"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What is Art Cloth, Anyway?

What is art cloth, anyway?

The question took me by surprise, and since being asked more than a year ago, I’ve had some rather startling realizations.

For instance, I ran this project I called the Art Cloth Challenge. I dyed twelve lengths of fabric more or less the same way – color and pattern, that is. Then I invited anyone who read the Complex Cloth list to put his or her name in the hat. I drew twelve names and sent each person a length of cloth, along with a few simple “rules”:
The cloth had to stay intact and could not be cut.
Any surface patterning technique was ok and layering was encouraged.
The pieces had to be returned to me so that I could share the results with my readers on the list.

You can see the results for yourself at http://artclothchallenge.blogspot.com.

The whole premise of the project was that any twelve artists could take the same length of cloth, work it, and produce twelve unique pieces of art. And the premise was absolutely right! The finished lengths were unique. Some of them weren’t even the same color anymore. It was fascinating.

BUT. I couldn’t believe it when I opened some of the packages upon the cloth’s return. Artists whose work I knew and admired had approached the challenge not from the perspective of what they did best, but from the perspective of what I do best. The use of imagery and layering looked more like me than it did like them.

Then it hit me. If any approach to an art form is too narrow, eventually the form will choke, wither and die. If artists in this field define art cloth as what I make, and carry the thought through to the logical conclusion that anyone’s art cloth must mimic what I make, then we’ve got trouble. We’re choking on the definition instead of making art.

My experience with the Mastery Program groups confirmed this narrow definition. My 2008 group was the first to struggle verbally with what art cloth should be as part of considering what it could be. I shared a conversation I’d had with Marie-Therese Wisniowski – Australian artist and curator of an art cloth exhibition. Marie-Therese suggested that while art cloth could be a length of cloth cascading down a wall, it didn’t necessarily have to be a specific length, width or format. The length of cloth was just one way of organizing visual information. Maybe, she suggested, art cloth was a term capable of replacing older, parochial terms, in an effort to move toward wider audience understanding and appreciation of art that begins as cloth.

The 2008 group eventually settled into a comfort zone where each artist refined the methods of working that felt most authentic to her. By the end of the program, we had twelve artists working in twelve authentic voices. I still considered it all art cloth.

One of the ironies of this whole thing is that twenty years ago fiber artists were embroiled in an ongoing discussion of what was art and what was craft. I felt sure we were going to talk that one to death, and I could hardly wait. Once we were worn out talking about it, maybe we’d be able to go back to the studio and make. But here it is again in a new, updated version – what is art cloth and what isn’t? Can’t be digitally printed? Can’t have sand on it? Can’t be square instead of one long panel? Can’t be backed? Has to be one length and not pieced?

We’re getting awfully close to choking on our own restrictions.

I’d love to know what you think.

And thoughts another time on the need for limits! Because as with all things, there’s a paradox to explore - unless we don’t use any words at all, we keep returning to the desire - may I suggest even a thirsty need - for definitions. We’re human. We can’t resist it.


  1. Just my personal opinion here but I've always thought of art cloth as a single uncut embellished (dyed, painted, printed, stitched, whatever) piece of cloth meant to be displayed as art. Once you cut it and attach it to another piece of cloth then it becomes a collage, add a layer and some stitching and it becomes a quilt...

  2. I just did a 2 day workshop with Marie-Therese and I came away with the impression that Art Cloth is at the whim of the artist. It seems to me to be about taking a piece of fabric and using that as a starting point to create. I did not get the impression that the making of the cloth was an end in it's self!

    Do I have the right idea? I do hope I do because I love the freedom of "doing" what feels great!


  3. Why is it that "Art Cloth" is no longer Art Cloth when it is used to make something? Much of my own artwork includes Art Cloth that is then cut, pieced, fused, stitched and otherwise manipulated. If someone else created it, I am sure to credit her/him, but I don't see why using it as a part of the larger artwork makes it any less. In my opinion, it just adds another layer of significance.

  4. Art, by its nature, defies definition. We must fall back on “I know it when I see it.” Each artist must struggle with creating work that channels the wild energy that is art into a tangible form. Each observer then is also put in a position to react subjectively to the work, without there being necessarily a “right” answer.

    Craft, however, can be defined, I think. I view it as technical mastery of physical processes. Craft, taken to its ultimate form, also can become a meditative process that allows the creator to transmit the creative energy through the physical process of creation. Because it is a physical process there can be objective standards and there can be a goal of perfecting the process. The existence of one does not preclude the existence of the other in a work.

    Having become fascinated with Caroline Myss’ concept of archetypes, I now think that those people with the artist archetype will make art because that’s who they are. It will show up in everything they do, whether they have set out to create an actual artwork or not, because they can’t help but apply that transformative energy in the way they live.

    As an individual expression, perfection is not the goal and, in fact, can impede the artistic energy (although flaws can also detract, so I am not advocating for flawed technique, here). What I have learned through music is that there is something that takes a performance to the magical level and it something different than technical perfection.

    I believe all people have a desire to create within them, but do not always know how to apply this in daily life. I think art is an expression of creativity, but not all creative activities are art.

    Just a few thoughts I wanted to share…it has been a nice distraction from reading contracts!


  5. It seems to me that the term quilt has expanded from the expectations of "traditional" quiltmaking to include more creative, more personal art quilts. However, for the general public, the inclusion of the term quilt tends to first bring to mind a traditional, craft based process with 3 layers.
    In coining a new term, Art cloth, I hope that the term can represent a wider range of options. In my learning from you, I may have started out imitating your style in the learning process, but as I proceed in my learning, I hope to continue developing a more authentic, personal body of work. It may be a piece that hangs free, fused to a backing, hung in layers, combined with other pieces of cloth.