Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pictorial Quilts and Abstraction in Modern Quiltmaking

In a couple of recent posts Kathy Loomis (Art with a needle) has been talking about pictorial quilts and their significance in the modern quilt world.

I fully agree to what she has to say about quality and beauty of design, and her desperation about the fact that leaves, trees and flowers seem to be en vogue at the moment. I have to say that looking at catalogues of, say, Quilt National in the past few years, had kept me from entering in an American show as I felt that my designs differed rather too strongly from the American taste, and that was mainly due to the many pictorial quilts in these catalogues.
In Europe, pictorial quilts have not been quite so abundant as in the States, but I have the feeling that lots of quilts are being painted on, splashed on, glued on - and from a European perspective the Houston Winners gave a bit of hope that perhaps the time of „the painted quilt was over“ as Barbara Lange has called it in a personal communication.

What I don’t quite understand is why quilting turned pictorial at all – after all, it began as something else. For what is a Log Cabin block, if not an abstract representation? Quilting design was abstract before painted art had even seriously thought about abstraction.
Personally I have never felt the urge to make a (serious) pictorial quilt – with one exemption, a crib quilt for my son which consists of several animals, mostly taken from the pieced animal patterns by Margaret Rolfe, except for one cat pattern that I developed myself. It was fun to make, in expectation of the child that would lie on it (though my friends then convinced me to put it on the wall in his bedroom instead of letting him drool onto it) - yet I would never show it in an exhibit, nor show a picture of it here on the blog.

As Kathy Loomis mentions, fabrics don’t lend themselves easily to quasi-photographic representation. So why do people feel the need to turn a picknick scene in front of a waterfall into a quilt? I’d rather have a painted picture of that, or an enlargement of the photograph that depicts the scene, if I need something to keep my memories of it alive. Tell me: why do you want to have a quilt of a waterfall on your wall – and what reasons should somebody else have to buy that quilt from you?

In the design classes that I teach I try to get the participants to understand the value of abstraction, as the process of abstraction is what turns their design into their very own. In a recent class I taught one participant came to the class with a copy of a picture from a famous German children’s book and wanted to turn that into a quilt, and I asked her „Do you really want to make a quilt with the little witch on a broom flying over the trees?“ In the end she had come up with an abstraction that to her symbolized the fire that the witches were dancing around, but could mean something completely different to another viewer.

In times when photography can give us pictures that are almost as real as reality itself the process of abstraction is what turns any kind or representation into your piece of art. And then the beauty, and perhaps the significance of it, lies in the eyes of the beholder.
Or what do you think?


  1. I very much agree with your post on abstraction and pictorial quilts.

  2. If you don't like representational quilts, don't make them. The quilt world is wide and deep and there is room for everyone. I hate traditional quilts so I don't make them however they are the foundation of today's quilts, representational or abstract. They require a fussiness and attention to detail I don't want to spend my time on. However I do respect those who spend weeks, months and years toiling over them.
    This is the second blog I read this week that had unkind things to say about a genre of quilt. I don't even agree with the arguments made. Let's all just play nice, make the quilts that appeal to us and give others the dignity to make what appeals to them. I have always learned something from looking at others quilts, whether they appealed to me aesthetically nor not. Fabric is the alphabet I use to write so how can my words, thoughts, emotions not be as good as anyone else's?

  3. Thank you, Beth, for your comment. I am not trying to say unkind things about pictorial quilts, in fact I was trying to find out what are the reasons for quilters to make them, as I have never felt that urge. Sorry if I hurt your feelings.

  4. You certainly did not hurt my feelings. After reading Kathy Loomis' blog earlier in the week and commenting on it (my comments have been removed from her blog, not by me)I was disappointed to hear that same intolerance of others work. I have had the opportunity to share thoughts and work with some famous artists and I have never once heard them denigrate anyone, or any genre of art quilts. They are magnanimous, generous with their time and comments and generally supportive of everyone. My country is being torn apart by "US" and "THEM" and I'm appalled to hear the same kind of divisiveness in the art world.

  5. I get the impression that you see 'the quilt world' as equal to 'the art world' - however, from all my knowledge of art history I would gather that any development in art - styles, techniques, whatever - depended upon and resulted from dissens, discussion and a feeling of division between some artists who considered themselves "us" and saw other as "them". E.g. rejections of now-famous paintings when they were entered for Paris salons, or the founding of the group of "blue Rider" in Munich, to name only two examples. The best one can hope for, in the art world, I would say, is, to agree to disagree on many art issues...