Studio Arts Quilt Associates - A History of the Art Quilt
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A History of the Art Quilt

Excerpted from the book
The Art Quilt by Robert Shaw

The art quilt grew out of the great quilt revival that began in the 1960s and continues undiminished to the present day. Interest in handcrafts of all kinds was a strong element of the youth rebellion of the 1960s, as young people across the country sought alternatives to a society they perceived as spiritually bankrupt and morally corrupt. Back-to-the-landers sought meaning in the simpler lifestyles of early America, and taught themselves the traditional nineteenth-century arts that had been rejected by their parents and grandparents as hopelessly old-fashioned. They rediscovered and elevated neglected older craftspeople who still remembered how to make things by hand, and where the craftspeople were unavailable, taught themselves by direct study of surviving objects or long out-of-print how-to books.

Interest in quilts and quiltmaking exploded in the years leading up to the Bicentennial, as women reclaimed a heritage that had been largely lost in the profound societal changes that followed World War II. Feminist historians began to reexamine the role of women in American society and art and pointed with great pride to the forgotten work of their foremothers. For the first time, quilts were read as social documents, embodying the history and values of their otherwise silent makers. Old quilts became collector's items, valued for their craftsmanship, design, and history, and thousands of women (and a few men) began to learn how to make quilts again. Many recalled a grandmother or other relative who had quilted, and also found in quiltmaking a way of discovering their personal and family roots as well as a collective past.

At least initially, most of these new quilters were content to recreate the patterns invented by their nineteenth-century predecessors, both as a means of learning the craft of quiltmaking and as a way of reconnecting with its history and traditions. In his book The Quiltmaker's Handbook ,Michael James recalled his "apprenticeship" this way: "My initial exploration of the medium revolved around the making of countless copies of traditional blocks as well as several small quilts in traditional patterns and finally two large, traditional quilts." James's experience was typical of most would-be quilt designers; although he had trained at art school as a painter, he still had to master the craft of his new medium before he could create his own original designs, and that learning took time and diligent study.

Although non-traditional approaches to quiltmaking did not receive much attention until the mid-1970s, a handful of pioneering artists and craftspeople began experimenting with modern designs for quilts in the 1950s and 1960s. The most prominent and influential of these early modern quiltmakers was Jean Ray Laury , an academically trained artist and designer who encouraged women to create their own new designs based on their own experiences, surroundings, and ideas rather than traditional patterns.

Now in her late sixties, Laury is still very active today and is seen as the mother of the art quilt by many contemporary artists. She made her first full-sized quilt in 1956 as part of a masters degree project in art at Stanford University . After receiving favorable responses to her work from her professor as well as at regional craft and quilt exhibitions, Laury entered the quilt in the 1958 Eastern States Exposition , where it attracted the attention of Roxa Wright, then needlework editor for House Beautiful magazine. Wright later wrote of the experience: "In over twenty years as a needlework editor, I have seen countless quilts and helped to judge many quilt exhibitions. It was at such an exhibition, about a decade ago, that I saw Jean Laury's first quilt--a delightful, completely unorthodox quilt depicting all the things that interested and excited her children, at that time very young. It was like a fresh breeze, the first contemporary quilt I had ever seen that really came off successfully, yet it was far simpler and more direct in stitchery than the many fine traditional quilts in the exhibition." She soon contacted Laury and asked her to contribute to her new publication, Woman's Day ,an invitation at which Laury jumped. She recalls, "Roxa's encouragement was so important to me, as nobody knew I was doing anything like this. The letter of encouragement from her about my first quilt was a tremendous boost. It was like official sanction."

Woman's Day provided Laury and the new, non-traditional quilt with a forum throughout the 1960s; her inventive and charming designs were also published by Better Homes and Gardens ,Family Circle ,and other popular women's periodicals. Laury was also commissioned to create quilts for a number of regional banks and office buildings, and those public installations helped establish fiber arts as a legitimate pursuit in California. Her work was exhibited and received warmly at Stanford, the M.H. deYoung Museum in San Francisco, the Fresno Art Museum , and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York in the 1960s. Laury also published a series of influential books, beginning with Appliqué Stitchery in 1966. Her Quilts and Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach was published in 1970, and in addition to her own innovative designs, included photos of remarkable quilts by such pioneer modern quilters as Charles and Rubynelle Counts, Therese May , and Joan Lintault .

