Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Calvin Klein and Me

Calvin Klein and Me

Having been around the quilt world for the last 40 years or so, I have seen the way quilts are occasionally picked up in the mainstream press as something newly rediscovered--it happens about once a decade. The last big splash was made by the explosion of coverage on the  quilts of Gees Bend. Before that, it was the old order Lancaster Amish quilts. What these discoveries have in common is that the quilts uncannily resemble 20th century art, or modern graphics. I am sure you have heard the patronizing comments on these shows as often as I have: “And just think--she didn’t even know what she was doing!” or “They just used what they had…” These comments always, always, are meant to imply that since these quilts were made by little old ladies, they couldn’t possibly have been intentionally sophisticated, the effects they create had to be accidental, and only we sophisticated people can appreciate how cool they actually are. To hear people talk about the Gees Bend quilters, it sounds like people think they are blind and stupid: “They were just using whatever they could get their hands on and sewing it together any way they could.” (The quilters themselves sometimes foster this kind of thinking) That way, we do not have to consider the idea that this unschooled woman in this remote place could have such thrilling compositional skills from only her 50 years of experience making quilts.

No one knows how to explain that women in the mid-nineteenth century were able to create 6-foot-square abstract compositions 50 or 60 or more years before they became common in the art world, so they are reduced to a sort of reverse justification. “Looks like a Rothko,” or, I don’t know...Vasarely...Pollock. You’ve heard it. The idea is to deny the possibility that women of the 19th century could have known what they were doing. After all, they were just women, not designers. Not artists.

Okay. I have long come to terms with the idea that, since quilts were extra-academic, and since they were and are so widely made by women who did not go to art school, they were doomed to be confined to their ghetto...where winning the biggest prize in the quilt world would have absolutely no meaning in any other world. No curator or gallerist gives a hoot if you win Quilt National. Because of the unscalable wall between quilts and Art, we had to make our own museums. We had to create our own world where we can value each other’s creativity. That is my world and I am proud to be a part of it. Even today, when the walls between High and Low art are beginning to crumble, when the divisions between Art and Craft have less and less meaning, there is such a long way to go before quilt artists can get anywhere in the art world that I am resigned to the concept that I will not live to see the day when a quilt artist can be seen as an artist pure and simple. That is alright. I have had the great privilege of making my living here in this realm of women’s infinite creativity and generosity and mutual support. Even when I go way out on a limb with my explorations of what a quilt can be, I get nothing but support here in the quilt world.

But sometimes things bubble up through the fashion or art worlds that infuriate me. Take the recent Calvin Klein ad campaign. The company got a new creative director a year or two ago, Raf Simons, who has discovered American quilts of the 19th century, (obviously influenced by the Red and White show in New York a few years ago, although there is no mention of it anywhere I can find in his verbiage about quilts) and has been so taken with them that he is the latest in a long line of designers to cut them up and otherwise honor them by making clothes out of them. That is okay with me, I am inured to this sort of thing. Here is the real crux of it, taken from their website:

“Some arrestingly graphic, others intricately wrought, these heirloom objects are entrenched in America’s visual vocabulary, and synonymous in many ways with Chief Creative Officer Raf Simons’ vision for CALVIN KLEIN. At Simons’ debut for Fall 2017, vintage quilts lined oversized, utilitarian parkas, or became panel detailing on classic Wall Street topcoats; most recently they were seen on the Spring 2018 CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC runway, tucked under models’ arms.”

I love the idea that these arrestingly graphic, ….intricately wrought, ...heirloom objects are entrenched in America’s visual vocabulary, and synonymous in many ways with Chief Creative Officer Raf Simons’ vision for CALVIN KLEIN. I want to call Mr. Simons and ask how, exactly, are they synonymous? And if you value them so much, why do you advocate using them as floor coverings? Please also allow me to speak for the anonymous women of the 19th century when I say Thank You for using our humble quilts for your magnificent panel detailing.

Okay. I shouldn’t even get worked up over this. But then the New York Times has to publish an article about this latest fashion trend.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/style/blankets-quilts-fashion-trend.html

The article is so full of this kind of patronizing, nonsensical, bullshit statement that it makes my restraint fall away. Let me see…let’s start with the sub heading:

The humble blanket, once a fixture of dusty antiques shops and flea markets, is now sold on Madison Avenue and in Paris boutiques.”

It’s humble alright. Just because 19th century American women completely abandoned the European high style of quiltmaking for the well to do and invented an entire realm of infinite creativity and creative freedom of expression, all the while doing it under the radar of men, by the brilliant innovation of making quilts a gift so there would be no money involved in their manufacture, so that oppressed and isolated women, prevented from participation in the worlds of commerce or politics by law and custom, could have entire artistic careers that lasted their whole lives if they wanted, just because they thereby birthed a Big Bang of creativity in the first half of the 19th century and invented this realm of quiltmaking we still enjoy almost unchanged today, just because they found ways of abstract expression that would go “undiscovered” for decades or a century by male artists, that is no reason to think of them as anything other than “humble.”

