Klee - Marsha McCloskey 1973 (detail)

Quilts – Art or Not?

By Bill Volckening

Episode #4 of Why Quilts Matter asks the question – “What is art?” How does the question relate to quilts? Are they purely functional objects? Are they works of art? Do they fall some place in between, and can the function evolve over time? Does a functional object become something else once it includes decoration, or as it ages? What role does context play?

“Art is one of the great human experiences,” says Shelly Zegart in the episode’s introduction. “But exactly what is art, and how do we recognize it? And in particular, how does it differ from craft – that other great category of beautiful, handmade object?”

When asking these questions, it’s useful to have a good, working definition of art and craft. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” It’s a very broad definition, open to interpretation, and it overlaps with the definition of craft – “an activity involving skill in making things by hand.”

Looking at specific quilts can be helpful when sorting out the differences between art and craft. Wool wholecloth quilts are among the earliest quilts made in America. These quilts often have solid-colored top fabric, and beautiful decorative quilting. Four-post bed quilts are typically T-shaped, with panels that drop over the sides and foot of the bed.

Wholecloth quilt, c. 1790, New England - Maker Unknown

Wholecloth quilt, c. 1790, New England – Maker Unknown

Quilting is the primary method of decoration, although decorative techniques such as appliqué, candlewick, embroidery and stuffed work are also among the early traditions. The function of quilting is structural as well as decorative. Layers are held together with stitches of thread, adding durability and preventing the batting from migrating.

Even though early American quilts are clearly crafted to be bed covers, the decorative quilting is an expression of human creative imagination as well as skill. Many of these quilts are made to dress the bed during the day rather than provide warmth at night. Those quilts function as home furnishings, decorative objects to be appreciated primarily for their beauty.

“Klee”, a pieced and quilted fabric wall hanging made by Marsha McCloskey in 1973, cleverly asks the question, “are quilts art?” A 1928 painting, “Castle and Sun”, by innovative Swiss artist Paul Klee is the inspiration for McCloskey’s work. Her quilt is a clear reference to art history – in particular Klee’s painting.

Klee (1973) - quilt by Marsha McCloskey

“Klee” (1973) – quilt by Marsha McCloskey

Castle and Sun (1928) - painting by Paul Klee, oil on canvas

“Castle and Sun” (1928) – painting by Paul Klee, oil on canvas

This recent branch of American quiltmaking tradition, the “art quilt”, is firmly rooted in the late 20th century, and today, many people make quilts specifically intended as works of art. Quilts are now made to hang on walls, to simply be appreciated for their beauty and emotional power. Decades later, even though quilts have become visually, functionally and contextually separated from their domestic roots, they still struggle for acceptance in the world of fine art.

“Those edges are definitely blurred between what is considered fine art and what is considered craft,” says fiber artist Hollis Chatelain of Hillsborough, North Carolina in Why Quilts Matter. “But there’s so much flexibility now, I really try not to get too mixed up in that. I just do what I do, and that’s all.”

“…it is the vocabulary of 20th century western art that determines how we look at most objects,” says Douglas Dawson, a gallery owner from Chicago, Illinois in an interview with Why Quilts Matter. “Whether they be quilts or pre-Columbian ceramics, the more they look like a Rothko, a Dubuffet, or a Picasso, that’s the legitimizing scale by which we judge most art or craft objects in this country.”

Ethnographic art, tribal art and antiquities are reference points for Dawson. “Many of these objects, which in some cases are extraordinarily valuable and certainly are regarded as art objects by institutions and collectors in this country, were at their origin simple, domestic objects.” Dawson adds, “I think one of the main things that defines art in this country is who buys it.”

These days, very few antique and vintage quilts are used every day on beds. Collectors use them as display pieces, historians use them as research material, and quiltmakers use them as sources of inspiration. When a quilt becomes a museum object or source of a published pattern, its function changes. It is no longer used to keep people warm in bed at night. It could be called art if it functions that way. At the same time, a quilt is never completely stripped of its original function.

Bill Volckening
Portland, Oregon


For much more discussion on quilts and art, watch Episode #4 “What is Art?” of the “Why Quilts Matter”  documentary and check out the Discussion Guide.


Image credits: Images courtesy Bill Volckening.


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