"The things I have to say are not profound," Laury said with typically straightforward modesty in 1959. "They concern the simple and familiar objects that I find about me." In Quilts and Coverlets, she put her case this way: "In early America, the sources for quilt design came from nature and from all the articles of everyday life--the patterns on dishes, the designs from cast-iron stoves, political symbols such as the eagle and the star, wild flowers and other plant forms. In the twentieth century, however, none of the new influences of the time seem to have permeated quilt design. Even the strong influence of Art Nouveau , which was apparent in other crafts, had almost no effect on quilt making. Perhaps women lost confidence in their ability to design. We saw watered-down versions of old designs, used over and over, with few of the revitalizing changes essential in any 'lively' art. Modern designers of quilts are not concerned with reiterating statements made years ago. They have their own comments to make, comments which are relevant to our own times. At last we can look forward to exciting designs. Traditional designs no longer meet our needs. Creativity and inventiveness make it possible to modify and rejuvenate the old approaches and techniques. Systems of construction in quilt making are strong, durable, and beautiful. If we can retain the structural integrity of the traditional quilt and add to it a contemporary approach to color and design, we will achieve a quilt which merges past and present." From today's vantage point, Laury's statement can be read as a manifesto for the art quilt.

Another extremely important and influential early quilt artist is Radka Donnell , a Bulgarian-born painter who gave up her brushes in 1965 to work full time with the pieced quilt and was one of the first quilt artists to attempt to support herself solely on her own work. (Finding this impossible she has taken on a variety of other jobs to support her obsession with the quilt over the years.) After emigrating to the United States in 1951, Donnell studied at Stanford and the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she earned her M.F.A. In the early 1970s she lived in Boston, and her decidedly non-traditional quilts strongly affected many younger artists in the region, including Sylvia Einstein ,Michael James , Rhoda Cohen, and Nancy Halpern. She was also instrumental in securing and organizing shows of her own and other contemporary quilts, and in seeking respect, recognition, and reward for quilt artists on equal footing with those working in recognized media. She recalls, "[When] I first saw quilts in a museum, [they] were in back of the exhibition rooms in the hall leading to the Ladies Room. What I had dimly perceived until then I realized clearly and resolved to change: namely, the arts or crafts made by women were [always] given the rear entrance, and it was time to get them to enter through the grand, front entrance." To that end, her 1975 exhibition (with Susan Hoffman and Molly Upton ) at Harvard University 's Carpenter Center for the Arts marked the first time quilts had been featured in such a prestigious East Coast art gallery setting.

Where Jean Ray Laury's approach was breezy and purposefully simple, Donnell's stated intentions were deeply intellectual and spiritual. Trained as an art therapist as well as a painter, Donnell became a champion of quiltmaking as a women's healing art. She was also the first artist to take a feminist stand and speak of quilts as a "Liberation" issue. "Quiltmaking politicized me," she says. In her lectures and writings, she articulated the expressive possibilities of the quilt better than anyone else had previously done and made a powerful case for the quilt as "the associative field of the body," a direct link to the most primal of human needs and acts. "By its original closeness to a person's body, the quilt can become an icon of personal feeling and hope," she wrote in her introduction to The Contemporary Quilt in 1977. "This is its nature, invoking no absolutes, but open as to a human embrace."

Donnell found enormous meaning in the functional and familial aspects of quilts and quiltmaking, and her quilts were always made to be used as well as appreciated as wall hangings. They typically placed carefully composed collages of strips and blocks of plain-colored and printed fabric within a relatively wide outer fabric frame. All were machine quilted by her associates Claire Mielke or Ruth Alex to assure they would stand up to hard use and repeated encounters with a washing machine if such was the desire of the new owner. The use of the machine also saved time, a critical argument in its favor for a working artist like Donnell, who was thereby freed to focus solely on designing and piecing new quilts. Donnell was one of the first quilters to make extensive use of the sewing machine for quilting, and the hard-edged look of her quilts' surfaces was as new to many viewers as were her abstract, painterly designs.

Donnell has remained active both as an artist and a teacher. She has produced nearly five hundred quilts over the past thirty years, written the eloquent book Quilts as Women's Art: A Quilt Poetics ,and, most recently, taught a course of the history, theory, and techniques of quilting at both Simmons College and Westfield State College in Massachusetts. She rejects the term "art quilt" to describe her work, disliking any association with the elitist, male-dominated world of High Art. She writes, "I stepped out of the 'art scene' when I began doing my quilts. I have stayed with quiltmaking because it helped me to find wholeness and be open to enjoy, advise, and validate the creativity of other women. I believe we are all equally creative, and my happiest moment regarding art was when one of my students said about my course, 'It helped me realize that I am more creative than I thought before.' This is my [current] objective, and if it does not make me an 'artist,' that's OK with me."

