Voices, The Quilt Art Group

My new year’s resolution was to get out and about a bit more so when I was asked to open an exhibition of quilts at the Devon Guild Craft Centre at Bovey Tracey, England, I said yes, even though I was a little daunted. However several people asked if they could have a copy of what I had said to publish on their various websites, and I thought well why don’t I blog it? So, here it is.

” When I was first approached by the Devon Guild to introduce this exhibition, I could not imagine why I had been asked! But when I checked my diary for the day’s date I felt a little more adequate for the task – I was scheduled teaching a Crazy Patchwork Workshop at my new textile venue, Heart Space Studios in Bristol. Patchwork Quilts, like Japanese Kimono, are for me the epitome of textiles – perfectly useful art objects.

When looking at the catalogue for VOICES and the Quilt Art Group’s website, what first impressed me about the group is that this international organization has managed to keep successfully connecting and exhibiting together for nearly 30 years – this is no small achievement. At present the group members live and work separately across several European countries and America. What they all share is the universal language of stitch, and speak it in the dialect of quilt.

It is now common practice for artists to use whatever materials they feel appropriate to express their ideas. Indeed any art establishment abreast of the times and at ease with itself takes the use of mixing media and genre for granted.Without naming any of the usual suspects, the fact is that quilts and large – scale fabric installations are now widely accepted as a vehicle to relay an artist’s inner vision.

But this was not the case in 1985 when the Quilt Art group formed and stated that its intention was to ‘deliberately make quilts as an expression of art….and to extend the boundaries of quilting as an artistic medium and achieve wider recognition of the quilt as an art form” .  this surely demonstrates that it was a pioneer in bringing about the changes we take for granted today.

By using an extended range of techniques, materials and tools associated with traditional quilt making the group aimed “ to create non-functional quilts to be displayed for their visual aesthetic; coupling integrity of expression and quality of craftsmanship.” The work here is as much a statement about craftsmanship as it is about personal expression.

It visually and sensually demonstrates many successful examples of that wonderful moment of transition when putting different materials and techniques together, the disparate things become whole.

These fabrics have attained their integrity by fusing together a variety of several textile “languages”. Here we see evidence of the traditional craft skills juxtaposed with today’s technologies. The fluency with which different techniques are used to make one whole piece enables these works to be studied long enough to be “read”. The rich and varied surface sustains the viewers’ interest so that slowly more subtle meanings are revealed.

Reading the group members’ personal statements it becomes obvious that  choosing textiles for a means of expression is not happen – chance

Mirjam Pet-Jacobs  writes

“ Maybe because they are so commonplace, textiles have the enormous power to both evoke recognition and to tell stories “ and several of the artists talk about “ storytelling”

Elizabeth Brimilow in her personal statement says

“ Fibre has been grown, spun, woven, dyed and stitched for thousands of years. I stitch and manipulate cloth, which is used for its tactile quality, its intimacy and its substance. Through my hands I have a story to tell and this connects me to other times, places and cultures.”

The meaning contained within the making is as important as the choice of the right tool for the right job, or put it another way; being in command of a range of technical ability gives the maker infinite choice to find the telling means of expression whatever the message. To develop a level of craft practice so that the actual means of production stops being the first, and sometimes the only thing to notice, takes much time; we now talk of 10,000 hours to attain fluency in any skill.

I stitch by hand and I am aware that time must be spent in a state of concentrated repetitive making to achieve fluency. It isn’t so much the precision of stitching, it is rather the rhythm that has to be established to enable a maker to sustain a large piece of work over a long period of time. Whether making by hand or machine an almost meditative state of mind needs to be attained to complete most large -scale work.

To quote Richard Sennett,in his book ‘The Craftsman’

“ Built into the contractions of the human heart the skilled craftsman has extended rhythm to the hand and the eye.”

And as Inge Heuber  says on her web site

“ you understand best what is created by your own brain and heart. “ and she also writes of “waiting for a special rhythm “ to start before she works.

This exhibition of quilts is varied in its subject matter, and outcomes. Some works are expressions of emotions,

some are personal memories….

some overtly political, and sometimes they just appear to have been made for the pure joy of colour and tactility.

But by and large they have been produced with enough thought, innovation, knowledge and craftsmanship, to achieve a piece of work worthy of contemplation beyond the overall quality of its making – which is surely what differentiates art from craft ?”

When I had looked at the actual exhibition, (I had only researched the catalogue and the individual artist’s websites) I certainly could have written a great deal more and about other connections and ideas that flowed from this work, but close readers of my texts will recognise quite a few of my favourite themes are here so I let it stand.

3 thoughts on “Voices, The Quilt Art Group

  1. My wife and I went to see the Voices exhibition at Bovey yesterday. Speaking for myself I tend to view quilt exhibitions as one would an art gallery, and I am always drawn to Quilt Art’s works in particular because you know they are going to be interesting, thought-provoking, and fascinating. (“How the heck did they create THAT effect?”, one wonders!)
    OK, I do have my favourites, and I look forward to seeing their works, and this exhibition did not disappoint in that respect!
    As you would find in an art gallery, some of the work really didn’t “speak” to me at all, and I moved on, but some were fascinating: Mirjam Pet-Jacobs, for example – is that white shape supposed to be a figure?, or how was the crumpled silver-grey background to Cherilyn Martin’s work created? My wife and I also had differing (if positive) views of the works diplayed by Sandra Meech and Ester Bornemisza. And there was a definite, surprised “OH!!!!” moment when I discovered the second colour behind the double-sided quilt based on blood platelets. (Sorry, didn’t note the artists name).
    I could go on, but will just say that this was an EXCELLENT exhibition, with much to hold the eye and the mind. Thank you!!

    1. Thank you Paul for this reaction to the exhibition, so pleased that you enjoyed it enough to write about it, I wish more people would respond in this way.

      I was really delighted to see new work by people that I had previously only seen and admired in books – particularly Dirkje van der Horst-Beetsma – and meeting and talking to some of the artists at the private view was a real treat.

      It is always interesting how much textile people have in common when they meet, even though their work is completely different, love of and an innate sense of the material always gives us lots to talk about and also we all want to discuss our various processes and swap notes and the makers I met all agreed with me about how meditative we become when making such detailed and time consuming work.

      1. Hi Janet! I wonder if you’ve ever been to the Quilters Guild “Festival of Quilts”, which is held every August at the NEC? If not, then can I urge you to go (but you will need 2 days there at least, in order to get a proper feel for whats on offer!). We’ve been every year since the start, and its always interesting to see how techniques have changed, improved, and spread further among the Quilterati. (Now THERE’s a word!!) The Festival is also exciting because there are not only lots of stalls selling STUFF (how much STUFF does a quilter need?!) but there are around 1000 quilts on show of all styles, shapes and sizes from around the world.
        I realised that the Bovey show was different because as there were just the Quilt Art works to be seen, and because there were fewer people crowding round, the atmosphere was much more tranquil. I realised afterwards that I’d spent much longer going back and forth from one quilt to another, comparing, contrasting, and wondering what each artist was trying to convey, instead of just hurrying round thinking, “I like that”, “Don’t like that”, “Next, please!”, and so on.
        Yes, each show has their merits, with the NEC being exciting, yet extremely friendly, and a great chance to meet and talk to professional quilters about their work, and to meet up with friends from last year, but I liked Bovey because there really was time to reflect, and time to THINK!

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