

    In the world of encaustic, Joanne Mattera has pointed out that considering yourself an "encaustic artist" limits your work and restricts it to that medium as if the "encaustic" is more important than the "artist." I think this is the same when people call themselves "textile artists" or "quilt artists."

    Your approach to working with textiles is inventive, innovative and focused on principles of design that apply to any medium. I think this is why your work is so successful. You transcend the boundaries of the medium.

    I am teaching a course at the next encaustic conference that will attempt to convey this difference between making a work that uses the medium and using the medium to make a work of art.

    Perhaps you will get negative feedback on what you have written here, but I applaud your willingness to take on what needs to be said and to get people thinking about approaching their work using the principles of good design coupled with a desire to convey some content.

    I was reading the website of Elisa D'Arrigo last night If you read some of the reviews of her work, you will see how art critics view the work of this artist who makes artworks using cloth and stitching. Perhaps this may give your readers some ideas for how to approach their work.

    Sorry for this long comment.

    Wishing you the best!

  3. You nailed it Terry, and I've reread the article Michael wrote to remind myself to pay attention to my own work

  4. Martha, Nancy and Karen, Thank you for commenting. I love long comments Nancy, especially when they are as meaty as yours. I just visited the website for Elisa D'Arrigo and I adore her work. I have printed out all the reviews and will be reading them later today. Thank you to all for caring and responding.

  5. You make a very good point, Terry. Entering quilted work in shows other than those restricted to media and inviting artists from other media to juror quilt shows is a fantastic way to share ideas and promote fiber constructions to all media.I think you see it happening more with printmaking and encaustic work already. We have to all get our heads out of the sand and be willing to cope with adversity in a more positive way! Thanks for the post.

  6. Thank you Tom for commenting. I've always felt art is art and shouldn't be catagorized but that is sometimes a hard concept to sell.

  7. Thanks for this post, Terry. I haven't had access to Michael's article and you did a great job of summarizing what all the to-do has been about on the lists.

    In looking at a lot of quilt artists' work over the last couple years, I am more and more drawn to work by Europeans. In fact, I am moving myself more toward a European sensibility in everything I do because it represents who I am becoming -- more culturally mature, less bound by convention, more willing to forge ahead on my own -- creatively and otherwise -- than hang out in groups or niches or whatever.

    Outside of the U.S there's an openness, a much broader view of the world and how we choose to represent it with our individual work. We're too hidebound and parochial here.

    Anyhow, I'm a bit on my soapbox this morning. But thanks again for this thought provoking post.

  8. Thank you Connie for your insights as to how you are approaching your art. I applaud you and any artists who pursue their work in an original and fresh way and still be aware that there are many paths to the ultimate goal.

  9. Why do you say that "younger artists will begin to filter into our medium and when they do the medium will be blown wide-open"? What makes youth the inevitable deciding factor in effective innovation? Absent the kind of supernova genius of someone like Mozart, it seems to me (without doing sufficient research to back up this impression) that the best work of many, perhaps most, artists is informed by maturity and experience. And the kind of supernova genius demonstrated by Mozart can hardly be a standard -- if it were the rest of us would have to shrivel under the house like the post-house-impact Witch of the East. Even Picasso said, "must everything be masterpiece?" Surely there's room for a range of styles and expressions. I agree that there are impediments inherent in art quilting (beginning, perhaps, with the misdirection inherent in the use of the word 'quilt') and that distinctions should be made between artists and hobbyists, but reflexive disdain should not be mistaken across the board for discernment.

  10. Thank you to Gerri and My croft for reading and commenting.

    My Croft, my reference to young artists has to do with fearlessness and a different set of objectives, standards and objectives that often comes with youth and with each succeeding generation. Mature artists are just as capable of innovation and certainly have life experience on their side, but may be more self-conscious in putting those innovations out for scrutiney.

    There will always be a range of styles, expression, originality and achievement. There is always a range in everything. My article is really a call to myself and others to acknowledge what they know deepest in their creative selves and act on that knowledge.

  11. Maybe I should introduce you to some of the people (primarily women) I know who are now "old enough" to no longer care about being young enough, thin enough, rich enough, whatever enough -- and find it very freeing. There's a good deal of fearlessness and putting themselves out there among them. By contrast, I often found my undergraduates (at NYU -- an ambitious and fairly sophisticated sample) surprisingly parochial and reticent.