Like Radka Donnell, Charles and Rubynelle Counts also began their involvement with quiltmaking in the 1960s. They were artists who had studied various crafts at Berea College in Kentucky during the 1950s, including weaving and pottery; Charles also studied pottery at Southern Illinois University and the University of Southern California . Berea had been an important center for crafts since the 1890s, when its president, Dr. William Goodell Frost, became the first to champion the traditional crafts of rural Appalachia. Frost saw the value of the region's "fireside industries," as he dubbed them, and encouraged local weavers through annual homespun fairs. Berea established classes in the traditional arts in 1902 and also marketed the work of students and local craftspeople.

After further study with the noted potter Marguerite Wildhain in California, the Countses settled at Rising Fawn on Lookout Mountain in northwestern Georgia, where they founded a crafts center to market Charles's pottery and Rubynelle's weavings. Charles Counts was raised in the ravaged coal fields of Harlan County, Kentucky, and like earlier crafts exponents such as Dr. Frost, he was deeply concerned about the devastated economy of rural Appalachia. In 1965 the Countses received federal funding for a training program in pottery for three local people; of that venture Counts said, "Should we not take up this admittedly thin thread of hope, then the possibility exists these people would have been cast out into the human junkyard--unemployment, uneducation, more poverty and more ignorance." After being introduced to local quiltmakers, the Countses decided to add quilts to the center's repertoire, and Charles began to design original tops which were executed and quilted by the local artisans. The resulting quilts were a unique composite of Charles's innovative, modern craft designs with the meticulous hand sewing and workmanship of the local traditional Georgia quilters. The linear designs of the quilt tops were based on the surface decoration that Charles applied to his pottery. Rising Fawn continued to produce quilts into the mid-1970s; they were not seen by many other artists and, unlike Jean Ray Laury's quilts, had little or no influence on the direction of others' work. Although they are still little known today, Charles Counts's designs were far ahead of their time, and they remain utterly distinctive.

Another relatively unheralded early quilt artist is Joan Lintault . Lintault received a M.F.A. from Southern Illinois University in 1962, where she concentrated in ceramics, and then spent three years working as a crafts developer for the Peace Corps in Peru, where she assisted weavers, knitters, and dyers in improving the quality of their work and set up a craft cooperative. She began making quilts in 1965 while working as a lecturer in ceramics and art fundamentals at the University of Hawaii . From the first, she drew on a wide range of historic and contemporary sources and techniques. She writes, "I never wanted to be a traditional quiltmaker. I wanted to use all the elements of art that I was taught by using thread as line, fabric as shape, and color as a painter. I could never understand why there was this deep prejudice against artists who used fabric and fiber. I still don't understand it."

After moving from Hawaii to California in the late 1960s, Lintault also began to collect quilts, which were then still virtually worthless. Many of her early prizes were discovered in the local Salvation Army store. Lintault's work was completely original from the start. Her La Chola en La Colcha (The Woman on the Bed), which was made in 1966 and was included in Laury's book Quilts and Coverlets, places a larger than life-sized stuffed and padded figure against the backdrop of a traditional patchwork quilt top. The quilt is huge, measuring 9 feet, 14 inches tall by 7 feet 1/2 inch wide. As Laury noted, the figure, which also wears a dress made of patchwork, "appears to be both under the quilt and growing out from the surface." Clouds, from 1971, is a 36-inch by 13-foot-long series of stuffed silver lamé cloud forms that play across the pillow-like grids of four pieced and quilted poly/cotton surfaces, while Dubious Information, from 1972, presents a pair of eight-sided stuffed frames surrounding groups of almost (but not quite) identical pieced and quilted baby blocks. Her astonishing Heavenly Bodies ,from 1979, presents twenty-five openwork blocks of Xerox-transferred photographs of naked women and babies in a variety of poses; the batted and quilted blocks are cut out around the body forms, leaving their centers completely open, and the whole is surrounded by a wide border punctuated by the image of a child with her arms wrapped around her own hunched knees.

Lintault has been a professor of art specializing in fibers and textile design at her alma mater since 1973 and has continued to make innovative and totally distinctive quilts through the years. She is a perfectionist who works deliberately. "As it was with my predecessors--the embroiderers, quilters, and lacemakers who worked with fabric and thread--time is not a factor when I work. I do not choose to reject a technique simply because it is laborious. I base my work on geological rather than TV time. I am obsessed with every colored spot of dye and how it looks next to another colored spot." Although her work is too idiosyncratic and diverse in approach to have influenced other artists directly, Lintault deserves to be recognized as one of the most consistent and original of all contemporary quiltmakers.

