Do Art Quilts Belong in Quilt Shows?

People love quilt shows, and flock to them whether in a regional agricultural show or a major city or state gallery.   No matter the source of inspiration or the pattern used, producing any quilt requires a certain amount of creativity and perspiration.  Despite the similarity of tools, many of the processes, and many of the raw materials used to produce all the different kinds of layered textiles, it’s a mistake to assess them as equals in every way.  Carrots and radishes, quilts and art quilts, yes they are alike, but different.

It’s over two decades since quilt show organisers began including art quilt sections in their events.  Years ago when I still belonged to a traditional quilt guild, as a known art quilt maker I felt it was important to participate by entering the guild’s annual show when for the first time it offered an art quilt section in the annual members’ quilt show.  A contemporary quiltmaking subgroup of the guild had formed a couple of years earlier, and there was enthusiastic interest in experimenting with techniques, materials and ideas beyond the range of traditional quiltmaking.  The entry form asked for the inspiration source for the quilt design – so I submitted a photo I’d taken of a ceiling in some caves nearby, and handed over my quilt, La Cueva (spanish for The Cave)  In quilt shows, the quilters expect and usually get some kind of technical comment back from judges, though this is not the case in art quilt exhibitions.  My quilt came back after the exhibition with a judge’s comment along the lines of  –   ‘The wavy lines are most distracting’.

La Cueva (The Cave)   1998         150cm x 130cm

Hmmm … the photo I took of the cave ceiling with roots and stalactites hanging down was the inspiration for the repeat units I combined to make the quilt.  That dismissive comment highlighted to me that the person chosen to judge the art quilts was not seeing these works as ‘originally designed art’ and really did not understand the difference between an art quilt and a functional bed or wall quilt from a traditional design or commercial pattern.

So the answer to my question is, no, I don’t think art quilts have a place in quilt shows.  Many textile artists differ with that view (for valid reasons to do with their own practice and marketing) but eventually it’s a personal choice about where to have your work seen, and sometimes a difficult decision.

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4 Responses to “Do Art Quilts Belong in Quilt Shows?”

  1. Pam Hansen says:

    Hi Alison,
    I really appreciate your thoughts on this subject and I ‘get it’. You are the first I have heard from about this conundrum of art quilts. This show category seems to be a developmental stepping stone for some who make the shift, but it’s become a much bigger movement with so many pushing the limits and exploring their talent beyond the bed quilt. And then there’s the question of what constitutes original art in those shows… don’t even get me started! I have had similar experiences with show judges who don’t understand the art part,only the technical construction part and that really doesn’t apply to artful expression. Professional quality of work is still important, but traditional quilt rules do not apply! It’s art now, not a quilt, with room for all sorts of freedom of design, and that’s what convinced me to leave the quilt show venues to just the quilts. When I shifted to the art side of quilts I no longer called them quilts or art quilts in any way. I could sense the attitude of thought change to, ‘my grandma made quilts…’, and often I would hear those words spoken, if I used the word quilt in ANY way to describe my process and it placed a lesser value on my work,(as if ANYONE could do that), so I began talking about and treating it as ART and submitted my work to art shows and galleries. Along the way I have incorporated more than fabric and batting and thread, experimenting with traditional art materials. It has taken some time and a bit of education, but I have found acceptance and I simply call myself an artist, not a quilter. My decision gave me liberty and permission to break all the rules! No regrets.

  2. Kathi Battles says:

    I understand. I am an art quilter, or a fiber artist or a mixed media artist. Whatever the title of what I do, I love it and it feeds my soul. Fortunately, Where I live there are many accomplished and fascinating art quilters. I still participate in the local, well-received quilt shows for several reasons: 1) to encourage other quilters to branch out and try something non-traditional, 2) to share the joy of creating art and wallowing in the visceral feeling of fabric and other fibers, 3) to hopefully elicit a laugh or a “hmmm?”, 4) to share the validity of an art quilter’s work and not judge the consistency of their quilt stitches, their quarter inch seams or the perfection of their bindings.
    I pay extra to have my quilts professionally judged. This has been a puzzling experience. I want professional criticism because I want to learn and grow. The last time I entered a quilt it represented a pit of despair. I used raw-edge appliqué and free-motion zig-zag variable length quilting. The judge told me I needed to work on the consistency of my quilting stitches. What? Are you kidding me?!
    So, yes, I need to enter art shows and have just started to dip my toe into that scary place. I have a long way to go to break into that arena and hope that the art group I’ve recently joined will offer support and sage advice.
    Thank you for sharing. And, by the way, I really admire your La Cueva

  3. Barb Allen says:

    Two different species!
    It’s why I’ve moved from calling my work “Art Quilts” to “Fiber Art” and only enter “Art Shows”. (Although have not yet changed my website name because I have all these silly business cards!)
    And, if this is where you are, please do not be afraid to move to the “Art” world. I’ve found it to be very open and inviting, recently receiving Best in Show ($ PLUS a one-woman show!!!).
    Do it!

  4. I think it depends on the individual quilt show. Not all are judged by those only knowledgeable about traditional quilting. Some even bring in someone outside of the traditional quilt world. And it may be the only venue for someone taking those first steps, a stepping stone as it were to the fiber art world. Plus I do think it helps to educate the public that would never attend an exhibit labeled fiber art or even quilt art. You just have to gird yourself for those negative and/or nonsensical comments about your work and revel in the positive responses that will also come. Eventually, if you stick with it, your work will evolve beyond the quilt show and be ready to stand side by side with the rest of the mediums in the art world.

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