Tracy Chevalier is usually an historical novelist but an exhibition put on by the V&A in 2010 on Quilts 1700-2010 opened her eyes to the world of quilts and also to the interest in this art or craft form – I hesitate to label quilts as one or the other due to my newly written article concerning Grayson Perry’s description of the craft lagoon.
Tracy had gone to the exhibition it seems because she was researching her latest historical novelist and she had decided her main character would be a quilter – quilting is a cultural craft both sides of the Atlantic and she feels that quilts are both creative as well as practical which is what I personally like too.
Quilts over the centuries were usually bed coverlets but some were purely utilitarian, for everyday use, and some were considered ‘fancy’ quilts only put on beds when guests were visiting or present or to effectively show off the skill or wealth of the maker. As the article states many quilts were the only opportunity for women to play with fabrics in colours, textures and patterns and old clothes or feed sacks were commonly used. I am fully aware of the fact that there are some quilts known as shirt quilts as they were made with old shirts and some feed sack companies latched on to the secondary use of the sacks as quilts and began producing them in differing patterns and colours for the women.
Tracy not only researched the quilts but also learnt to quilt and has got the level of knowledge that enabled her to be invited to be at judge at the International Festival of Quilts in Birmingham for the Fine Art Quilt Masters category – this honour is not to be underestimated as this show is one of the highlights of the quilting calendar here in the UK.
Quilting is big business in the USA and even towns where everything is boarded up apparently the quilt shops remain open and she states that these shops were always busy and in much the same way as in bygone years clearly still the hub and centre of the community – quilting bees were an opportunity for women to socialise whilst they worked on hand-quilting whichever quilt needed finishing. As she also states quilting has become a huge business here in the UK although sadly the Quilt Museum in York has sadly closed since her article and Tracy Emin is known to be a quilter albeit one who makes quilts to exhibit rather than be used.
Tracy asks the question over whether quilts are having ‘their moment’ and crossing the boundary from craft into art – in the time I have been interested in quilting, (over 20 years now since my late Mum started quilting after emigrating to Florida in 1993 and over 7 years since I first made my first quilt), it has changed immeasurably in terms of how it is perceived by the general population and also in terms of the art quilts that have emerged that are purely intended for display. She makes the argument that it does not matter what medium you use to create art it should not be treated differently but that stitched items are and this comes back to my previous blog on the fact that Grayson Perry looks down on the craft world as he feels it is full of ‘less challenging artists’ (Perry, 2005) although this simply could be further from the truth. Tracy has clearly researched her subject well and spoken to Nancy Crow who is a well known fiber artist and art quilter who also feels that the art world treats art quilts with condescension and for me this reflects back to Perry’s comment. However Nancy Crow does make the point that the art world is historically male dominated and I am very much aware of this fact through my art history studies particularly during my research on the baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi and the simple fact is quilting is perceived as being traditionally female although this is rapidly changing – I personally follow Tim Latimer on Facebook and am aware of a growing community of male quilters who are making their mark. Nancy Crow does have a valid argument – the art world is patriarchal and crafts or art done by women is often looked down upon as being second rate despite the high level of skill.
Tracy makes another valid point that the different between craft and art comes down to context – if it can be used and is utilitarian e.g.a quilt that goes on a bed it is classed as craft but if it can be hung on a gallery wall with good lighting then it can be classed as art. At a show she curated in Danson House in south-east London she mixed the quilt categories up in her exhibition titled ‘Called Things We Do in Bed’ and displayed quilted clothes alongside antique quilts and also works by Grayson Perry or Sara Impey as well as other artists who use quilting plus also work by so called amateur quilters which included on piece by the group who go under the charity Fine Cell Work – this charity teaches inmates to sew and my thumbnail photograph is of the Sleep Quilt made up of 63 squares designed by prisoners on their views on sleep.
Tracy had hoped that the exhibition would make spectators question the line they perceive is drawn between art and craft and question further whether that boundary is even relevant in our modern age.
I was unable to visit this exhibition at the time but was aware of it through the quilting groups and know it made quite an impression. There is a frustration in the quilting world that art quilts or quilting in general is still considered second-rate to art forms such as painting and pottery despite the intense technicalities involved in the making of any quilt – it is considered craft not just because it goes on a bed but because it is not considered to have feelings or ideas behind the design. I am also a follower of a quilter who goes by the name of Ferret – she was an astrophysicist but is now an art quilter and her work involves the same emotions and ideas that go into any painting as I am sure Nancy Crow would also agree. In the USA there is an International Quilt Museum at Paducah in Kentucky and I would love to challenge anyone who states that those quilts on permanent display do not deserve the same recognition as the works of art in the galleries – yes they may not be the works of the Great Masters but they are nonetheless works of art and definitely not in the realms of craft.