    I just get my back up about categories. They can be helpful, but not universally so.


  12. I would like to post this anonymously. Northeast region of SDA-RI, MA just had a deadline for competition. The only official judge was Jane Dunnewold. Although, I love her work and her eye, I and many others were unhappy about this because she was the only judge and is very specific in her likes and dislikes of surface design, and a few of the people in her master class entered. We were told there would be others reviewing the selection process as well, but they would be entering pieces into the competition to be judged as well. Somehow this didn't sit well . Having at least 3 judges with different backgrounds would judge the art for the art itself. I know it is naive to think even 3 judges would be unbiased but it would form the basis for a fairer competition.

    Judges outside of surface design/quilting can only enhance our art and aid our work for they are not familiar with work by specific designers. I sometimes imagine judges reviewing digital images together, and a work comes up that is obviously by a "known" artist whose series is recognizable. The judges turn to each other, or mark on their ballets- oh we must include the work by this artist. She has gotten into other major competitions so we don't want to exclude her. Has this thought never crossed a judge's mind? Only when said artist submits something completely unrecognizable as her work, can the work be judged by its merits alone. We all form opinions, have artists whose work we like better than others, we all know it is dependent on the combination of jurors, as well as their likes and dislikes.

    I don't think it matters if you are young or old, seasoned artist or just starting. You can not make your best work as long as you are making work just to get in competitions. Who are you being true to? What are you working towards?
    Until you are fearless in your approach in making art by finding your own voice, stop taking those workshops. Until you are sure you are creating art for no one else other than yourself, can you know who you are as an artist.
    I thought Michael's article was wonderful, valid, and as he stated these were HIS thoughts and opinions. I applaud him for always speaking/writing his mind, and if it starts a dialog among ourselves, then it served his purpose.

  13. I want to thank Anonymous and Melanie for your obviously thoughtful and heart felt comments.

    Melanie, I too have friends who have reached a point in their lives where they are free of much of the baggage of "what is expected". It isn't a foreign concept to me. Actually, that is the spirit I would love to see more of in shows. Perhaps it won't come from "young artists" but I think it might.

    To Anonoymous. The scenario you described for the show in RI was ripe for disaster from the beginning. I don't know what to say except it doesn't sound well thought out and I'm surprised anyone would put themselves in the position of doing a jury that way.

    I have heard of open juries where those whose work is being reviewed can sit in. That sounds great for the observers and un-nerving for the jurors but it would certainly put a totally different spin on things.

    I loved your last paragraph relating to making your own work.

    Thank you again to you both and this exchange.

  14. Terry, this is a great article and I liked your point about the importance of more quilt artists writing about their work. That would make a difference. It was interesting too to see what you made of the "critique" and how you were able to use it as inspiration.

    The results from the workshop industry reminded me of a thought from Robert Fritz on the creative process. He said that people who are workshop junkies and never seem to progress are addicted to beginning energy. They don't finish the remaining stages of the creative process. I think it's a common problem among perfectionists.

    Just had to say, the lack of innovation is not a problem you have. Your work is unique! Love it! and love the way you're looking at the medium with curiosity as to what could be.

  15. Terry
    Ahhh, Michael James, always makes people sit up and take notice. His previous articles from 5 or 6 years ago are sill fodder for deep discussion in the quilt world. Such as his call to quit looking at other quilts for inspiration and go to museums and art shows for inspiration, but there are still quilters who have the narrow focus "just quilts".
    That being said I think we also need to comment on quilt jurors who only know the quilt world and do not pick work that is "out there". Perhaps SDA or other groups need to have classes or symposiums to educate the jurors.
    I think Quilt National has gone a little soft in the "really-new-makes-you-think" category. Indeed the political commentary quilts have one view, the left view, that are acceptable to display. Have we ever seen a Right to Life quilt or a Family Values quilt? I bet there are some but they are not juried in or perhaps the makers feel it isn't worth the inevitable rejection of entering. Entering quilt shows is a step into the world of rejection and after many rejections people have a tendency to give up.
    I really think we have to enter the real art world if we want to make our mark as artists not quilters. I have found the shows that revolve around crafts in general to be more well rounded with many points of view and some stunning innovative work that will make you leave with thoughts of pushing your own work further along.
    These are just my thoughts but I think Michael James does raise many valid points, our discomfort with them makes you realize that his views have validity.
    Mary Ann