Therese May, whose work, like Joan Lintault's, was first championed by Jean Ray Laury, began making quilts just before finishing her undergraduate work in painting at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1960s. She says, "I simply began to sew, and I was also making some collages with torn paper of bright colors. When my children were small I finished my degree in painting and began making quilts for the beds. Soon I began using photographic images, and my quilts became art objects." May would project a slide onto a piece of paper and make a drawing based on the image. The drawing was used as a pattern for fabric, which was then cut into pieces and arranged in muffin tins. The pieces were rearranged on identically sized squares of muslin, resulting in eighty to one hundred pinned blocks of appliquéd patchwork. May finished the quilts with "a machine straight stitch around each piece and a satin stitch over that." One of these photographic quilts was a self-portrait called Therese that appeared in Laury's Quilts and Coverlets and began May's career as an art quilter. She developed an even more personal way of working in the 1980s that incorporated her painting background, and she has been one of the most visible and highly regarded of quilt artists for many years. Her embellished and painted quilts, which draw on a whimsical private array of dreamlike figures and symbols, are at once instantly recognizable and inimitably her own.

At the same time that these and other pioneering quilters were moving away from traditional design, collectors and art historians began to recognize the importance of historic quilts as an American design tradition. In 1971 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York presented Abstract Design in American Quilts, an exhibition that marked a turning point in the appreciation of the quilt. The show, organized by collectors Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof, drew on their unusual collection of quilts, which had been chosen strictly for their aesthetic interest. The quilts were hung on the museum's stark white walls like paintings, and the accompanying labels were modeled after art museum labels, offering only the piece's materials, place of origin, and approximate date. The emphasis of the show, then, was placed squarely on the visual impact of the quilts, and little effort was made to place them in any kind of historical context. The exhibition's approach was not entirely new--quilts had been hung at country fairs (and on wash lines) since at least the mid-nineteenth century and by collector Electra Webb at her Shelburne Museum since the late 1950s, and the Newark Museum had presented an exhibition of Optical Quilts in 1965. But museum display was new to most viewers and critics, and this was, after all, the Whitney Museum and New York City, not Newark, New Jersey, or Shelburne, Vermont. The Whitney was a fully sanctified showcase for American art, and the show carried enormous weight.

In his introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition, Robert Doty, the curator of the Whitney, made the show's parameters and intentions crystal clear: "This exhibition is not a comprehensive review of quilt making in America but rather a demonstration of inherent regard for a tangible form of visual satisfaction. Considerations of technique, geographical distinction and historic significance have been excluded in favor of visual content. Color, pattern and line take precedent over fabric, stitching and regional traits. The exhibition is devoted to pieced quilts because that technique produced a body of work notable for its strong visual qualities."

In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Jonathan Holstein summarized his understanding of the achievement of American quiltmakers this way: "Quilt makers did in effect paint with fabrics, laying on colors and textures. In all periods there are to be found in pieced quilts both unique and conventional designs; within the framework of the latter each maker had full liberty in terms of colors, arrangements, sizes of the blocks and her own variations. So no two are ever alike; each reflects the sensibilities and visual skills of its maker. Moreover, it must be emphasized that the planning of these tops was in no sense haphazard. Even the simplest show the highest degree of control for visual effect. There was at work a traditional American approach to design--vigorous, simple, reductive, 'flat'--and a bold use of color which can be traced throughout American art. The best were valued aesthetically when they were made and have lost none of their power with passing time and fashions, exhibiting those extraordinary visual qualities which are ageless."

The Whitney show caused a sensation, turning heads wherever it was shown. It elicited glowing reviews from a host of major art critics who had never deigned to write about quilts before, and it was enthusiastically received by the public. For some viewers, the exhibition was a gratifying recognition of the quilt that was long overdue, but for most, it was an eye-opening revelation of the expressive power of a previously unexamined medium. The response of Hilton Kramer in The New York Times typifies the critical take on the show: "The suspicion persists that the most authentic visual articulation of the American imagination in the last century is to be found in the so-called 'minor' arts--especially in the visual crafts that had their origins in the workaday functions of regional life. . . . For a century or more preceding the self-conscious invention of pictorial abstraction in European painting, the anonymous quilt-makers of the American provinces created a remarkable succession of visual masterpieces that anticipated many of the forms that were later prized for their originality and courage."

