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Art quilts in history – Gerald Roy

Like all other arts and crafts forms, the aesthetic value of an individual work is determined by the viewer. Beginning in the Victorian era with crazy quilts, art quilts have been appreciated by many. Gerald Roy continues his thoughts on the progression of art quilts in history in this article.

The Victorian era (1837–1901) (see, Art Quilt Phenomenon article) would soon be followed by 36 of the most tumultuous years in American history. World War I began in 1914 and Prohibition in 1919.  Wall Street crashed in 1929 and was followed by The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 and drew the United States into World War II through 1945, when it dropped of two atomic bombs. Five years of peace ended with the Korean War in 1950.

When men went to war, women took on their jobs as well as their own. Women who left their homes for factories and cities to pursue professions usually abandoned their previous way of life, even if their husbands did return from war. Being paid and having a career leaves little chance that women will return to the home or the farm. Time-consuming activities are abandoned in favor of labor-saving devices and products that are mass produced in factories rather than one-of-a-kind ones made at home. Quilting was just one of the many activities that suffered.

Yet, quilt making was passed onto the succeeding generations where it was still important to the economy of a region or where it was deeply embedded in the heritage and tradition of a family or community. This was how many rural areas were especially influential in enabling many of our nation’s early crafts to survive times until there was renewed interest in them. Pride and appreciation in traditional American art, crafts, architecture and just about all things American was later reinforced by the positive attitudes and activities established during and between the World Wars when private, public, and governmental agencies got people back to work.

The quilt which won prizes at the World Fair in Chicago is presented to Mrs. Roosevelt by E.J. Condon. L.T. Conway views the ceremony. Both men are connected with a merchandising concern doing business on a nationwiide scale. The prize winning quilt was made by Margaret Rogers Caden of Lexington, KY

E.J. Condon presents the winning quilt to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933. L.T. Conway views the ceremony. Both men were connected with Sears, Roebuck & Co.. The prize winning quilt was made by Margaret Rogers Caden of Lexington, KY. – photo from the Library of Congress.

We saw this occur in 1939 when the Work Progress Administration (WPA) employed 8.5 million workers, not only to construct buildings, roads, bridges, and tunnels, but also to create music, paintings, and literary works for public purposes. No wonder the WPA was responsible for the founding of The National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The popularity of quilt making was accelerated when government, private, and corporate interests recognized the power of quilts to attract and engage huge audiences. With all the financial problems facing the country, the revival of quilt making and many other crafts was seen as a way of stimulating an economy that has suffered during the wars, and the depression.

Quilt by Aurora See Dyer for 1933 Sears National Quilt Contest

Quilt by Aurora See Dyer for 1933 Sears National Quilt Contest – photo courtesy of Merikay Waldvogel

By the late nineteenth century, country fairs across the nation included quilt contests and exhibits. A National Quilting Bee Contest was launched in 1911.  Little is known about the entries or the results.   The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of professionally designed patterns and quilt kits advertised and distributed nationally.  Companies such as Stearns & Foster Co., maker of Mountain Mist batting, suggested quilt shows and competitions to promote and encourage quiltmaking.  In 1932, The Eastern States Exposition at Storrowton, Massachusetts held the first national quilt contest. In 1933, the Sears, Roebuck and Co. organized a national quilt contest in conjunction with Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition.  Over 25,000 quilts were judged at local and regional levels.  At the final national round held at the Sears Pavilion, of 30 regional winners, a traditional quilt entered by Margaret Caden of Kentucky won the $1000 grand prize as well as the honor of the quilt being given to Eleanor Roosevelt. Then in 1939 and 1940, over $3,000 in prize money was awarded at contests organized in conjunction with the New York World’s Fair sponsored by department stores and Good Housekeeping Magazine.

Competition had always been a part of the history of quilt making; however, prize money of this proportion brought a whole new dimension to the effort.

These events changed the complexion of quilt making forever. Professional designers and artists from other disciplines adopted quilt making as their media of expression. Quilt making became a full-time career for many with an entrepreneurial spirit. Many of the quilts from this early contest era maintained their sizes so their intended use was still assumed to be as practical bedcovers. However, this idea soon faded when their intent was clearly recognized and they were intended to be seen as art.

