Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quilt Wars

Viewer's Choice: Innocence by Hollis Chatelain
 of Hillsborough, North Carolina, USA

For seventy-two minutes, give or take, I watched "Stitched: the film" which is advertised as a fun-filled documentary following three quilt artists as they prepare their entries in Houston's International Quilt Festival.

It was good to see Hollis Chatelain and Caryl Bryer Fallert again, to watch them at work, and to discover Randall Cook and his buns of steel controversial quilt. Just as heartening was to see a smiling Kathy York, and Sharon Schamber and her Best of Show quilt. It seems that I don't hear of Sharon and certainly don't hear her called a Super Star as much as others, but her work speaks for itself. This is a woman who not only sees colors, but also smells them.

The film is enjoyable. The photography and editing, definitely professional and well done. It doesn't quite rise to the level of documentary in my opinion. It actually feels more like a promotion tool for the major quilt shows -- Houston and Paducah and for these three quilters. Anyone who is at all tuned into this Houston-Paducah segment of the quilting community will learn very little from this film, but may be reminded of what they're missing if they don't attend the shows, or reminded of the good times they had while there. And the film certainly gives a quilter the itch to add to her stash and try out the new tools and toys that only a quilter can love.

When we realize that there are millions of quilters, from all parts of the world, this film only speaks to maybe the 60- to 100,000 who participate in this commercially driven aspect of the community. Of course, that's quite a group! But there weren't any quilters from Japan, Norway, Germany, Israel.... No charity quilts, no guilds, no Amish, no non-profits. It is a little film focused on Houston, with a nod to Paducah, filmed and directed by professionals out of Houston. It is a feel good film, except when it tiptoed into the conflict between traditional and art quilters.

At that point I thought the film makers' bias was showing. Traditional quilters were depicted as a group of white haired grandma types who spoke with a Southern drawl and thought quilts were only for sleeping under. I suppose there are those with that opinion, but it is possible that they are just not clearly voicing their opposition.

I try to work out my own opinion. And I think as one traditional quilter said in the film, it comes down to whether one comes from a sewing/textile background or an art/multi-medium background. Although I must qualify that. I come from a sewing background and am a devoted follower of beautiful textile art regardless of what techniques are used or whether the artist is a fabric artist or a multi-media artist.

One group uses the fabric and thread as their medium. In another group, as depicted by Hollis Chatelain, for example it is paint/dyes and thread. In one group it may be handwork, in the other machine or fusing fabrics together. In one group it is construction -- straight seams, tidy intersections, neat, hidden, even stitches, etc. And in the other group whole cloth as canvas with the emphasis on painting or embellishment.

In the film, only the very narrow view of a few women who apparently represented the traditional aspect of quilting, voiced their opinions. Nothing from a group of art quilters. I guess they are right and don't need to speak?

I think there's narrow minded opinions on both sides of this argument. I've heard several art quilters deride the emphasis sewers put on straight seams, etc. I believe if a quilt is going to be constructed, it should be according to the highest standards. Does that mean there can't be a frayed seam or irregular intersections? Of course not. It means that if it frays, or has offset intersections, it had better be part of the art and not a mistake or sloppy construction.

Part of what draws me to quilts is the love that quilts embody as items of comfort and warmth. Quilts began as utilitarian objects and the makers began adding their own individual touches of beauty to them. Quilt history is as important as the quilt. To say that one approach to making a beautiful piece of textile art is acceptable and another is not seems to go against the freedom with which women have constructed quilts and clothes and useful items through the centuries. Who would tell an Amish quilter that they can't use black fabric?

Perhaps it has to do with the industrialization of heirloom quality handwork. Machine quilting is absolutely awesome and the sky is the limit on possibilities and the beauty that can be produced. But handwork should never, ever, ever, be cast aside or treated as that old fashioned musty smelling aunt that lives in the attic. It has its place. Handwork is also skill, dedication, practice, effort, sweat, tears and blood and each stitch is a physical act of love. It is being one with the cloth. No gloves between the hand and the fabric. Each stitch is designed and carried out by its maker -- one at a time.

Handwork is a form of meditation. You can't get any closer to the cloth than while hand stitching. For me it isn't whether it hangs on the wall or covers me at night in my bed -- it doesn't matter if it is a double wedding ring or abstract or a Susan Shie original.

There's room in the quilting community for artists from every background and those doing handwork, recreating traditional patterns, using their love of color -- are just as valuable and should not be snubbed. They shouldn't need to be defensive or exclusionary. Perhaps artists with art backgrounds should remember that art has no boundaries. Elly Sienkiewicz creates works of art with each stitch she takes on her Baltimore quilts. Baltimore quilts are just as much an art style to quilts as Impressionism or Minimalism is to the art world. Ironically the winners of the top awards at the Houston show depicted in the film were mostly traditional quilts, and as Mr. Cook rather unkindly pointed out 'with butterflies.'