Moving on. “Calvin Klein features a red-and-white quilt in its provocative ad starring the Kardashian-Jenner sisters, who are languorously sprawled across the blanket in nothing but their underwear.

I think we are supposed to be surprised at the wild juxtaposition of Kardashians--the utmost in fashion sensibility--and humble, dowdy quilts. And once again you can see how much CK and Mr Simons value their “hand selected” quilts (no kidding, that is what they say) by the way they place the boots on them.

Oy. Okay. Next paragraph.

The French label A.P.C. sells a range of limited-edited quilts at its stores, alongside its utilitarian jeans and chicly no-frills shirts.”

Going to that company’s website you can find this statement: "Quilts to me are intrinsically linked to the past. They are made from yesterday’s fabrics, fabrics that we used and had leftovers of. In a way, quilts are to contemporary history what pottery is to ancient history.
I have chosen to name these quilts after the characters from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. First, because it is about the passage of time, as are quilts, but also because my mother was an avid reader of Proust. The fact is that my love of quilts first came from her."
Jean Touitou

Leaving aside the fact that his quilts which are not based on stolen ideas from the--again--Red and White show are stolen from the Gees Bend quilts.( “Ma Willie”?) Or the others which are simply boring and as if designed by an indifferent beginner, Mr Touitou has to drag Proust into it. Because HIS MOTHER WAS AN AVID READER OF PROUST. Somehow his love of quilts first came from her. And “...quilts are to contemporary history what pottery is to ancient history.”? What does that mean? Why not simply say that he looked at some old quilts and used their designs? And then to watch the 4 minute movie on the A.P.C. website, which shows how the quilts are made in India, where the company is so uninterested in the quilters that we never see their faces or learn their names, only the names of the designers, is profoundly depressing. And let’s not forget that he is trying to give himself legitimacy by using Proust’s characters when he has never read a word of Remembrance of Things Past.

I am going away from facts here. Allow me to get back on track. Next up:

“And Loewe, under the direction of its craft-happy designer Jonathan Anderson, showcased a collection of artisan-made quilts at the Milan Furniture Fair in April.”

Going to the link, we find another NY Times article that starts out like this: “The new capsule collection from Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson was born from the same sense of wonder with which the designer once marveled over his grandmother’s hand-knit quilts.” Yep, hand knit.
I shouldn’t be so picky about this...but it’s the Times! And then we learn that Mr Anderson scoured the earth to find artisans to make his vision come true, all of which are unnamed. Of course. I realize that no one needs to name the people in the design houses who actually do the sewing. But here are “artisans” actually doing the creating.

Next is “For me, this is how I relate to domestic life and how I relate to the emotions of a consumer,” said Emily Bode, a designer at Bode, a men’s wear label based on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that uses old fabrics for new designs. “To me, you’d want to wear it because of what is intrinsic to the fabric itself, it’s innateness.”

It is its innateness indeed.
It is innately perfect for cutting up.

Ms. Bode says there is a physical and emotional comfort from quilts that resonates with her customers, who pay $1,500 for her one-of-a-kind boxy jackets made from dead-stock or found fabrics. “We had two customers who, the day they bought their quilt jackets, slept in them,” she said.

It is so much better to sleep in a jacket than under a quilt.

It goes on and on. All this is standard fare for these kinds of articles. Sophisticates justify using old quilts and the graphic ideas they contain using statements that imply that quilts were once made in a long ago, grandmotherly place, and that these sophisticates are now using them in this fun, quirky way to simulate some sort of interest in the past. By doing this they deny two things: first, they deny the profoundly significant creation of the American way of quiltmaking that arose in the 19th century and, second, they deny that there is any significance to its ongoing evolution and true connection to the past.

Millions of people make quilts today. And because of the brilliance of the women who made this realm and their idea that a quilt should be a gift made by a woman for someone she loves, an idea that kept quilts from ever being noticed by the men in charge, quilts that are being made today are still unnoticed. It’s a little comforting to think that our quilts might have the good fortune of being rediscovered a hundred years from now and used as rugs or cut up for jacket linings because of their innateness. (Maybe we will be so lucky that one of our quilts will get tucked under a supermodel’s arms on the runway!) But I would appreciate a little bit of critical thinking from a writer for the Times, my favorite newspaper.  And I would appreciate the acknowledgement that quilts are in their 50th year of a major revival that has turned into an age, that they are not only “dusty” or “humble.”

