Mention quilts and most people conjure up images of something nice for the bed, a group of women sitting together in a community working on a common project, traditional patterns and techniques handed down through generations. You won’t see any of that at a Contemporary QuiltArt Association (CQA) show. The quilts by artists in this organization find closer kin in painting, collage or sculpture than they do in traditional fiber arts. They’re meant to hang on walls, they’re finished in all sorts of nontraditional fabrics and exotic threads and some of them are so small or lumpy you wouldn’t give a thought to throwing them on a bed. The Contemporary QuiltArt Association is inspired by the idea of quilts as art rather than craft.
Much to the annoyance of many in the craft world, the art world is snobby about what it considers art and what it considers craft. Craft involves technique, learning a skill and applying it according to designs or traditions that have evolved over time. Art, the art-partisans say, also involves technical skill, but the medium in which the artist is working is harnessed to serve a concept or idea. It is that concept or idea that most defines the quality of the art.
The members of the Contemporary QuiltArt Association consider themselves artists first, craftspeople second. It’s not a distinction many in the art world -- which still has difficulty accepting glass as art -- would recognize easily.
Nonetheless, there are some important distinctions. Part of traditional quilting was in finding scraps of material to add to a piece, making do with materials at hand. Contemporary quilters go specifically searching for their materials, sometimes dyeing or painting on the fabrics they sew together. They may add found or created objects to the quilt surface. Contemporary quilters often leave threads long and hanging over the surface of the material, something traditionalists wouldn’t like. And the patterns and designs are original rather than being handed down. Where traditional quilts stick to patterns, contemporaries cross a variety of styles and subject matter, or experiment with color and texture.
Rick Gottas, owner of The American Art Company, a Tacoma art gallery, has hosted three invitational exhibitions of contemporary quilts, primarily by CQA members. "The Northwest is one of the best areas in the country for quilting," he said. "Quilters here are very well organized."
"But I show them because I like them and because they sell. These women stretch their craft; they really push themselves."
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