Gerald E. Roy at Pilgrim/Roy

Gerald Roy

Gerald Roy is an educator, painter, quilt maker and author. He is a quilt appraiser certified by the National Quilters Society and an administrator of the AQS Quilt Appraisal Certification Program. His This Old Quilt column is featured in the Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting magazine. He currently serves on the following boards: New England Quilt Museum Lowell, Mass. – Acquisitions Board and the National Quilt Museum Paducah, Kentucky – Executive Board of Directors, National Advisory Board and Chair / Acquisitions Committee. He is the curator for Quilts & Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection opening at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on April 6. To learn more, visit his website, Pilgrim/Roy Antiques and Interiors

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Quilt National knows the way to San Jose

by Deborah Corsini, Curator, San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles

Heaven & Earth by Jane Sassaman, 1992, from the Marbaum Collection

Heaven & Earth by Jane Sassaman, 1992, from the Marbaum Collection

The 1970s were a stimulating time for fiber arts. Spurred on by the counter culture, many people looked to crafts traditions and developed a renewed appreciation of working with textiles.  Alternative schools located around the country such as Arrowmont, TN, Haystack, ME, and in Berkeley, CA—Pacific Basin School of Textile Arts (established in 1973) and Fiberworks Center for the Textile Arts (also established in 1973)—offered workshops in an exciting range of fiber techniques that ran the gamut of spinning, weaving, dyeing, basketry, tablet weaving, ikat, felting, quilting, and surface design. National magazines such as Fiberarts and Quilters Newsletter (founded in 1969 by Bonnie and George Leman) were chronicling the interest in textile arts. Yarn and quilt shops were opening, and supplies, classes, and information about different textile techniques, design, and craft was readily available.

San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles now in its 37th year

In 1977, a group of forward thinking women from the Santa Clara Valley Quilt Association (SCVQA) founded the American Museum of Quilts & Related Arts, which began its own remarkable journey as the first museum of its kind to recognize, appreciate, and preserve quilts and other textile arts. Now in its 37th year and in its spacious permanent home on South 1st Street, the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles (SJMQT) continues to celebrate and promote the art, creators, craft and history of quilts and textiles.

Nationally recognized and among a handful of institutions in the world that focus on quilts and textiles, the Museum has a significant historical chronicle of traditional and contemporary exhibitions and programs. It offers a substantial range of exhibitions that draw from the museum collection, the national and international textile art movements (including groundbreaking, themed group shows which focus on particular topics or techniques—Scrap Art, Primary Structures, Navajo Weaving, Milestones), and the work and legacy of individual artists. Mark Adams, Mary Balzer Buskirk, Radka Donnell, Caryl Bryer Fallert, Jean Ray Laury, Therese May, Judy Mathieson, Eleanor McCain, Ruth McDowell , Katie Pasquini Masopust, Mary Walker Phillips, Yvonne Porcella, Deidre Scherer, Joan Schulze, Lydia Van Gelder,  and Katherine Westphal, are  a few of the many artists that have exhibited at the Museum.

At this same time, a parallel experience was conceived in Athens, Ohio. The first Quilt National was inaugurated, and it too has grown and evolved during its 35 years. Establishing itself as the foremost and quintessential exhibit of contemporary art quilts, this ongoing biennial continues to showcase current trends and developments in the art quilt movement.

Over the years the Museum had the opportunity to bring portions of four Quilt National exhibits to the West coast.

Quilt National on view at the  San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles

Bow Tie by Sylvia Gegaregian

Bow Tie, by Sylvia Gegaregian

Viewing Quilt National is much anticipated and the shows from 2003, 2005, 2011 and now 2013 were well received. The current exhibition features 47 works by 48 artists. This year, we have added local
artist and Quilt National juror Judith Content’s quilt Cenote Azul to the mix. Like previous years the range of quilts and artistic expression is formidable, imaginative, and outstanding. From the classical Amish inspired Bow Tie by Sylvia Gegaregian to an updated still life by The Pixeladies (Deb Cashatt and Kris Sazaki), American Still Life: The Weight of the Nation, there is amazing technical virtuosity and meaning in each of these works. Once again, Quilt National features a rich diversification of style (abstract to representational) and shows us thematic content that is imbued with personal symbolism and contemporary ideas. We are pleased to host Quilt National as it fulfills the museum’s artistic goals of bringing shows to San Jose that have a broad appeal and demonstrate that quilts are a transformative and compelling medium of artistic expression.

