Wednesday, April 11, 2012


Ever since my weekend at the SAQA conference one of the threads that has been running through my mind is what makes a quilt art (or you could say, what makes a quilter an artist). There are many ways to approach this question, but when Tom read me a passage from a book he was reading at lunch the other day I, of course, connected it with what I was thinking about. The passage (from James Gleick’s The Information) talked about how underneath all the veneer of order and rigid rules that the universe and the scientific world presents us, chaos is running rampant where laws are bent or broken or don’t exist at all.  

At the heart of the world lies chaos theory, quantum mechanics, and the uncertainty principle, and, as much as we long for certainty, for rules to tell us which path to take, for knowledge about how it’s all going to turn out in the end (let’s pause to give a cheer for the formulaic romance novel), they just don’t exist. 

When I run through all the fiber art that I saw in Philadelphia, there are very few common denominators, but one that does appear consistent is the absence of pieces with identical repetitions—the kind of repetitive blocks of many traditional quilts. Missing also is the absolute symmetry of those quilts or of a medallion quilt or of one of those amazingly perfect quilting designs. (These absences do not, of course, constitute rules because there are no rules either.) Is this at all related to the direction science itself has taken?  Now I am not saying that any of these artists has studied or even has any interest in quantum physics, although that is certainly not impossible, but these big theories do influence the way we all look at the world, and artists usually try to be true to their vision of the world.
"Between the Lines" by Lisa Kerpoe
There may be other explanations. This trend could be explained, for example, by the design elements taught in art schools: repetition is encouraged as a way to unify a piece but it is not an exact repetition—a repeated circular shape but in varying sizes or the same shape repeated but in different colors and orientation. And while they favor a kind of suggested symmetry that is more a balancing of the elements in the work, artists-in-training are warned about plopping something down in the center of their piece surrounded by two equally balanced sides—no classical symmetry.

But what about the fact that lines don’t seem to be straight any more nor are shapes perfectly square or round. Lines and shapes squiggle and bounce and curve and fade. Perhaps all this is an attempt to mirror nature where no two leaves are exactly the same and no line stays straight for very long, which may ultimately be just another way of looking at the uncertainty principle.

Speculating on the conscious or subconscious reasoning behind trends in art is just that—speculating--and an interesting way to try to connect things, something I find endlessly intriguing. But I know I, like many others it appears, like to look at and to try to make art where the human hand is evident, where the structure of it doesn’t break down into any easy formula and a bit of unpredictability creeps in.  Some would say this is a reaction against the mechanization and rubber-stamp commercialism of our technologized world, a view that is easy to agree with, but I find it amusing that science and art, often stereotyped as polar opposites, may share a world view and may, with a big emphasis on “may,” give a tiny clue to what makes a quilt art.

And if you hung in there with me on this long musing, thanks for the company!

1 comment:

Sue Reno said...

Nicely done! I was at the conference as well, and have been having my own set of musings, working on making sense of it all. I enjoyed the path you took here.