Is a quilt art and if so, when does a craft become a work of art? Artists ask us to define the quilt as medium or ask us if the quilt as art in itself.
The quilt as we know it has certainly come a long way from the classic, very practical, padded, stuffed covering that kept many of us warm over the years. Modern quilts have progressed from the standard patterns of shapes such as the Medallion quilt. The popular bedcovering now offers more than a way to use up scraps of fabric left over from various household sewing projects.
In some ways, the quilt has always been a form of artistic expression. It has certainly followed the many artistic styles and trends of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, at times being as weird and wonderful as the other artistic media of the time.
Stacy Hollander, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum, tells Decoded Arts that “[i]t is important to remember that there were few creative outlets for women well into the nineteenth century. … Fabric was a precious commodity and its remnants encoded events, people, memories. Quilts therefore functioned as major artistic efforts on the part of the women making them and sometimes also functioned as memory keepers.”
But is it only the last hundred years that viewers notice quilts as works of art? As we look over fine examples of artistic endeavours amongst the talented quilters of our pioneer ancestors, we can ask ourselves if there is a difference between a handmade quilt as craft and one labeled as art.
Quilts From the Past
A quilt is basically padded fabric, or a stuffed sack. In fact, the word “quilt” comes from the Latin “culcita,” which means just that: a stuffed sack. Technically speaking, a quilt is a three-layer bedcovering, like a sandwich with two outer fabric layers and an inner, padded filler, which is then stitched together. A quilt was often historically used as a utilitarian object, something to sleep under to keep warm, or something to hang on the wall or over windows to block out drafts.
Quilts have been around for a long time, long before the European settlers first arrived in the New World; people used padded fabrics over the centuries as clothing, bedding and even armor. In North America, the quilt was not only a practical item, it was a means of using up scrap fabric. Most people in colonial times didn’t want to waste anything.
Between 1750 and 1850, North American quilts were mostly patchwork, or pieces of fabric stitched together and often forming or completing a specific pattern, but mostly to create a useful and colourful bed covering. There are many fine preserved examples of these quilts. In fact, Hollander notes that “[m]ost quilts that have survived in the United States are from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
Another popular quilt at this time was the appliqué quilt, also known as the laid-on quilt, where the top completed a specific design, scene, or a colourful array of shapes and forms.
In the early 1800s, the whole cloth quilt became popular where the two outer layers came from a single piece of material and the quilters used the stitching as the decoration.
The Amish colonists, who started settling in Pennsylvania in the 1700s and later migrated to the Midwest, were very creative quilters. The early Amish settlers didn’t use quilts, but rather the traditional featherbed that was so common in Europe. Influenced by outsiders, the Amish women started creating quilts and became well-known for their colourful and creative quilt designs.
A very popular quilt style from the early colonial period is the Medallion quilt, which featured a central motif surrounded by multiple borders. It was usually done in patchwork, but sometimes included appliqué and embroidery.
By the twentieth-century, quilts were part of the North American tradition. Quilting bees were a gathering time for women to come together to create community quilts for brides or someone having a new baby.
Over the centuries, people used quilts to raise money. During the Second World War, the “signature” quilts were the craze. Citizens of a community would pay a fee to have their names embroidered on a quilt block. The blocks would then be sewn together and quilted and the finished quilt was raffled off. The Red Cross received all of the money collected in this enterprise.
When is a Quilt a Work of Art?
Quilts never really lost their appeal to the general public; they’re such a practical item.
In the latter part of the twentieth-century, the younger generation started to show a renewed interest in heritage quilts as well as the craft of quilt-making. Some artisans even took the craft to greater realms and created stunning works that were too good to just cover a bed and were properly hung for display. Some quilts were even framed. The hanging and the framing of a quilt showcases the quilt as an art.
This idea of displaying quilts is not new. For centuries, tapestries, another form of needle and cloth creation, were hung to decorate a room as much as to keep it from drafts. Whilst tapestries might be seen as an upper class form of needleart, the fact remains that needleart, like quilts and tapestries and embroidery, are just as much art as the large oil paintings that also grace the walls of many fine homes.
Even early North American pioneer quilts had their visions of artistry. Lucinda Ward Honstain of Brooklyn, New York, created a stunning “Reconciliation Quilt” in 1867, with individual blocks that revealed intimate details of family life, including specific compelling images that refer to the American Civil War. The work is now part of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Rauschenberg’s Quilt as Art
Art experts believe that art is what the artist says is art. American painter and graphic artist, Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), created a painting/collage on a Log Cabin quilt, a controversial work that he entitled, Bed (1955). The conceptual collage painting shocked viewers because the artist actually painted on the quilt; one given to him by another artist, Dorothea Rockburne (b.1932).
Rauschenberg’s use of a practical, utilitarian item – the quilt – as the medium of his work of art challenged the perception of the subject of art. Indeed, he challenged the perception of the quilt itself. The quilt, a craft, became the quilt, a work of art; the distinction between the two is becoming increasingly difficult to discern as the boundaries dividing the two dissolve.
Recent Exhibitions of Quilts as Art
The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington is currently showing an exhibition of quilts as art. The American Folk Art Museum in New York recently had a quilt exhibition and Hollander says that the selected quilts are examples of the “textiles that were most prized by the makers and their descendants, meaning that there was great intent in the choices of artistry and content made in laying out and stitching the quilt top.”
The Museum of Fine Art in Boston has an upcoming exhibit to feature the growing number of artists being attracted by this very North American medium. There is even an entire museum devoted to the historic artistry of the quilt, the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Museums and art galleries are starting to realize the significance of quilts as art, as well as quilt as artistic medium.
Contemporary artists continue to make their mark using quilts in alternative ways. The American Folk Art Museums recent quilt show, alt-quilts, featured three contemporary artists, Sabrina Gschwandtner, Luke Haynes and Stephen Sollins. Hollander tells us she was particularly interested in these three artists, “because they specifically articulated a relationship between their very conceptual and contemporary art and the emotional resonances associated with historical quilts.”
Like Rauschenberg, Hollander points out that these three artists are “specifically influenced by the structure, appearance, and history of specific quilt patterns, primarily Log Cabin quilts. Luke Haynes also interjects a particularly aggressive pop aesthetic into his quilts. He repurposes fabric culled from clothing, sheets, and other sources, so he is knowingly engaging in a traditional activity but in an unorthodox fashion.”
Quilter as Artist
Art, the creative process of a creative mind and creative hands. Quilts, in fact any form of needleart, uses fabric and thread as media to create a unique object that can be viewed, interpreted, admired and discussed. A quilt, any quilt, clearly falls under the definition of art.
Recent and current exhibitions featuring the quilt as art as well as in art certainly suggest that the quilt is a work of art. That is, if the quilter decides that he or she is an artist and further decides that the quilt that he or she has created is a work of art.