Quilts from the Marbaum Collection of Hilary & Marvin Fletcher

In 2010 another connection to the Dairy Barn was forged. The Museum organized Cream of the Cloth: Quilts from the Marbaum Collection of Hilary & Marvin Fletcher that encompassed a 25-year survey of the art quilt movement and included work from previous Quilt National exhibits from 1985 – 2007. This private collection includes work by Michael James, Sue Benner, and Jane Sassaman. For over 20 years, Hilary Fletcher was a beloved and pivotal figure in the contemporary art quilt movement through her leadership of the Quilt National exhibitions. Under her advocacy, the biennial Quilt National exhibitions grew to be among the largest and most prestigious of contemporary art quilts in the world. She would certainly be pleased to know that pieces from her personal collection and Quilt National are still going strong and finding their way to San Jose.

Deborah CorsiniDeborah Corsini is the curator of the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles and in her seven year tenure has created a wide variety of historical and contemporary fiber art exhibitions. Some exhibition highlights include: Beyond Knitting:  Uncharted Stitches, Changing Landscapes: Contemporary Chinese Fiber Art, Hawaii’s Alfred Shaheen: Fabric to Fashion, Scrap Art, and Milestones: Textiles of Transition.

In her studio practice she focuses on tapestry and creates dynamic wedge weave and eccentric weave works. Her pieces are exhibited in national and international venues including the International Chinese Fiber Art Biennial and the American Tapestry Biennial.

Her love and appreciation of quilts came from her previous job as the Creative Director and fabric designer for P&B Textiles, a manufacturer of quilt fabrics. She is active in the textile community and an advocate for contemporary fiber art.

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The Art Quilt phenomenon – thoughts from Gerald Roy

“Art quilts” and the issues they raise have been around a lot longer than most people think.

Milliner - Hattie P. Dyer  1895  - Crazy Quilt - 7 North Temple Place, Boston, Mass. 70 “ x 70”

Milliner – Hattie P. Dyer 1895 – Crazy Quilt – 7 North Temple Place, Boston, Mass. 70 “ x 70”

During the last half of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution not only enabled a privileged few to acquire enormous fortunes, but also brought about a broader distribution of wealth to the American middle-class than ever before. With this new-found prosperity, many people built and furnished their homes in the latest of fashions. The Crazy quilt became a popular symbol of “having arrived.” No home was considered fashionable without one. Instead of being made as bedcovers, they adorned tables and upholstered furniture. The surface was highly decorated with embellishments through complex embroidery techniques, and even hand painted vignettes. That’s because the Crazy quilt was not made with the functional purpose as bedcovers, it’s no wonder it later became regarded as the first “art quilt.”

J.R.H.1886

JRH 1886 – 52” x 60” silk, satin, brocades and cotton lace.

 

It’s important to note that they technically aren’t quilts because most aren’t quilted. In addition, they did not evolve from traditional quilts. In fact, very few skilled traditional quilt makers ever made them. Having perfected their needlework skills and ability to accurately piece and appliqué, they did not find the style, materials, techniques, and embellishments of Crazy quilts appealing. Instead, most Crazy quilts were made by women who possessed minimal quilt making skills but had the time and the money to focus on beautifying and decorating their homes in the latest fashion. (Quite often this was evidenced through excess and often vulgar displays of wealth and poor taste.) Whereas bedcovers tend to get worn out, Crazy quilts more often survived the test of time. This factor coupled with their serving only an aesthetic purpose increased their likelihood of being regarded as objects of art.

The surface of Crazy Quilts are highly decorated with embellishments through complex embroidery techniques.

The surface of Crazy Quilts are highly decorated with embellishments through complex embroidery techniques. Detail of the Milliner – Hattie P. Dyer 1895 – Crazy Quilt

The controversy between art and utility has been ongoing. Because paintings serve no practical purpose and often are associated with art museums, there is a misconception that all paintings achieve art status. This in turn has led to another misconception – an object made for a practical and useful purpose is not art. Of course this premise is absurd because objects, regardless of purpose, are displayed in major art museums worldwide. Yet, even most quilts represented in museums were relegated to craft because of their association with their utilitarian purpose as bedcovers. Therefore, they generally were selected for their workmanship or historical significance and not because they were valued as works of art.

Unfortunately, this mindset has caused too many quilts to be evaluated exclusively by “The Two-Inch to Two-Foot Method,” which describes the distance from which they are scrutinized. Workmanship appears to have been the primary concern after which only its historical value was given consideration. I have often seen viewers with their noses practically touching a quilt saying, “Now this is art”

Whenever I see this occur I suggest, “Step away from the quilt and see that there’s far more to the quilt than only its technique.” This rarely occurs in art world, where most works of art undergo “The Twenty Paces Test.” Only after evaluating a work from this distance should the viewer go closer to examine technique. That’s why even utility quilts with less than masterpiece techniques can rise to “art” status.