The show Abstract Design in American Quilts is cited by many of today's quilt artists as the beginning of their involvement with the quilt as an art form. It also set off an explosion of interest in collecting historic quilts, and started quilt values on a steady climb. The show proved seminal for four reasons: it asked that the quilts on exhibit be judged solely as works of visual art; it was presented by a major metropolitan museum of American art; the timing was right; and perhaps most important, it traveled extensively and was seen by thousands and thousands of viewers across the country. Holstein has been censured by feminists for divorcing the quilts from their historical context, for applying a traditional male-dominated sense of aesthetic value to a woman's art, for dismissing appliqué quilts as artistically inferior to pieced examples, and especially for his apparent lack of concern as a collector for the stories of the women who made the quilts, thereby marginalizing the makers by denying them their personal identities. There is some merit in each of these charges, although it must be said that Holstein freely admitted his biases in organizing the show. But even these negative responses to the show have helped to broaden public awareness and understanding of the importance of the quilt to American history and art. If nothing else, Holstein's thesis has served as a flash point for other, perhaps more comprehensive approaches to the American quilt that have developed since.

Many who saw the Whitney show were inspired to try their hand at quiltmaking. However, in New England and many other parts of the country, quiltmaking had been moribund for at least a generation, and no one knew how to practice the craft. The new practitioners had to rely on the handful of older books still available on the craft of quiltmaking, most of them written during the previous revival, thirty or more years earlier. Dover Publications reprinted Ruby McKim's One Hundred and One Patchwork Patterns and Kretsinger and Hall's The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in inexpensive paperback editions, and they became bibles of the budding movement.

Many of the new quiltmakers quickly found themselves teaching others what they had learned. Demand far outstripped supply in those early days; far more people wanted to learn than there were teachers to teach. Beth Gutcheon, who began teaching quilting in New York in 1971, quickly became the most prominent teacher on the East Coast. When Gutcheon advertised for students, she was astonished that no one asked about her credentials, only where to find her and when they could start. Quilt guilds sprang up like mushrooms all over the country as women banded together to share their knowledge and enthusiasm for the quilt and quiltmaking. This burgeoning network of local guilds sponsored teachers such as Gutcheon, Nancy Halpern, Michael James, and Nancy Crow , and enabled them to make a living, if not from their work, then from a pursuit intimately related to it. It also served as a connecting network for early non-traditional quiltmakers, who met each other through the guilds and recommended and supported each other as teachers and artists. Artists who had worked in isolation suddenly discovered that they were not alone, and a creative synergy grew as the supporting network of innovative quiltmakers expanded.

In addition to their teaching, both Beth Gutcheon and Michael James also wrote influential books that promoted contemporary design. Gutcheon's The Perfect Patchwork Primer ,published in 1973, was the most widely distributed and used of the new generation's how-to books. It reflected Gutcheon's populist, anybody-can-do-it approach and was aimed directly at the hobbyist quiltmaker, with plans for "more than 70 projects to make with patchworks--tote bags, wall hangings, coasters, mats, hot pads, skirts, vests, pillows, playpen liners, coffee-pot cozies, bibs, floor furniture, a traveling board game, cookbook covers, and other gifts, wearables and usables." While Gutcheon's book, like Jean Ray Laury's writings, was embraced by quilters of all stripes, Michael James's more technically rigorous The Quiltmaker's Handbook: A Guide to Design and Construction ,which was first published in 1978, served as the how-to text for the growing art quilt movement. Reflecting James's art school training, his book set out to provide a thorough textbook for contemporary artisans. Many of today's quilt artists cut their eye teeth on the book. It was followed by a second volume in 1981, subtitled Creative Approaches to Contemporary Quilt Design .In addition to James's own work, the second volume included photos and careful analyses of quilts by Nancy Halpern, Beth Gutcheon, Radka Donnell, Nancy Crow, Francoise Barnes, Katie Pasquini, and other contemporary artists.

Public exhibitions, of course, also played a major role in the development of the art quilt, by offering both artists and audiences an opportunity to view and judge new works and validating innovative approaches to the quilt. The earliest shows highlighting the works of non-traditional quilters took place in the 1970s. On the West Coast, quilt historian Joyce Gross organized the first of a series of annual exhibitions that included non-traditional work in 1972, and in the East, a number of important early exhibitions took place in the Boston area, which was a hot bed of non-traditional quilting activity. In addition to their aforementioned Harvard University show, Radka Donnell, Molly Upton, and Susan Hoffman also were part of Bed and Board, an exhibition of work by contemporary woodworkers and quilt artists. Organized by the DeCordova Museum , a museum of twentieth-century American art in Lincoln, the show ran from June to September 1975 and also included work by Charles Counts, Lenore Davis, Beth Gutcheon, Jeffrey Gutcheon, Sas Colby, Elsa Brown, and Elizabeth Gurrier. In the catalogue, museum director Frederick P. Walkey noted, "The [quilt] field was far more fertile than we had imagined, [ranging] from variations on traditional designs to humorous and provocative images drawn from [such] unlikely inspirational sources as gravestone rubbings, television commercials, and even the butterfly." Michael James, who was teaching quiltmaking at the museum at the time, also participated; he says the show made him aware of the work of other artists for the first time and recalls that his own quilts seemed rather traditional in comparison to those of other exhibitors.