Yes, yes, artists like Sanford Biggers can use old quilts any way he wants. Yes, yes, clothing designers can cut them up and use them any way they want. But please do not be so incurious about quilts that you do not even acknowledge on the business page, where the article above was found, that quilts are today an ongoing, huge business, with a sector in the billions of dollars. I would think that a little bit of digging would have given the writer the information that the enormous business of quilts today dwarfs any business related to quilts created or used by the designers in the article. I would think it would be fun to ask some quiltmakers what they think about the honor of having a quilt under the nearly bare bottom of a Kardashian. I would think that an article about the new visibility of quilts might not treat the world of quilts as invisible.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Crazy Cities

Crazy City: San Francisco, 72 x 72, 2016 

Last year sometime I opened one of my old--1980!--quilt engagement calendars, looking for a quilt to show someone. The first quilt I saw, however, caught my attention and gave me an idea I have been pursuing ever since. The quilt is called "Crazy City, 1885," and is signed by C Winnie. I immediately realized that, living in San Francisco, I could also make a crazy city quilt.
So I did. I made a quilt that was all about San Francisco. To quilt it, I took a picture of one of the many, many construction sites all over this town and transcribed it for my Handi Quilter longarm with the Pro Stitcher computerized system so the quilting would be like looking through a chain link fence down into the site of the new subway station. 

I've since made a few Crazy City quilts, like this one below: 

"Crazy City: Detroit." 72 x 72, 2016

The painted Hugs Kisses fabric was created by Therese May. The quilting design here, being Detroit, is the parking lot outside an assembly line. I'll make the picture extra large so you can see the many parked cars. 

Lately I've made a few quilts about Flint, and its neighbor Swartz Creek, my home town. Here is one called "36 Views on the Way to Flint."  The 36 white and black blocks were embroidered by Barbara Zerbe. To create those designs, I photoshopped pictures of tar patches on various highways, the calligraphy-like lines that result from repairing cracks on a paved road. Like this:

"36 Views on the Way to Flint." 72 x 72, 2016

 Making quilts about these cities has given me a rich set of subjects, from which I can draw allusions and inspiration.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Why Go To Finland?

I recently went to Oulu, Finland, a beautiful town way up north to be part of a show of 8 American quilt artists called, "Quilt Visions." Since I was going, my whole family decided to go as well. We had a great time. The breakfast buffet at our hotel was a wonder to behold. No matter what you wanted, you could find it here or have it specially prepared.

Most of the artists had a posse with them, so we were a large group. Here are most of us:
From left it is Judith Lazerlere, Jane Burch Cochran, Linda Levin, me, Vouko Isacksson, Elina Vieru (The curators) and Heather Pregger. Diana Sargeant was absent for this shot.

One day Elina and Vuoko took us to a stone age village!

My family left Oulu in a rental car and drove down the coast to Vaasa, then to Tampere, where there seemed to be art everywhere.
Sculpture overhead.

 A museum show of the latest fashions in 1969Sculpture just lying aroundMy favorite bistro, for obvious reasons

My favorite installation of the whole trip, by Kaarina Kaikkonen 
And then onward to Helsinki where it seemed like art was everywhere

Every day we took a sauna. Now I want to build one in my San Francisco apartment. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Alegre Retreat 2015

This year I taught at the retreat founded by my friend Katie Pasquini Masopust, the Alegre Retreat now held at the Gateway Canyons Resort in Colorado. Oh, it was splendid. The setting, the accommodations, the food--all was top notch. My students went along with me on a journey with no set end point, just making things using some of my favorite techniques: freehand piecing, bias tape applique and etc. 

The ideas were constantly amazing.

Everyone's sensibilities shone through.

A teacher could not ask for anything more.

Exactly what I hoped would happen.

Personality plus.

Next time I get to teach like this is at my own retreat this fall: 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New Lone Star

I just realized recently that I have been working on a series for years, a series I did not even know I had started. It is something I have had in mind for decades and it seems to circle around and whack me in the head every once in a while. After I took this Lone Star out of the frame last week, I realized I was building up a group of quilts based on the idea that I could take the name of a traditional quilt pattern and come up with my own image for it. Years ago I made this Grandmother's Flower garden:

All its flowers are in the quilting. Just last fall I finished this New York Beauty:

And a couple of days ago I got this Job's Tears off my design wall and onto the Handi Quilter frame for quilting. 

I have some ideas about the next few in the series. But now I have to quilt this new one. I better get to work. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Man Made

I have a few quilts in a show that recently opened at the Craft and Folk Art Museum--"CAFAM"--in Los Angeles. Man Made is a show of quilts by, guess what: men! Is there a need for a show like this? I don't know. Gender specific shows leave me cold, usually, because gender is such a vague thing to fit a bunch of artists into. I mean, just because we are all of the same gender is no reason to think that our work will  have anything interesting to say when it is all thrown together. And as I have said over and over, while there were a few men in the business when I got started at the end of the 1970's, my real heroes in the quilt world have all been women. Of course! Quilts were defined in the USA as a gender specific realm of women, by women, for women to make gifts for people they loved. Naturally, then, it was women I looked up to and was inspired by.

