Fine Art Or Craft?

In a recent Zoom chat with fellow SAQA members on the problem many makers of art quilts find in having our/their work accepted as ‘Fine Art’ in the Art World. In that discussion, we talked how the associations conjured by the word ‘quilt’ evoke memories of familiar protective, warming, comforting bed covers, ie quilts. Historically bed quilts were always and still are pretty exclusively designed, made and used entirely within the home, a setting largely organised and run by women. The result is that many modern art quilters, including myself, feel the word ‘quilt’ comes with some heavy baggage of historical perceptions that don’t necessarily apply today. I know if I tell someone that I’m an art quilter, it is very likely they immediately think of bed coverings, and very few of my works have ever had that dual role potential.

Some art quilt makers find ourselves deliberately avoid using that “q’ word as we speak and write of textile art, fibre art, layered and stitched textiles, fabric art, mixed media, wall hangings, 2D wall art, and so on. I’ve actually settled on ‘textile artist’ as being the closest coverall term for what I do:

  • my creations involve woven fabric, that is, some kind of textile, as the major raw material of a work.
  • I love repeat pattern units in grid layouts, and my minimalist abstract designs bear strong influence from traditional geometric patchwork which I got to know while living in the United States over 30 years ago.
  • I machine piece my freehand cut fabric shapes to produce improvisational patchwork.
  • I hand applique raw edged fabric or leather shapes with mostly very simple hand stitch.
  • I sometimes fuse fabric and other materials together.
  • I sometimes laminate shapes of woven and non-woven materials between plastic sheeting and use the result as something to be appliqued to a base fabric.
“Trapped Triangles” 2022. 76cm. sq.
Silk triangles and threads between plastic, hand appliqued and quilted.

In Spanish there is a delightful umbrella term for any 2D textile hanging on a wall, made using any technique, including but not limited to, weaving, embroidery, knitting, crochet, macrame, patchwork, and mixed media – whether it is quilted or not. This word is ‘tapice’, and as I currently live in the Spanish-speaking world, that suits me just fine!

For growing numbers of modern fibre textile artists, the process of designing and producing a quilted textile work often involves digital devices at some/several stages of its production, which can include contracting out part of the process to a commercial printing firm if the artist can’t carry that out in their own studio space. Does this mean the work is less ‘artistic’ because one or more parts of the production process have been handled by some technician?

Also, today many quilters sew their textile art entirely by sewing machine, a growing number of which are computerised and programmable. Though this mechanised needle and has been around since the mid C19, the fact that modern machines can be programmed to do certain tasks means that the artist’s hand may be removed from some part of the actual process – so does this make what we do less artistic? Art quilt makers who produce their art professionally generally have some kind of dedicated studio space, which may be distinctly separate from their home, but many more, including myself, count themselves lucky to have a dedicated room or two of their own within their home, or even having a studio in a converted garage space. This means many or even most of us still produce within the ‘domestic’ arena, making the women’s craftwork thing difficult to shake off, even though (1) a significant number of top art quilt makers are men, and (2) many male and female artists do have separate studios away from their homes. Is what you make less ‘artistic’ if you work at one end of the dining table to produce it?

And, finally perhaps it boils down to a simple thing: the other day on a FB page dedicated to people like readers of this newsletter, someone pontificated that a quilted textile with a fabric border/frame around it is ‘craft’ – a true art quilt has a faced edge. As I’ve ripped, hacked and burned edges of some of my pieces down the years, I don’t agree with her edict! But, does the fine binding on my little piece above render it ‘craft’? or at least make it less artistic?

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3 Responses to “Fine Art Or Craft?”

  1. jacqui says:

    Simple, you are an artist who constructs art objects using various materials.
    I know one RA member who asked me why I didn’t try to get my work shown in galleries when I showed her my small beaded pieces that I was doing at the time. I said because it’s not considered art. Who said that? she replied. As far she, a painter, was concerned, it was art. Of course, the difficulty is getting galleries and museums to believe this, but it’s happening. When I was last in London in 2019, there was a big exhibit by an artist who was doing quilt-like work but chose not to call them quilts but an exploration in ….. and that was in the RA.
    Not all ‘artists’ have separate studios. I know many artists who have their ‘studio’ in their homes.
    I would consider quilting a craft if a pattern has been followed, as most guild members do. That is how I started a brief 5 yrs ago and am still doing most of the time. I only discovered art quilts from my journey into quilting a short while back.
    As for new technology, all artists use what is available if it helps with the creation of the piece of work. In past centuries, the master artist used guild workers to do the more mundane parts of the painting or sculpture. However, that didn’t negate the work of that artist.
    Love your work, by the way. As for myself, I don’t consider myself an artist or craftsperson. Instead, I am an explorer of life and hobbies!

  2. I am bit confused,I thought we have have ended this kind of discussions 20 maybe 30 years ago. I am a Fiberartist, And am extremely happy with this term, which is not different from painting. or photography. In the 1970s we fought this fight. Fiberart became an art just as any other art. Why does it feel to me that somebody is trying to go backwards with many ideas,is it connected to uprising of conservatism?, I am also confused because at the same time many painters and other artists try to mix cloth and threads in their creations. Feel happy and proud with this term. Don`t let people push us years backwards. mirjam

  3. Like Mirjam, I can’t believe we are still having this conversation. It’s been nearly 20 years now since I pondered what to call myself to avoid the quick reference in viewers’ minds to something one sleeps under that their grandmother made, and to be all-encompassing enough to not limit the explorations I sensed I would do away from what even the term art quilt implied. Like you, I settled on textile art/artist and I feel it has served me well. I decided against fiber artist because at the time, that term was more linked to weavers, knitters, etc. and I knew I wasn’t going there. I guess I have been very fortunate to end up in a community with a strong arts emphasis that never questioned that what I wanted to put out there was art and not craft and excepted my work for exhibits alongside painters, photographers and sculptors as well as mounting textile art specific exhibits.

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