In November 1975 the Boston Center for the Arts unveiled Quilts '76, an exhibition organized for the Bicentennial. The unjuried show, held in the cavernous Cyclorama building downtown, included 173 quilts by 163 artists representing a wide range of traditional and contemporary styles, techniques, approaches, and abilities. The show provided a showcase for the Boston area's many non-traditional quiltmakers, including James, Donnell, Halpern, and Sylvia Einstein; their work was a revelation to some of the Boston art critics who saw and reviewed the show as well as to many attendees, especially other quilters. "The sense of excitement and discovery was palpable in those days," Nancy Halpern says with some sentiment. A particularly informed review by Jane Holtz Kay in the alternative Real Paper noted, "[The show is] a real mixed bag--there are single creators and communal ones, designs that are syrupy coy and some as stunning as any of the abstractions of the hour. Quiltmaking is not simply design in fabric, but a new art form; the needle is no quick substitute for the brush and the quilt for all its charms no facile switch from the canvas. With all the drama and decorative strength here, then, there are perhaps only a dozen quilts that connect in quite the right way or linger in the mind long enough to define themselves as a fusion of fine art and fine craftsmanship. But that is probably enough for now. There is a takeoff if not a soaring here."

Also in 1975, the innovative "quilted tapestries" of Molly Upton and Susan Hoffman were first presented by the Kornblee Gallery on 57th Street in Manhattan. Upton and Hoffman were among the first to dare to invite comparison of their work with other forms of contemporary art, and to ask art world prices for it. Their extremely ambitious work set high standards of aesthetic quality alongside an uncompromising vision of its own value and importance.

Both women were self-taught as quiltmakers. Hoffman began making quilts when she was still in high school. She initially followed traditional patterns, but as her hobby grew into a full-time obsession in the early 1970s she began designing her own. In 1974 she made a breakthrough, creating overall abstractions by tearing fabric into strips and laying them out on the floor in a way that she describes as "gestural." Hoffman's longtime friend Molly Upton made her first quilts that same year; she immediately applied her art school training to the medium, approaching quilting as an expressive art form fully as valid as painting, dance, or music, rather than as a traditional craft. A unique synergy developed between the two young women; they pushed each other constantly by drawing on an eclectic range of artistic interests and concerns, most of them far removed from traditional quilting. Hoffman recalls studying Josef Albers's book on color theory intensely, and cites the music of Bach ,Abstract Expressionist painting, Navajo weavings , Japanese Noh robes, Bauhaus theory and architecture, Pierre Bonnard ,Paul Klee ,Joseph Cornell , and Kurt Schwitters as among her influences.

Upton and Hoffman initiated their artistic partnership with "The Pair Collection," in which each made a quilt on a particular theme (plants or the use of black and white fabric were among the choices), and the resulting pair of quilts was exhibited together. After this experimental collaboration, they worked separately and in a wide range of styles, from stunning pictorial realism to complete abstraction. Whatever the style, both women approached the quilt surface "whole"-istically, creating painterly "canvases" rather than employing the grid and unit structure that is the basis of traditional quiltmaking.

Like the quilts of their friend Radka Donnell, the extremely wide-ranging mid-'70s work of Upton and Hoffman marks a distinct break with the methods and imagery of the traditional quilt. Where other quilters were moving away from the traditional quilt one step at a time, seeing how far they could push the quilt format while still remaining connected to historical precedent, Hoffman and Upton largely ignored the rules and the assumed limitations of traditional quilting and simply leapt forward. For many of the other early non-traditional quilters, their work was a stunning revelation of the quilt's promise and possibilities. Nancy Halpern, who is an ardent admirer of Upton's work in particular, says, "For me, her quilts are like those Olympic gymnasts, defying all laws of both human anatomy and physical gravity."

Tragically, Molly Upton took her own life in 1977. She was not yet twenty-five. Twenty years after her untimely death, her quilts are still remarkably powerful and fresh. Although devastated by Upton's death and almost inevitably shadowed by it, Susan Hoffman remained active through the mid-1980s. She currently works creatively as a freelance floral designer and hopes to become involved in quiltmaking once again. Like Upton's, Hoffman's strong, original work deserves far more recognition than it has received.