G.R.  1886  - 56” x 58” silk, satin, velvets, brocades.

G.R. 1886 – 56” x 58” silk, satin, velvets, brocades.

Like all other arts and crafts forms, the aesthetic value of an individual work is determined by the viewer. Aesthetic response is personal and depends upon the ability of the maker to connect with the viewer on some level. Often the connection is made by sharing or stimulating a common experience, exposing the viewer to a new point of view, or reaching aesthetic sensibilities. As viewers we have the luxury of determining whether or not a work is art. The aspirations of the maker are irrelevant and no amount of their wishing can make it so. It is how others respond to a work that makes it “art.”

Gerald E. Roy at Pilgrim/Roy

Gerald Roy

Gerald Roy

Gerald Roy is an educator, painter, quilt maker and author. He is a quilt appraiser certified by the National Quilters Society and an administrator of the AQS Quilt Appraisal Certification Program. His This Old Quilt column is featured in the Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting magazine. He currently serves on the following boards: New England Quilt Museum Lowell, Mass. – Acquisitions Board and the National Quilt Museum Paducah, Kentucky – Executive Board of Directors, National Advisory Board and Chair / Acquisitions Committee. He is the curator for Quilts & Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection opening at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston on April 6. To learn more, visit his website, Pilgrim/Roy Antiques and Interiors

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Art Quilts — A primer

By Kathleen Loomis

YorkLittleFish_900px

Little Fish in a Big City by Kathy York, QN2011

Every exhibit of contemporary art quilts has its quintessential moment of confusion as somebody walks in the door, looks around in bewilderment, and announces, “But these aren’t quilts!” No doubt this person was expecting fabric constructions big enough to fit on a bed, perhaps with traditional block designs, maybe even quilted by hand. This newfangled stuff, which you would never put on your bed, just doesn’t fit the definition.

Looking at the wide variety of works that have been accepted in past Quilt National exhibits, you may share some of that confusion. The rules are pretty vague: “the work submitted must possess the basic structural characteristics of a quilt.” That generally means multiple layers of fabric, held together with stitching, with some kind of visual design on the layer facing the viewer.

There are as many ways to accomplish that objective as there are stirrings of the quilter’s imagination. Let’s take a whirlwind tour of some of the possibilities.

First, a visual design.

Traditional quilters generally relied on two methods to make their design. They might sew pieces of different fabric together in patterns (called piecing) or they might sew a piece of fabric, cut into a shape, on top of a base fabric (called applique).

Our Dads at War by Mary Ann Tipple, 2007

Our Dads at War by Mary Ann Tipple, QN2007

Contemporary quiltmakers still use those methods, but they also have a wide range of other ways to get a design onto the top layer of the quilt. They might draw onto a background or use printmaking techniques, with paint or dye. They might print photos or other images or text from a computer. They might allow bits of metal to rust onto their fabric or bury it in the garden for six months to become stained.

Where the traditional quiltmaker would sew her appliques by hand or machine, today’s quiltmakers might use glue, staples, snaps or Velcro. And the bits of stuff applied might be paper, wood, buttons, beads or metal in addition to fabric.

Earth and Soul by Pat Owoc

Earth and Soul “To Go” by Pat Owoc, QN1999

 Second, multiple layers.

The traditional quilt is made of a top, a back and a middle layer of batting (usually cotton or wool for warmth). Today’s quilt might use kinds of fabric never seen in traditional practice: netting, chiffon, felt, canvas, knits, nonwoven interfacings, landscape fabric, plastic. One or more of the layers might be paper, plastic, hardware cloth, screening, wood, even metal.

Third, stitching to hold the layers together.

Traditionally, quilts were held together with a dense network of hand-stitching, although many makers were thrilled to use the sewing machine as soon as that invention became available. Today’s quiltmakers might stitch by hand or machine, or they might use fasteners such as staples or rivets. Reprising the traditional whole cloth quilts, in many cases the stitching itself provides part or all of the visual design.

No longer intended for the bed, today’s contemporary quilt art has no prescribed size or shape (although Quilt National sets a maximum of 100 inches to a side). Most quilts are still two-dimensional and hang flat against the wall, but many have 3-D elements sewed into the fabric or applied to the surface, or are hung on armatures that extend from the wall.

With this vast range of possibilities, it may be either surprising or comforting that so many of the Quilt National works are still so traditional in form, if not in their visual imagery. Most contemporary quiltmakers choose to make their art in the quilt form because of their love of and respect for its long and rich heritage, and the very choice of this process is an integral part of the art.

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