There’s a relatively new quilt in town. The prodigal granddaughter of a bed quilt, the art quilt (sometimes referred to as textile or fiber art) now graces the walls of galleries, museums and corporate offices. After forty years of struggling for acceptance, the art quilt is now a vital medium explored by a variety of artists and regularly bidding for exhibition spaces traditionally reserved for paintings, prints and mixed-media assemblages.
Although many people associate quilting with grandmothers and pioneers, quilted bed covers, draperies and clothing have existed for two thousand years across all cultures. The quilt’s materials and appearance have frequently changed, but its defining properties remain the same: a top and bottom layer of fabric with a soft layer (batting) in between; the three layers are anchored together with machine or hand quilting stitches.
The current American quilting revival has its roots in the “back to basics” movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, when groups of people began protesting the flow of factory goods after WWII and wanted to anchor themselves in a simpler lifestyle. Those interested in reviving quilting, however, had little to rely on in terms of instruction or materials. Old patchwork books offered a few traditional patterns with such evocative names as Broken Dishes, Drunkard’s Path, and Road to Kansas, but most available fabric was double knit or cotton blend polyester, both of which are difficult to manipulate.
In the early 70’s, new quilt pioneers began encouraging fellow quilters to expand beyond the old patchwork style to create their own designs based on personal life experiences. These pioneers also argued that quilts didn’t have to be on beds — they could be hung as art pieces. Coincidentally at this time, many women (and some men) academically trained in the fine arts, earnestly began pushing the boundaries of traditional quilting by experimenting with fabric as a medium, employing technical design and color principles. Along with a burgeoning number of more traditional quilters, they began to demand better fabrics, tools, and supplies to meet their creative needs.
Many art quilters abandoned the grid-based structure of traditional quilts and began to create quilts that looked more like paintings: abstracts; portraits; still lifes; landscapes; modern designs and overt political statements. But the quilt offered tactile qualities usually not found in paintings — dimensional depth shaped by quilting stitches and embellishments, and texture created with the use of non-traditional quilting fabrics like crinkled or dupioni silks.
Art quilts have long labored to be accepted in both the quilting and art communities. When the new art quilts first appeared, they were not often met with enthusiasm or welcomed at traditional quilt shows. In response to this disenfranchisement, a few maverick artists started their own quilt shows at the Dairy Barn Cultural Arts Center in Athens, Ohio in 1979. Called Quilt National, these annual exhibitions have evolved into the premiere international opportunity for quilt artists to debut their works.
The struggle for art quilts to be accepted in the fine arts community has been equally difficult. Quilting is still considered by many to be a craft, not an art; and quilts of all kinds are still created mostly by women, whose work has consistently been undervalued. Today, however, there are a significant number of quilt artists who have developed original styles and created consistent bodies of work — two hallmarks that distinguish art from craft. Among these internationally recognized artists are: Caryl Bryer Fallert, Nancy Crow, Michael James, Katie Pasquini Masopust; and Charlotte Warr Andersen(Utah).
As art quilts have achieved more acceptance, older quilts have also begun to be more valued for their aesthetic qualities. Traditional Amish quilts are known the world over and, most recently, a contingent of African American quilters was “discovered” in the isolated Alabama town of Gee’s Bend and has become internationally recognized. Many of these quilts reflect sophisticated use of color and employ fascinating twists on conventional designs, though they were usually created by women with no formal art training.
Over the past 20 years the art quilt has continued to evolve. Although there is more commercial fabric available today than ever before, many art quilters dye their own to create personal nuances in color and design. Roxanne Bartel, a Salt Lake City quilt artist, says she fashions her own fabric because “I can achieve subtle color variations and interesting effects that I can’t get with commercial fabric. I especially love to overdye unique textiles like silk kimonofrom Japan, which create truly exquisite fabric pieces.”
In addition to dying, quilt artists often modify fabrics by painting, stamping, tearing, fusing, and bleaching. Computers have also entered the quilt world, and many art quilters digitally manipulate their own photographs or designs, which they then transfer to fabric.
Marta Amundsen, invited feature artist at the Brigham City Museum’s Quilt Show, on exhibit through August 11, excels at this method. Amundson, who now lives “seven cattle guards from civilization” outside of Riverton, Wyoming, was born in Los Angeles and raised in 36 places around the world, many of which are featured in her quilts. For example, “Swedish Design Sampler 3” depicts embellished photo transfers of chairs from open-air cafes in that country. Each chair block is attached to strips of fabric with buttons made from polymer clay in Amundson’s pasta machine.
Amundson’s formal education is in biology, ecology, visual art and art history. In the 10 years before she was an art quilter, she made architectural stained glass for public buildings. She says that the “virtual light from within my quilts comes from my knowledge of the impact of light coming through glass. As an art historian, I [also] have experience with design elements and the rules of composition.”
By her own admission, Amundson does not agree with the policies of the current administration, and many of her quilts protest or poke fun at the government’s actions. “‘Til the Cows Come Home” is Amudson’s visual protest of the preemptive war against Iraq and Afghanistan and the hundreds of people taken into custody without provable charges of any kind.
“Color Kabul, Color Kandahar” is a spectacular example of a quilt that draws on tradition but integrates new techniques. The Cathedral Windows setting incorporates haunting photo transfers as “windows,” and the offsetting solid spaces are machine quilted with Middle Eastern mosaic tile designs.
In addition to the quilts of Amundson and northern Utah quilters in Brigham City, you’ll have the chance this summer to see a variety of quilting techniques in Springville. The 34th Annual Quilt Exhibition at the Springville Museum of Art (July 21 – September 2) features traditional as well as art quilts. The museum will simultaneously hold an exhibit by Jinny Lee Snow (Salt Lake City) that explores the art quilt’s similarities to paintings. The show is entitled Painted Quilts or Quilted Paintings?
received her B.A. in Psychology from Lewis and Clark College, and Masters in both Social Services and Law and Social Policy from Bryn Mawr College. She is an award-winning quilt artist and the Executive Director for Art Access.