"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.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why do YOU work?

Why do you make? And why do you make what you make?
Have you spent time thinking about these questions?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot – partly because as a working artist you have lots of alone time, and although I adore audio books, I’ve recently chosen solitude over information. I need time to think.

Today what I really want to know is why other people do what they do, but specifically why people/women/men make art quilts or art work with a textile component.

Here’s why. I’m writing a lecture to be given alongside the current art quilt exhibition, Form Not Function, at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, Indiana. As preparation, I looked at the quilts in the show. Then I started looking at all kinds of art quilts in all kinds of places. Famous quilts, not so famous quilts. All of the Quilt National shows since 1999. Fascinating. Genres have definitely emerged. More on that later, after I have introduced my classifications in the lecture.

My original plan was to draw conclusions and propose goals art quilters could work toward into the future. But although I’ve worked on my ideas for several weeks almost nonstop, I find I have only observations to share.

There are some intriguing oddities in the art quilt movement.

For instance, it’s a field populated by women. There is only one man in the Form/Not Function show. In the last issue of the Surface Design Association Journal, which featured the art quilt movement, four men were included alongside twenty-four women. Neither SAQA (the Studio Art Quilt Associates) nor SDA knows for sure how many male members are enrolled, but it’s not a very large number.

This is the reverse of almost every art movement to date. Men have dominated painting from Romanticism until Now, with women making inroads, but not definitive or speedy ones. From Mary Cassatt to Georgia O’Keefe to Lee Krasner, women were the exception, not the rule. Feminism influenced this of course, but the movements associated with women who acted partly from a Feminist stance are still subjected to faint disdain as far as mainstream Art is concerned. Maybe the playing field is finally leveling among young, aspiring artists, (I haven’t researched it – anyone have personal experience with this?)

But what’s going on in the art quilt world?

I guess it’s not surprising, since sewing has always been a girl thing. But it just feels odd. On the one hand, quilt making is huge because it gives so many women a context in which to be artistic. But quilt making still isn’t mainstream art – could it be because it is primarily a female arena?

Women are by nature supportive and encouraging. Quilt guilds have flourished in part because they provide connection. Organizations like SAQA have harnessed an incredible female energy, one that continues to rise – generating shows and exposure for the membership.

That’s good. But also problematic. If we get our own little club going here, then maybe we aren’t as inclined to venture out of the comfort zone. Do we care if we never make it into the mainstream art world? Are we happy here in the textile ghetto? Would we rather not compete with each other, or with other media?

It feels itchy to me. It’s too easy to ignore the fact that some of the issues we face might be rooted in gender inequalities that aren’t yet resolved. But maybe we’re at the best party in the world, with lots of women we like, so it doesn’t matter if we’re not invited into major galleries on a regular basis, or that often our work doesn’t sell for the price a comparable painting would command.

Disclaimer: Some art quilt artists DO command comparable prices to paintings and get them. Is it unreasonable to ask whether these numbers are lower than they could be, were quilts to be more widely accepted by the art buying public?

I’ve got some observations about steps that could be taken to move more aggressively toward the mainstream market. But that’s another subject. What I really want to know right now is all about motivation.

Another concern: If art quilters are content existing in the lovely world they’ve created for themselves, will challenges to refine, strive for quality, question design, color, innovation, and/or presentation be embraced? Maybe that’s an individual decision rather than a group one.

Do you work just because you love the work?
Do you aspire to exhibit and sell your work and what does that look like? To friends? Through a gallery? Through exposure at exhibitions?

I welcome your thoughts.


  1. You are wrong, Jane! There is one male - Shawn Quinlan.

    I used to work because I loved the work. Then, I got caught up in exhibiting with some limited success. I think I lost my way because it became my goal and I no longer played and experimented and made pieces just because I had a great idea and was having fun. I am trying to get back thete.

  2. A couple of points. Personally, I work because it feeds my soul. Crankiness and stress creep in without my craft. I like to work in quiet because I daydream and solve personal issues, not just project issues. If music or audios are playing, I don't hear it. I like to gather with folks that share a similar art medium because they stimulate me, validate my work, and this too feeds my soul. I believe generally that women in our culture are driven (culturally, biologically?) to be more social than men. Just my thoughts today. I enjoy this blog immensel. Thank you Jane.

  3. Gerrie,
    Thanks for correcting me! I should never assume someone is male or female based on names. SO glad to known this before I give me talk. will correct as soon as I can!

  4. On the one hand, I don't feel there's much difference between the hobbyist painter and the hobbyist textile artist, whatever their gender. Nothing wrong with doing the work just for the challenge and the joy of it.

    But why do people trying to/needing to make a living at it choose to work in a medium that isn't taken as seriously as some others? For me it's because I believe people interact on a very intimate and emotional level with textiles, from the blankie to the shroud. At least, that's how I might put it on an artist statement.

    Over a glass of wine amongst friends, though, I might just admit that textiles chose me before it was the other way around. I don't work with fabric only because it was modeled by my female family members and deemed "appropriate" for a person of my age and gender. It's more that it feels right to have a needle in my hand. Maybe this is a form of power left over from ancient times.

    Guess I need to pull out my copy of Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years and reflect on this some more. Thanks for the prompt.

  5. I use fiber to speak. I talk about the earth and nature and the impact humans have had on our planet. I feel myself an eco-feminist and use my art to express my concerns about the environment and reflect back on our environmental history. It is a waking up to whats happening on our planet/home and how our sometime unconscious decisions impact the future. It pours out of me.