Fabric or textile art should feature the fabric. Quilts, a term which speaks more to construction -- a sandwich with a top, bottom and middle layers, held together with stitches, speaks more to construction. As long as all three layers and the quilting are there -- its a quilt. All serving their purpose, preening and beautiful.

After all of that, I think my conclusion is that a quilt is a fabric sandwich stitched with love. What's on top, on the bottom or inbetween, whether a dagwood or a patty melt, it is a quilt.

If you want to view the film, there's a narrow window to view it for free: http://www.ctpubblog.com/


Lisa Marie said...

Excellent write-up, though I don't necessarily agree with everything you said. One thing I definitely want to say is that his name is RANDALL Cook. Randall. Randy.

Dawn said...

Thanks Lisa Marie for the correction. It has been changed. Sorry, I hate that. I was so worried about getting Caryl's name spelled correctly. :) My apologies to Randall. And please, feel free to disagree and tell us what, why, how.... I love discussions.

Nina-Marie said...

Here! Here!! As a true Gemini, I've spent the last 20 years developing into a quilter who does art AND traditional quilting pretty much equally. And let me tell you. . . I get grief from both sides!! I'm VERY sick of it since quilting is suppose to be social thing and I would think that one side could always feed off the other. Not quite sure why its become such a US vs THEM mentality. Oh and another thing that I've observed over the years . . . .one thing you can say about the people down in Houston - they sure know how to market and promote! Thanks for the honest review!

Connections said...

I actually went out to dinner with Jena, the director, and her husband Tom, the camera persona and editor. She is not a quiltmaker. She got a lot of direction from Quilts, Inc. My impression was that she was more interested in providing entertainment than a deep look into the world of quilts.

Lisa Marie said...

No worries, Dawn. I didn't tell him. :)

Lori R said...

Yay! I believe that you should use the best construction methods, no matter the method, medium or message. Sloppy finishing can really spoil a spectacular piece.

Helen Conway said...

I just watched the film whilst sitting under my machine quilted log cabin quilt and whilst hand quilting an art quilt. Need I say that I find no need to make sharp distinctions. i come from neither art not a sweing background but came from writing to quilting so maybe thats why I do not side with one group or the other. But I do find it amusing that people wedded to traditional quilts and only traditional quilts forget that once each of those blocks was made for the very first time and was at that point as innovative as a painted technique now.

Monica said...

What a pity this was not made 10 years ago when quilting was at it's height. As a woman who loved every show, used her vacation time to attend and doe NOT quilt it was and still is a fabulous experience. Women's work 9 oh should i say art or sewing) has never been displayed like this. The rest( of the shows) are catching up! Then it is a show run by women for women. It has changed. It seems to remain the only Show where art, quilts,dolls clothes jewelry are the stars. Sorry that the movie does not have the same warm fuzzies that the event emanated. It will have to make it to Netflix for me to see it. unfortunately commercialism is often equated with professionalism and we usually all loose.

Dawn said...

Monica did you see the link at the end of the blog for a free viewing of the film? I didn't see it listed on Netflix, so I rather doubt it is going to be there. And what a profound statement that "commercialism is often equated with professionalism." Well said!

Michele said...

"I believe if a quilt is going to be constructed, it should be according to the highest standards. Does that mean there can't be a frayed seam or irregular intersections? Of course not. It means that if it frays, or has offset intersections, it had better be part of the art and not a mistake or sloppy construction." EXACTLY!! This is a great articulation of my take on fiber art. Sloppy construction feels like a painter who forgot to paint part of the canvas.

Valerie Hearder said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post Dawn.
I wanted to share a quilt artist who makes traditional hand stitched quilts that will touch your heart. http://judys-journal.blogspot.com/
This is one of my most treasured blogs to follow.
Valerie Hedarder

Christine Thresh said...

A very fair review. Thanks.

Anonymous said...


as someone who, albeit young, has bounced between both sides i can tell you that the approach to quilting that i was taught fits in neither what most would term traditional or artistic.

i really feel that there is a mix of the two that was handed down for generations and that predates the quilt revival of the 70's.

what some new bloggers have termed traditional, traditional. women who had an artistic approach to the colors, fabrics and patterns they decided to use, but who felt a kinship to tradition, traditional construction and those who came before.

my mama was taught a view of karma and energy that went into the work and i know that to some that's a laughable notion that i've written of just to be romantic.

i know having mentioned picking a fabric because it represented the sky, was laughed at by traditional quilters who revert to the color wheel or quick tricks to pick a palette and using a log cabin is seen as a fall back to the artistic side.

i've now fallen into the idea of in my mind just being who i am and making quilts.

i found this post a wonderful read.