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Monday, September 10, 2012

Craft and Art--again

I made Veronica a going-away-to-university quilt when she left for McGill, in 1997.  It's traveled quite a lot, even catching a plane for Cambridge, and has become rather worn and faded.   So she and I had been on the lookout for a quilt or a block or a fabric that would suggest a skeleton for a new quilt that I hope to have finished for Christmas.

Foolishly, while I was on sabbatical I worked on Barbara Brackman's block of the week quilt that marked the 150th anniversary of the civil war.  She created a wonderful website for quilters that included lots of history, photographs of many primary documents, details from women's lives, and information about decisive battles.  Each of the blocks, like one called "the underground railroad," which had a strong visual diagonal, was tied to the war in some way.  Perhaps the block had been published under a particular name, like "the battle of Sumter," in a ladies' magazine.   More than that, perhaps, the naming of quilt blocks after events or songs (there's one called "the grapes of wrath") or ideas shows how close the war was to the domestic lives of women, how it had become a part of their self-expression in quilts. The fabrics Brackman was using for the sample blocks were all made with reproduction fabrics--fabrics designed to look like they might have come from the Civil War period.  Strangely enough, there's a whole cottage industry devoted to "reproduction" fabrics.  I'll admit I can't resist buying them because they're so interesting.  They have a different visual language and a different mood from contemporary cottons.
These two blocks, in a pattern called "blockade" "spoke" to Veronica.  She liked something about the calm square in a square in a square, but also liked the secondary pattern of the pinwheel that emerges when you put the blocks together edge to edge.  The next step was for her to begin to go through my fabric stash to find the beginnings of a colour scheme and the visual language of the fabric she liked.  She decided on blacks, dark blacky-blues, grey blues, greys, creams--and a dash of red.  I've made about fifteen blocks, which you see at the top of the post.  Of course, Sheba had to put herself in the picture.  Where there are quilts or quilt blocks, there are cats--or at least Sheba.  We've chosen lots of batiks along with quite a few Japanese fabrics to give the quilt a modern look.

This weekend, in order to get myself organized to simply sit down and begin to piece, I pulled fabrics for blocks, combining them in groups of fours, and started cutting up perfectly good fabric into little pieces so I could sew them together again--a non-quilter's bemused definition of quilting.  And I studied the blocks I'd made, which were spread out on the quilt that opened last week's post. 

For me, quilting is very much about play.  But I also find that when I am working on a quilt some other layer of my mind rumbles away like a woman's foot on an old treadle sewing machine.  One of the questions that popped up for me, perhaps because I was looking at the juxtaposition of two very different quilts, was "Is there such a thing as a 'Kathleen Wall quilt'?  My immediate answer was 'no.'  Perhaps you could recognize my quilts by the careful craftsmanship and the size of the quilting stitches if I had quilted it by hand.  No matter how many triangles I have to coordinate, all my points meet.  But my quilts share this quality with those of hundred--if not thousands--of quilts made by other women.  I could also say that my quilts aren't what quilters derisively call "matchy-matchy."  If I'm using blue in a quilt, I don't make sure that all the blue fabrics are exactly the same blue, with the same amount of grey or green or purple in them.  I interpret my colours widely.  But again, you could say this of many, many quilters.  While there's something very calm about a quilt whose colours are uniform, lots of quilters chose instead to surprise you into thoughts about colour and mood.  So that the quilt I posted last week uses almost every shade of blue or green there is, trying to create something both harmonious and surprising.

Perhaps, my bubbling mind considered, I've stumbled onto one of those distinctions between craft and art that I'm always thinking about.  Craft, like quilting, is very much concerned with traditions.  Why else would thousands of women around the world (these women included their comments on Brackman's website and sent in pictures of their blocks ) be making quilts in the twenty-first century out of fabric designed to look like it was made in the nineteenth?  Craft also speaks to a collective vision or preoccupation, so we were making blocks that women had designed about a hundred and fifty years ago when they wanted to articulate the connections between their intimate and domestic lives and large historical events.

You could catch the glimpse of one of Van Gogh's paintings and know that it was a Van Gogh.  Likewise, you could probably identify a couple of sentences as Shakespeare's or Virginia Woolf's.  But this is not always true of craft.  We expect artists to express their unique vision of the world, of life, of our experience of being human,  a vision that colours every aesthetic decision they make.  Certainly some people who are working in media that we usually associate with "craft," like ceramics, nevertheless bring their own vision of their practice and their world into everything they create.  But we call them artists.

I could think of my quilts as studies in mood--which is also how I think of Mark Rothko's paintings.  But he has found an entirely original, idiosyncratic, challenging way of embodying mood, while I use the visual language that women have spoken time time out of mind.  Together we create two things all human beings need to thrive:  the unfamiliarity, the challenges, the questions posed by the work of art, and the comfort of the familiar, of tradition. 

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