One of the major art experiences of my life happened on a February day in 2005 when my husband and I went into New York City to see “The Gates” installation in Central Park. It was done by the environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whom you might recall were known for their controversial “wrapping” of buildings and landscapes with specially-engineered fabric. Christo’s projects generally required years of planning, permitting, negotiating, and environmental approval, and “The Gates” was no exception. It took 25 years before finally being completed and opened to the public, and then the installation lasted only fifteen days, as was their practice. Christo often said that he was “…the only recognized artist whose work does not exist.” (See my post “Artistic Impressions,” 6/12/2020.)
But the experience of the work itself long outlasts its existence. As we walked Central Park on that cold February day with the wind whipping and snapping the “gates” over our heads, all we could feel was the joy and the beauty of the saffron in the sunlight. Even usually reserved, often brusk, New Yorkers laughed and chatted with strangers, all but skipping along the paths with delight at seeing the familiar in a new way. And no one, not one person within my earshot anyway, asked, “But is it art?”
I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately amid a flurry of unexpected activity in my own “artistic” endeavors. It began in early June with the opening here in San Antonio of “A Sense of Place: Texas Landscapes,” a SAQA sponsored regional exhibit of art quilts that has been touring the State for almost two years. This was an unusually large exhibit (31 works) and I was honored to have had one of my own favorite pieces, “A Texas Oasis,” juried into the show. (Quilt photo above and see my post “A Texas Oasis,” 5/20/2020) The Kelso Art Center at the University of Incarnate Word was the last stop and I was thrilled that I could attend the opening at this venue and see the fine “company of work” that surrounded my own.
All in all, it was a great evening, and I returned home happy and proud. And then, later that same night, the call came from the local SAQA director of the San Antonio exhibit: my “Texas Oasis” had sold! What’s more, it had been purchased by the art curator for the permanent collection of the University of Incarnate Word!! This was not only my first major sale, but an “institutional sale” to a university art collection. One could hardly ask for more artistic validation than that.
You might say I’ve been on a roll lately and, oddly enough, I think the Covid pandemic put me there. Being at home, sequestered for so many months without the busyness of appointments and obligations, gave me uninterrupted peace and quiet in which to think and create. I have been remarkably productive in my art quilting, pushing myself to tackle new challenges and develop new techniques. I had four different pieces out in various exhibitions around the Country this summer (all but one now returned home), and have embarked on a new work for submission to an international competition in October that is proving to be my most ambitious, most challenging project yet. If intention counts and my skills match my vision, this could indeed be approaching art.
Those of us who work in fabric, art quilters in particular, are challenged to have their work recognized as art. Historically, any kind of needlework— quilting, crocheting, weaving, embroidery — has been perceived as “women’s work” and therefore considered a domestic art or, at best, a decorative art, because the object had predominantly a utilitarian purpose. The word “quilt” still means a bed covering to most people. For quilt artists like me, then, the more appropriate question is, “Is it art or is it craft?”
Historically, fine art meant art for art’s sake, as in paintings and sculpture, products of skill being used to express the artist’s creativity and appealing to aesthetic sensibilities. If an artist’s skill is used to create an object with a practical use, then classifications such as applied arts, fine crafts or commercial or industrial design are more common. But in the modern era, as we see more and more once useful, still beautiful artifacts of historic and cultural significance in museums around the world — funeral masks, cooking utensils, jewelry, classic cars, designer gowns —the line between art and craft grows thin. Perhaps, as one curator claims, “Craft becomes art when it becomes a precious item.” (www.quora.com/At-what-stage-does-craft-become-art )
Art or craft: the debate goes on among artists, critics, curators, and every attendee at any exhibit. SAQA (The Studio Art Quilt Associates) to which I belong is an international association whose mission is to promote the art quilt form through education, exhibition, and professional development. SAQA’s standards are high: in order to be considered for a juried show, work must be entirely original, not derivative, not made from a commercially produced patterns or created under tutelage in a workshop. Art quilts are made in all shapes and sizes in various styles using many materials, even found objects; they are quilts only in that they are traditionally a “sandwich” composed of three layers of fiber, but you would be hard-pressed to use an art quilt as a bedcover.
Every artist, every creative person, has to answer the art vs.craft question for him/herself. To me, as both an art quilter and a writer, building the skills and working on craftsmanship comes first. Yes, innate talent provides a good foundation, but lots and lots of people are talented and never do anything to develop it. Only with practice, experience and perseverance, might one actually produce a work of art now and then.
A couple weeks after my art quilt sold to the University, I was invited to place some of my work in a small art gallery down in Corpus Christi for a contract period of three months later this year. It was a totally unexpected surprise, especially since artists usually have to initiate the audition/application process themselves to be represented. I am familiar with this gallery, having purchased a couple works there myself over the years, and have always come away inspired by their eclectic mix of artwork in many mediums. One of the partners explained when she contacted me that they had never had a fabric artist represented in the gallery before and were anxious to do so. While I doubt this invitation was in any way related to my recent art quilt sale here in San Antonio, it was quite a coincidence and something of a mystery as to how she knew of my work.
Nevertheless, this is all a happy situation, one that adds to my flurry of activity and excitement, but also one that demands I begin to evaluate my work from a whole new perspective. Which art quilts should I choose to place in the gallery? What is most likely to sell in this gallery in this city by the bay over the holiday season and into the New Year? What kinds of ancillary items need to accompany my work (artist statements, proof of authenticity, hanging apparatus, photo notecards, smaller novelties, etc.)? What am I going to provide as back-up pieces to fill the space in case my works sell promptly? And the biggest question of all, how do I price my work?
Obviously, I don’t pursue art quilting for the money, nor am I trying to build a business or write a book or teach a seminar. I simply do it because I find the work satisfying and absorbing. But gallery representation does mean wrestling with that art vs. craft conundrum and assessing true value on the basis of quality. I know what my best work is, and isn’t.
My mother-in-law was an antiques dealer. She did appraisals, ran an antiques’ center on Long Island, and did major antique shows in big cities. I helped her set up her booth at a show in the Javitz Center in New York City one year and was teasing her about the artistic value of various objects she was putting on display.
“So what is the difference between a vase and a vaaaz,” I asked facetiously. With a mischievous smile, she promptly replied, “Why the price, of course.”
Hmmm… But is it art?