To Quilt . . . or Not

Being a quilter does not give me a strong standing in the art world. When I started quilting in the 90s, “quilt art” was the hot, new thing. Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof had made a valiant attempt to bridge the gap between art and craft with their exhibition of Amish quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971 generating an upsurge of enthusiasm for the art form, and many artists hopped on the wave to take advantage of the unexplored territory. Almost 50 years later, however, that show has been mostly forgotten, and those who have fought the good fight to elevate the status of quilts—Nancy Crow, Michael James, Jan Myers-Newbury, Terrie Mangat, and Pauline Burbidge to name just a tiny few—have not changed many minds.

Quilts may be beloved as heirlooms, but generally they’re not well respected. Anecdotal cases in point:

  • On a semi-recent episode (that I wish I could find) of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!,” a guest called from Paducah, Kentucky. The host, Peter Sagal, asked for more information about her hometown, and she mentioned the National Quilt Museum. He was incredulous. To paraphrase his gasps of amazement and dismissive comments: “A museum? Devoted to quilts?? That’s hilarious!”
  • I’ve often heard quilters say that when someone has been interested in commissioning a quilt from them, they’ve had to reply, “You wouldn’t want to pay what I would charge.” The sad truth is that the final product is generally worth less to the consumer than the value of the quilter’s time and skill.
  • I’m aware of a quilt artist who was told by a gallery owner that if she were a painter, he would represent her, but as she worked in thread and fabric, he wasn’t interested.
  • Some galleries are now asking artists who quilt to frame their work, ostensibly to make the quilts appear art-ier and more attractive to collectors.
  • In episode 132 of “The Jealous Curator” podcast, Danielle Krysa, who has a good handle on the art world, introduced her guest, Terrence Payne, by saying that he has “put his oil pastels down for just a minute to make—wait for it—quilts! Yes, quilts!” She continues, “I’ve written about plenty of women who blur the line between fine art and craft with their material choices, but I honestly can’t think of one male artist. I’m sure there are some, but off-hand, none jump to mind.” If quilts were more accepted and mainstream, artists like Aaron McIntosh or Shawn Quinlan wouldn’t be so far off the radar.

(Side notes: I love Danielle Krysa and her wonderful books, podcast, collages, and blog. She’s done a great service to artists. And if you want to see more work by men who quilt, you can check out these semi-recent exhibits: “Man-Made” at the Asheville Art Museum and “Ambiguity and Enigma” by Michael James at the International Quilt Study Center.)

The art scales have never fully tipped in favor of quilts, and I don’t fully understand the prejudice. Is the concept of quilt-as-art still too young? Are we still fighting a battle to make “women’s work” relevant? Is it a concern about the relative fragility of textiles? To judge a work—any work—simply by the material with which it was made seems petty to me, but here we are. Quilting is still a fringe medium, and the quilt world remains insular—quilters making quilts for other quilters. It may be that artists who might have worked with quilts have seen that the medium hasn’t gained any traction despite the best efforts of the trail blazers, and they’ve decided that they’d be playing to an empty house if they stepped into that arena. For purely economic reasons, they’ve chosen to work in other areas. The fish are moving to other ponds, so the quilt pond is shrinking, which makes it even less relevant. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not opposed to defecting to a different medium myself, but quilts are what I love and know, so for the moment, I’m going to dive in and make the best of it.