I can still recall how I felt that day, now over 30 years ago, when I had my first piece of writing accepted for publication. Thrilled wasn’t the word; I became positively giddy when the editor called. I had recently been laid off from my high-school teaching job and had decided that, instead of trying to find another position, I would devote one solid year to my writing. I had to determine, once and for all, if I could establish a viable freelance career, which had been a dream of mine since I was a girl. If at the end of that first year I had published nothing and gotten nowhere, then I would give it all up as a youthful fantasy and go look for “a real job.”
Not surprisingly, that first published article, “Teachers: Migrant Workers of the ‘80s,” came directly out of my own experience, which gave it a distinct voice of authority on the page. “Write what you know,” the old adage goes, and so I did. By the end of that first year, I had published seven more articles in newspapers and magazines, including one in The New York Times, and even had my first book contract in hand. Finally, I could call myself a “working writer;” finally I could join my local press club and become an official member of those national writers’ organizations; finally I could attend those big writers’ conferences with big-name authors and not feel like an interloper.
Over the years I have continued to write what I know — and what I see and hear and want to find out more about. I may not have gotten rich and famous, but I have enjoyed a satisfying freelance career that has brought me pride and pleasure, and even some awards along the way. Eventually, I also returned to teaching — teaching writing, mostly, and thus entering endless academic debates over whether writing is an art or a craft or whether it can be taught at all.
I bring all this up because I have just been notified that one of my art quilts, “Art Glass Quilted,” has been accepted into a exhibit opening in September at the Center for Contemporary Art in Abilene, TX. (See the detail shot above and the full quilt on my Gallery page.) This time, “thrilled” is the word for how I feel at the news, because it means that I am beginning to reach a standard of excellence I have set for myself. Last year, I joined the Studio Art Quilt Associates, an international organization of artists, teachers, collectors and exhibitors, to help me define those standards and develop my craft; not only is “Art Glass Quilted” the first piece I’ve had accepted into a juried exhibition, but now I also feel somewhat less presumptuous in calling myself a “fabric artist.”
The piece was inspired by some handmade Lalíque crystal medallions decorating the grand staircase of a cruise ship I was on in the Mediterranean a while back. I have always loved art glass, and used to collect small vases by Gallé, Daum Nancy and others. I decided to see if I could capture the luminescent frosting and sparkle of art glass on what is clearly a pieced quilt. Attempting to translate one artistic medium into another presented some formidable challenges in design and execution, but I was determined. With each new project, I have been trying to develop new techniques and push myself beyond the boundaries of traditional quilting into more original, unexpected work.
Publication, exhibition, performance, and sharing one’s work in a larger community are all forms of validation that encourage creative people to keep creating. Writers, artists, actors, musicians, and designers most often work in a space inside their own heads, sometimes for years, before any sort of validation, much less public recognition or financial renumeration, comes. The notion of “bursting onto the scene,” or being “an overnight success” belies and belittles the painstaking development of craft and process, trial and error, submission and rejection that always underpins any apparent success.
Inevitably, in talking about creative work, the old familiar question arises: “It may be good, but is it art?” I’ll leave that determination to critics, judges, and Aristotle, but I do believe that the basic skills of craftsmanship, which are the foundations of any art can, indeed, be taught and practiced and honed to produce consistently high levels of performance, even among people who are not especially talented. The passion, the inspiration, the originality — these are the inexplicables that some might call “talent,” which must come from within the individual. They cannot be taught, but their influence on a creative work is distinctive.
Art or craft? Talent or competence? Vocation or avocation? Do you care? At this stage of my life, I certainly don’t. I’ve had the arguments, established the careers, survived the rejections, and emerged still enthusiastic enough to be thrilled by creative achievements of any kind and lucky enough to have the time to pursue them. I’m already auditioning fabrics for my next project.
Meanwhile, I’ve also started looking into Abilene and plans to attend the exhibition opening this fall. After all, I could be on my way to becoming the “Grandma Moses” of the art quilt set. I wouldn’t want to miss my debut!