  16. Shayla and Mary Ann, Thank you both for your observations and comments. There are so many topics that could be taken forward that it's hard to find a place to start. I found your comment, Shayla, about beginner energy to fascinating. Mary Ann, I feel there needs to be a much more open door policy about what the various exhibitions are really looking for which might clarify some of the decisions made by jurors. I am convinced that 99% of the decisions are made with the sincere and honorable intentions but often it is a case of comparing apples and oranges.....both nice but not the same.

  17. Terry,
    I just entered a competitive blind-juried competition for fellowship awards in my county. The grantor organization brought in jurors from outside my state to review craft, visual, media and design entries. The adjudication process was open to the public and streamed live via the internet.
    It was refreshing to listen to what 7 jurors had to say about my work without knowing me. While I didn't receive one of the 20 coveted fellowships, I received the gift of hearing what 7 independent and well-respected panelists had to say about my work. And there was not one mention of "craft" while referring to my work. It was all about the concept, mark-making, and whether I've pushed it far enough to be considered "Fellowship worthy".

    They had previewed all entries 6 weeks prior to the open adjudication having read artists' statements and intent for grant monies.

    This type of evaluation was highly instructive and it brought to light issues that some fiber artists don't pay attention to. i.e. what is happening in the art world itself.
    If you want to compete in juried exhibitions, then education yourself and know what's going on in the art world.

    If you read "Art in America" magazine for instance, you'll learn that conceptual art is huge these days and Content is ALWAYs important.

    That said, I think that if Quilt Artists want to be considered Artists, then they should get into the real art world and stop making excuses for their chosen medium and do something amazing, innovative, of-the-moment, and relevant.

    Terry, I consider you to be one of only a select few in this country who are pushing fiber art into fine art. In fact, I think you've achieved it.

    Right on Michael James!
    Let's all follow our muse.

    P.S. I agree w/MaryAnn and if she lived in my county, I think she would have been selected to receive a $20,000.00 grant.

    BTW, my husband is one of the awardees.

    Keep up this fine writing Terry.

  18. Christine, Thank you so much for sharing your experience AND Congratulations to your husband on being selected for this significiant grant! WOW!!

    I have been told about awards/grants awarded from the Ohio Arts Council (may not be the right name or group) being choosen via an open jury as you described and I applaud this structure. It simply makes the entire program more instructive as well as prestigious for those who receive the grants/awards.

    I appreciate your mention of "Art in America" as well and your council to quilt makers to get informed and make relevant work. This is spot on advice. I love the idea of pushing our work to a place where it is immediately recognized as the Art we want it to be.

    Thank you also for your very generous praise of my work.

  19. To Annonymous
    I too was not happy with the MA RI Jury choice. I too was told there would be others involved and they indeed turned out to be several committee members and Jane's master class students. 38 members submitted 102 pieces, 42 were accepted. Of the 42 pieces 29 artists were listed as the exhibitionists. All of Jane's students pieces were accepted.
    Go figure. A valuable lesson learned here.

  20. Appearances do matter. Trust is a major component in the structure of a juried show. There is trust that a qualified juror has been selected, trust that your work will be presented and reviewed in the best possible manner (the quality of your slides inpacts this) and trust that the guidelines as stated in the prospectus will be followed. The artists must also trust that the juror will be able to make decisions based only on the quality of the work and how it fits into the criteria of the show. While all of these requirements may have been fulfilled in the show you reference, the appearance otherwise is unfortunate and detemental to all involved.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

  21. I just found your blog and am delighted. I have just been reading when I can. I love your artist interviews. Insightful. This article, though older now since I am posting, still quite relevant. I remember one article he wrote, forget where, when he stated that quilters have a soft cushy world and should try to get out in the 'real' art world. Get it going now! I often submit work to other venues. Fiber is ART. No matter what the medium it is WHAT you do with it that counts.

  22. Thank you Wen. Fiber is ART and it is showing up in more and more diverse places all the time!