I guess this still brings me back to the craft lagoon and the less challenging artists that reside there – I feel by reviewing this article I am further enhancing my view of where craft belongs in the modern world and feel the lagoon banks have broken and it is making waves in the art community but there is a considerable way to go yet.
A second article I discovered, (Stitches in time: Quilt-making as contemporary art), relates to the exhibition at the V&A and relates to Tracy Emin’s thoughts on quilt making and their place in the art world – she refers to quilts as blankets as they go on the bird and to many in the quilt world the term blanket is almost as insulting as saying that Caravaggio could not draw …. and I have seen enough very indignant comments to know the truth behind my own statement! However Tracy Emin is seeking to change the perception of the fact quilting is not seen as high art through her work with quilts – she is fully appreciative of the thought and love as well as the discussions on life that go into making quilts and she also treats the quilting and layering of the quilt in the same terms as she creates the layers in her paintings … for this artist quilting is an art form and should be recognised as such. Tracy Emin’s quilt or exhibit in this exhibition was a reflection on her blankets and the love that goes into the making of these quilts and for this small paragraph alone I gain new respect for this artist – she is someone prepared to challenge the art world and try to change perceptions on the items and objects considered craft but is in reality art.
As a second footnote I discovered an article by Germaine Greer, (‘I’ve braved earthquakes and bullets in my hunt for fabulous fabrics’), – she has travelled the world collecting beautiful textiles that are worn and used but exquisitely made and technically accomplished in cultural ways that are being slowly lost forever including the work of banjara embroidery but not the type sold to tourists but the type made for a bridal trousseau in Bombay. Germaine has also driven up and down mountains in Guatemala looking for textiles despite the area being a war zone and due to her travels she does not consider her textiles art but she considers them great treasures of great value and she was subsequently unimpressed with the work of Tracy Emin on display at the V&A exhibition. Germaine Greer is well aware of the fact that much of Tracy’s work is concerning women’s craft practice with its imperfections but she states she is underwhelmed at the prospect of the exhibition because “nobody cared to rescue the great textile heritage left us by hundreds of tribal peoples. The great resources of the rich nations have been used instead to preserve work that isn’t a patch on it.” (Greer, 2010). Sadly this writer does have a valid point because the textile heritages are being lost throughout the world – the people behind these incredible textiles are being overlooked by the very artists who study them and the cultural influences of those textile artists will eventually become consigned to history unless the art or the craft world starts to act to protect them but maybe here it is where governmental help needs to step in but very sadly we are also in an economic time where funding for the arts in all genres is being slowing but surely cut and these heritages cannot be saved without increased funding from a sector that is under greater pressure than ever.
Chevalier, T. (March 2014). What a stitch-up: The gentle art of quilting [online]. [Date Accessed: 25 February 2017]. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/what-a-stitch-up-the-gentle-art-of-quilting-9207842.html
Cripps, C. (2010). Stitches in time: Quilt-making as contemporary art [online]. [Date Accessed: 25 February 2017]. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/stitches-in-time-quilt-making-as-contemporary-art-1921331.html
Crow, N. 2017. Nancy Crow [online]. [Date Accessed: 25 February 2017]. Available from: http://www.nancycrow.com/homepage.html
Ferret. (date unknown). Ferret Fabrications [online]. [Date Accessed: 25 February 2017]. Available from: http://www.ferfab.co.uk/
Fine Cell Work. 2017. Tracy Chevalier and the Sleep Quilt [online]. [Date Accessed: 25 February 2017]. Available from: http://www.finecellwork.co.uk/news_and_events/blog/344_tracy_chevalier_and_the_sleep_quilt
Greer, G. March 2010. I’ve braved earthquakes and bullets in my hunt for fabulous fabrics [online]. [Date Accessed: 25 February 2017]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/mar/14/germaine-greer-textiles-quilts
Lewis, P. March 2010. Quilty pleasures: V&A exhibition celebrates the material world [online]. [Date Accessed: 25 February 2017]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2010/mar/18/quilt-v-a-exhibition
The National Quilt Museum. 2017. The National Quilt Museum [online]. [Date Accessed: 25 February 2017]. Available from: http://quiltmuseum.org/?gclid=CLja2OPzq9ICFQEM0wodAvkJew