In 1976 the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York, now the American Craft Museum , presented The New American Quilt, the first major museum exhibition of non-traditional quilts. The museum advertised widely for entries and reviewed works by over three hundred artists, "all of whom," stated the museum's director, Paul Smith, "are doing highly accomplished work. It was obviously impossible to include all the outstanding examples of quiltmaking; therefore our emphasis in making selections was focused on innovation and new directions." Among the artists whose work was selected were Radka Donnell, Elizabeth Gurrier, Susan Hoffman, Molly Upton, Duncan Slade and Gayle Fraas , Helen Bitar, Wenda von Weise, Sandra Humberson, Teresa Barkley , Lenore Davis, Katherine Westphal, and Joan Lintault. Exhibition curator Ruth Amdur Tannenbaum noted in the catalogue, "No longer relegated to a purely utilitarian role, these contemporary examples of a traditional American craft place form over function. Many of these pieces are characteristic of soft sculpture in their three-dimensionality. Unique themes and the application of new materials and techniques distinguish the present from the past. The use of photosensitized cloth, tie-dye, silk screen, and batik permit the quilter to achieve strong personal statements through bold graphic treatment."

These early exhibitions of non-traditional quilts, however, proved the exception rather than the rule. The new works were just too strange, too radical and innovative for the highly conservative world of the traditional quilt to accept. Although the number of quilt exhibitions increased every year, very few highlighted art quilts, and by the late 1970s many art quilters were feeling frustrated by the lack of showcases for their work. Their innovations made their work unwelcome at many traditional quilt shows, where they were all too often relegated to a corner and marginalized, and their only other available option--showing at mixed-media fiber art shows, alongside baskets, weavings, rugs, and other textiles--did not provide the clarity of focus they sought. The non-traditional quilt had outgrown its origins. It needed its own place to stand.

Quilt National ,the first ongoing juried exhibition of non-traditional quilts, was initiated in 1979 and has been held every other year since. The exhibition was conceived and organized by quilters Francoise Barnes, Nancy Crow, and the late Virginia Randles and was shown at the Dairy Barn in Athens, Ohio, a former farm barn that had been renovated into a cultural arts center. The first Quilt National presented 56 quilts by 44 artists, chosen from a field of 390 quilts by 196 individuals. Only one of the entrants was not American. In addition to works by Randles, Crow, and Barnes, the first show included quilts by Radka Donnell, Beth Gutcheon, Nancy Halpern, Rhoda Cohen, Cynthia Nixon-Hudson, Tafi Brown , Terrie Hancock Mangat, Chris Wolf Edmonds, and Joyce Marquess Carey , as well as an invitational work by Michael James, who was one of the show's jurors. In a flyer accompanying the show, Gary J. Schwindler, Associate Professor of Art at Ohio University, stated: " Quilt National '79 demonstrates eloquently two important phenomena characteristic of the contemporary American art scene. First, there is increasing prominence of the so-called 'crafts' within the broad spectrum of the plastic arts; and second, quilting in particular is emerging as a vital category of the fiber arts and possesses enormous expressive potential. American quilt making is now at a stage of experimentation and development as it prepares to take its place as a major form of artistic endeavor."

Quilt National has been the most important ongoing forum for the art quilt since its inception, and has premiered the work of such major artists as Terrie Mangat, Pamela Studstill, and Susan Shie . It is judged by a three-person panel, usually made up largely, if not entirely, of recognized quilt artists. A full-color catalogue is produced of each year's winners, and a smaller, traveling exhibition is organized after the Dairy Barn showing closes. The event has grown steadily; the most recent competition, Quilt National '95, drew 1,230 entries from 613 artists in forty-four states and thirteen foreign countries. Eighty quilts by 80 different artists were chosen by the jurors, including works by artists from Mali, New Zealand, the Netherlands, England, Australia, and Switzerland. Selections from the 1995 Dairy Barn exhibition traveled to over twenty museums, galleries, and art centers around the country after leaving Athens in September 1995.

In the 1980s the art quilt was also given a tremendous boost by the late San Francisco quilt dealer Michael Kile, the co-founder of the highly influential journal The Quilt Digest. This seminal publication set a new standard for quilt scholarship; it was also beautifully produced, presenting quilts in better, sharper color than ever before. Reflecting Kile's interests, The Quilt Digest drew no distinctions between old and new quilts; it showcased and championed work by emerging artists alongside great historic discoveries, and did much to validate and publicize the accomplishments of leading contemporary artists.