But this idea of men making quilts is hot right now. There is the freak show angle, the burning question of what kind of weirdo would to do this anyway? And there is the idea that quilts want to be modern, that they want to be brought out of the past, and people are casting around for ways to do that. Looking at quilts by men is a short cut to this, a way of seeing them as something radically new.

And there are the men themselves, some of them young and sexy like Luke Haynes, or Ben Venom, Aaron McIntosh or Jimmy McBride, or well, all the guys who are young. These guys have been to art school and have the ability to frame what they are doing in high-enough-faluting prose to lend a sort of conceptual art gloss to the whole enterprise.

I think it all feeds into the strain of thinking that has been there ever since this revival started in the early 1970's, the idea that making a quilt is too confining, that we need to "get out of the box," to have "Tradition with a twist!" or to break the bonds of tradition. This idea has persisted, even though there has never been another tradition that is less confining. Regardless of what some stodgy traditionalists may have thought, the very notion of a quilt is that it can look like anything you want, as the women of the 19th and 20th centuries have shown us over and over. It is not a box within which we must stay; quiltmaking is a doorway to a realm where we have the privilege of making anything we can conceive.

The guys in this show demonstrate that. But it would have been extremely easy to find 8 women to demonstrate the same thing. And for the women who have complained that a show of 8 women quilters would not have received any of the significant press this one has, I would say they are correct. So, that is one reason a museum would choose to have a show of quilts by men; its newsworthiness.

I have also heard the complaint that women can make great quilts all their lives and never get any recognition for it, but if a man makes one quilt he becomes a rock star. All I have to say about that is that I do not think anyone in the business becomes a rock star easily. A man might have it easier to get notice in the beginning, but even a man has to do the work of making something amazing and different to get noticed in the long run. And I do not think any man goes into quilts to have an advantage over anyone else. Making quilts is just something that grabs you, regardless of your gender. No one goes into it hoping to become powerful.

So, the show has opened and I had a chance to spend time in it and see what I thought. I am probably too biased to have anything of value to say about it, but I would still say that I think it is an interesting way to spend some of your time. The quilts are varied enough that it would be hard to become bored at the show. It turns out that it will be traveling to Asheville NC and Lincoln, NE in the next year and a half. So if you live near either of those towns you will have a chance to see for yourself. I would love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Coming Wave

This is a picture of my friends Nancy Bavor and Julie Silber in the sewing room of my friend Bonny Morley. Bonny was stricken with Alzheimer's Disease a few years ago and is now in a long term care facility. When Bonny was making quilts she was one of the most organized and involved people in the quilt world. An early member of the American Quilt Study Group, Bonny was deeply knowledgeable in the area of quilt history. She had been making quilts since the early 1950's. As you can see in the shelves behind Nancy and Julie, Bonny kept many binders full of patterns, quilting patterns, magazine articles and quilt ephemera of all kinds. What you cannot see is the papers in the drawers lower down, once again meticulously organized.

Everything in Bonny's sewing room is organized and filed, blocks, fabrics, magazine articles, quilt layouts and patterns, books and all. It is an archive. Bonny, sadly, will never make another quilt. She will never make another quilt diary entry about her inspirations for each quilt. 

Bonny's husband, Dave, asked me to help find a home for this fantastic archive. I am looking for one. It is possible I will find an institution that will take it. 

But in thinking it over and talking to scholars in the field, I am beginning to realize that our quilt world is soon to be hit with a tidal wave of material like this. In any given guild meeting, I am still a young person in the room, at 62. As people of my generation, the ones who saw studying quilt history as an imperative, as we age and pass away, this mountain of material from homemade archives is going to become available, and I fear that no one is going to want it. Our kids do not want it. The few institutions that foster quilt study are already overstuffed. 

The Modern Quilt movement is building another generation of quilters, but so far that generation is more or less ahistorical. Discovering the history of the American quilt was the mission of my generation and those who were my mentors. It is not the mission of young quilters now, nor do I think it should be. But I wonder what is going to happen to the archives and quilts created by the amateur scholars and historians who spent their lives gathering materials and creating quilts of a high caliber. Dave Morley showed me the cupboard with 42 quilts in it. Many of them are masterworks. There are too many for the family to absorb, but they are not sexy prizewinning quilts that institutions would be interested in. 

It is a puzzle. And I think the coming wave of archival material and wonderful, "traditional" quilts will have a difficult time finding new homes.