Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I have long been curious about what draws a person to a particular quilt--or any piece of art, for that matter.  The preferences many times seem to fall into two main camps, although these are probably just  the two dominant ends of a long spectrum of preferences:  the representational or the abstract.  All of us are drawn to the human face--I know there are studies out there that demonstrate this, but I'm not about to spend the time to search them out.   But our eyes seem to focus first on any faces that might be visible.  And our minds are always trying to make sense of our surroundings so when a quilt looks like something--a dog, a tree, a landscape--our minds probably heave a little sigh of relief that they don't have to work so hard figuring out what is going on.  So the popularity of the representational is easy to explain.

But that doesn't explain why I--and I know there are some others like me out there, although we definitely seem to be a minority--am drawn to the abstract. I spend a lot of time looking at pieces that play with pattern (not necessarily symmetrical) or color or shape and even enjoy the objects, animals, persons in a quilt more when they have become more abstract or patterned.  Even in Ireland, while everyone was commenting on the eight cute cows that were gathered at a stone wall, I was more interested in the patterns in the stone wall. But they got their revenge when I stepped in a cow souvenir, which was neither abstract nor representational but very real and very fresh.

I have just finished a piece (20" x 37")--well, it needs a hanging sleeve and a label--that is an attempt to think in fabric about this issue.  I'm calling it "Dialog: Pattern or Picture?" And anybody reading that hates quilts with a message or a long explanation attached should just look at and respond to the quilt and skip all the rest of this blog, although the quilt involves more questions than a single message for me.
This quilt began when I had a yard of my snow-dyed fabric up on my working wall last winter, as I waited for inspiration. One day I noticed close to the center of the fabric, a nearly perfect image of a butterfly.  --Oh-- I immediately said to myself --I'll have to use that somehow.--
A few days later,  I decided to get started.  As I thought about a plan for the piece and tried to decide exactly how much I wanted to cut around the image without wasting the rest of the beautiful green fabric, I began asking myself why this section of fabric with the butterfly on it was any more important than other sections where the dyes made beautiful swirls of color or deep pools of shadow or even another nearby fabric that exploded with shades of amethyst and light blue but never resolved into looking like "something." And then I realized the best use of the butterfly was in a quilt that explored this issue of the abstract vs. the representational.

I added the circle of pointed ovals at the top, a shape that, when flipped, becomes a leaf.  Is one more significant, more interesting, more valuable, more beautiful, more attention grabbing than the other?

Is a love for the abstract a cultivated taste, like learning to like cilantro, or are the taste buds of those who like the representational wired differently from those who prefer the abstract? Looking closely at master quilters or artists in other media as well as reading about art and taking art-related classes has probably given me a better appreciation of line, shape, composition, but I am not ready to accept that the study of art is the whole reason someone finds pleasure in the abstract.  I seem to feel that I liked looking at pattern and color long before I knew the name of Rothko or Mondrian.

Anyway, back to color, which is important in this quilt as well:  I chose a more solid hand-dyed blue to set off the busier green and amethyst snow-dyes, and some of Laura Wasilowski's great hand-dyed pearl cotton to do the hand quilting.

Now I'll see if my attempt at capturing a dialog in fabric works for anyone else besides me.  And if you're still with me, thanks for the company.


Vic said...

If I was viewing this quilt in person, Madalene, I might have a different impression. But viewing the image on my monitor, where some of the stitching details are not so evident (for example, the butterfly), here is what I see.

I see two horizontal bands of still water that are reflecting a woodland canopy, bits of sky, and muted sunlight. I see large drops of water that are reflective as well. The drops of water are upside down, but my mind doesn't care. The stitched trees at the bottom ground the image and complete the woodland theme.

Perhaps the nature of the snow-dyed fabric contributes to my impression; but to my eye the dialog of this quilt is that of the essential nature and beauty of water. That doesn't explain the butterfly, of course.

Regardless of the interpretation, I like your choice of colors and the balance of the composition. And I love the subtle patterns and color variations in the snow-dyed fabric.

Madalene Axford Murphy said...

Oh, I like that interpretation. The butterfly is still there, of course, and would be more prominent if you actually were standing in front of the quilt. And perhaps that is part of my point. The abstract is more suggestive and can go in more directions. Your mind plays with the shapes and the color instead of making an immediate identification. Anyway, thanks for giving me a new perspective on that quilt.