Soon after launching The Quilt Digest in 1983, Kile teamed with curator and writer Penny McMorris to organize The Art Quilt, a catalogued traveling exhibition of brand new works by sixteen artists they considered trailblazers in the field. McMorris brought substantial credits to the enterprise; she had organized shows including non-traditional quilts as early as 1976 and also served as host and producer of two PBS series on quilting that were televised nationally in 1981 and introduced viewers to the work of many new and innovative artists. Kile and McMorris were the first to use the term art quilt to describe the work of these modern quiltmakers. McMorris recalls, "Michael and I were talking on the phone one night about what to call the book and exhibition we were working on, going through all kinds of possible variations such as 'Quilted Art,' 'The Art of the Quilt,' 'The Quilter's Art,' etc. When we said the words 'Art Quilt' it felt right, as the briefest titles usually do. Up until then we had never heard the term used; since then I've come across it used back at the turn of the century." The name felt right to quilt artists as well, and it soon became the generic term for the genre.

The Art Quilt, which opened at The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in September 1986 and traveled to seven other sites over its three-year run, was even more influential than The Quilt Digest in bringing attention to the works of non-traditional quilters. As the first major curated exhibit of its kind, The Art Quilt defined the cutting edge of the new movement and identified its leading practitioners. By limiting the exhibit to twenty-five works by a select group of artists (including Yvonne Porcella, Michael James, Nancy Crow, Jan Myers-Newbury, Jean Hewes, Joan Schulze, Pauline Burbidge, Therese May, Pamela Studstill, Terrie Mangat, and Fraas and Slade), Kile and McMorris gave a cohesion and clarity of focus to the non-traditional quilt that Quilt National could not provide. The catalogue, the first extensive scholarly exposé on the new art form, declared, "The art quilt has emerged, and it heralds a dramatic and fundamental change in the history of quilts. It is art for walls, not beds, created by artists abandoning media like painting, printmaking and ceramics to express themselves in original designs of cloth and thread."

Over the past ten years, the art quilt movement has continued to gain momentum and now, in the waning years of the twentieth century, seems to be reaching some sort of critical mass. After nearly thirty years of growth, the art quilt has proved its staying power and is finally making inroads into the world of fine art. A significant number of artists have developed original styles and created consistent bodies of work. Solo and group exhibitions of art quilts have proliferated. Dozens are now held each year throughout the United States and around the world. Beginning in 1987, Quilt National was joined by a second major juried exhibition called Visions, organized by Quilt San Diego. Like Quilt National, each Visions offers an accompanying catalogue and ancillary traveling exhibition and provides an important focus for art quilters. Since 1990, its opening exhibition has alternated years with Quilt National. Studio Art Quilt Associates, a non-profit advocacy group, was founded by Yvonne Porcella in 1989, and has done much to advance awareness of the medium among collectors, curators, and critics. Learning opportunities for quiltmakers have also vastly expanded and improved, led by Nancy Crow's and Linda Fowler's annual two-week Quilt Surface Design Symposium, which was inaugurated in 1989. The 1996 session, for example, offered forty-five courses by over thirty teachers in topics ranging from compositional planning and alternative construction techniques to the use of dyes, paste resists, and paper and fabric collage.

Art quilts have entered the permanent collections of such major public art institutions as the High Museum in Atlanta, the Newark Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum, and the M.H. deYoung Museum in San Francisco in recent years, in addition to those of the country's two most prestigious "craft" museums, The American Craft Museum and the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery. In 1995 the Renwick premiered Full Deck Art Quilts ,a catalogued exhibition of fifty-four quilted playing cards by a like number of artists. The Full Deck project was conceived by art quilter Sue Pierce and organized by SITES, the Smithsonian Institution's Traveling Exhibition Service. The show gives the art quilt its most accessible and easily digestible public outlet ever; it has proven tremendously popular and remains on national tour at this writing. Later in 1995, the Renwick offered Improvisational Quilts by Nancy Crow, its first solo exhibition of art quilts, and an ambitious new periodical, Art/Quilt Magazine, was launched by quilter Lynn Lewis Young, offering quilt artists a regular printed forum all their own.

As the millennium approaches, the art quilt is, perhaps, poised to move decisively beyond its own, often too self-referential, world. In the years to come, it may at last find the public and critical attention and acceptance it has sought since its earliest days. It still has many obstacles to overcome, some external, others at least partly of the movement's own creation, and many personal and artistic growing pains to endure as it strives to become an acknowledged part of the larger art world. Whatever their future recognition and achievements may be, however, the art quilt's brightest and best proponents are unlikely to rest on their laurels, but will instead keep pushing forward, driven by their insatiable creative desires. As Jean Ray Laury puts it, "I don't know whether an artist ever feels really successful. Nothing is ever really complete. There's always something else you need to try, some idea of where you'd like to go next."


Robert Shaw, 435 Longmeadow Drive, Shelburne, VT 05482

Phone 802/985-0737, email: shaw.bob@verizon.net

© 2006 Robert Shaw
 

All artwork on this site is copyrighted by each artist. ©2007 Studio Art Quilt Associates, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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