  6. why do I work? I just keep on hoping to get better! I know I won't without the work, sometimes I want to give up and then a few days later something intrigues me and i think oh I want to try to do that! I'm working in both fiber and watercolours. Same process, except a lot more waste (alas) with the watercolours. It would be wonderful to be really Good at something by the time I snuff it!! and it's not going to be athletics (wheeze!) or music (croak) or languages (qua?) and definitely not housework! Elizabeth

  7. Having worked in galleries and arts orgs off and on for many years, I've made the conscious decision to only show work as an incentive to myself -- I work best with a deadline -- and I don't want to promote my work as though I meant to make a living at it. I do it for the joy of creation, for the great peace and the adventure of it. I quilt/art quilt because it's a satisfying medium -- real, and layered, interactive and tactile. Sensual. Demanding. I love it really, and don't care if I never become "well known."

  8. When I make my best work, my deepest work, my best designed or conceived work, I like who I am. I like the conversation I'm having with myself and with the world. I feel a pull to say just those things that I'm saying.

    Unfortunately my life, my methods of organization and my drive only enable me to make that best work sporadically. So many women I know have this issue.... will it always be like this?

  9. Why do I work? From earliest memory, I have always made art of one sort or another, even if it was only creating a visually lovely and harmonious home atmosphere. One time several years ago, a friend was visiting and noticed that most all the art on my walls was (and still is) an original of some sort. Not all mine, but textiles, watercolors, mono-prints, etc. from a variety of artists I have know through the years.

    My mother was convinced that no one needs to live a drab life and our home was always filled with color and music and fresh air. She loved life, the natural world, and learning, and I guess making art keeps her spirit alive for me.

    There is an oft quoted comment by the Roman, Seneca, which exhorts us to know ourselves well before we die.

    I have evolved through several types of art-making. Retirement has given me the luxury of time to devote to an increased level of exploration into technique. Rapidly advancing 'maturity' has sharpened my need to discover all I can about myself, and I choose to do this through art (with a bit of journaling.) Seneca believed that it is a sad state to pass "to ourselves unknown."

    I am non-competitive in the extreme, although I will have my first entry in an art show in March and must confess to a certain degree of excitement about my 15 minutes of fame. That said, I guess I am a hobby artist rather than a 'real' one.

    Why the field of art quilts is dominated by women I cannot say, except that sewing has most often been considered to be 'women's work'. Whether art quilts will eventually be considered as valuable to the larger world of art remains to be seen. And is it possible that more traditional flat art done in oils and acrylics, or in other mediums and safely framed behind glass, are seen as more durable and therefore of more value both artistically and monetarily?

  10. It was such a good question, Jane, that I continued to think and write about it myself:
    thank you!! Elizabeth

  11. This question has really made me think, but then most of your questions do. I work because I feel compelled to do so. I was concerned when I stopped vending that I wouldn't have the direction or the reason to do the work. What has happened instead is that now I'm doing work I want to do, not work that I hope will sell. I spend time doing the work almost everyday, some days it may be just sitting and doing some hand stitching, but it comes from inside me - I have to do it.

  12. with even more cogitation...I've come to realise that the question we should be asking is not "Why?" but rather, "Why are we NOT (most of us) making things?" What went wrong?

  13. I've spent a lot of time thinking about these questions lately. My journey has taken me from the performance world, through the art quilt world, and now into the fine art world. In developing my own work by combining my love for surface design with a basis in three-dimensions, I have found that, although I consider my work art quilts, I don't get into quilt shows. I have had much more success by distancing myself from quilting and instead saying that I work in fiber. I show regularly and am represented by a well-respected fine art gallery that sells my work to collectors of all different media. So go figure. I wonder if the world of art quilts is too focused on specifics, is it a three layer piece with stitching through all layers? I think the comparison of art quilters to water colorists is appropriate. More quilters need to think more about what they are saying with their art than what colors or techniques they are using. I wonder if there is any other art field that has so many people working as hobbyists, and that is what leads to the devalueing of art quilts as an equal medium to painting/sculpture/etc?

  14. Its a difficult question to answer...I work because it is part of my identity. I chose textiles because I think it has more of a soul then paint, more dimension, more pulse. And because you can do so much with it - dye, stitch, tear, etc.

    One point that has been frustrating for me is finding honest feedback. I find that women like to be nice, polite, don't criticize. Don't get me wrong, the idea of someone yelling at me that my work is absolute dirt and should be burned doesn't excite me but I'd probably get more out of it then "That's pretty."

    I'd like to see more honest critique in the art quilt world but I think people are too concerned about offending or upsetting. Critique does NOT mean being rude or offensive. It means growth. So I think that's one area that needs some work.

  15. Great question, great dialogue. After 25 year in business, academia, PhD, etc., I had a life-changing transition, and decided to devote my life to art. Without a formal background, in art, but with a hobbyist's interest in traditional quilting, I discovered Ellen Anne Eddy's work, and that opened a whole new universe. I have never looked back. Blocks and piecing begone. Having said that, I think one of the reasons that so many women gravitate toward textile art, is that it is accessible, and the barriers to entry are very low, in a wonderful way. Learning opportunities are easily available, in supportive environments, and it all allows you to learn at your own pace. I really considered going back to school for a MFA, but when I looked at what that took, and what I was learning through the 'women's potluck' approach, I was convinced that I could fashion an artisitic-driven education in other ways. The challenge for me is to trust the process, do the work, take time for the journey and be assured that at the end of some unspecified time my goals will have been met. For a type-A, driven, competitive woman this represents real growth! So, each day I approach with purpose, and with the conviction that engaging with art on some level will ultimately enhance my life and take me to where I was meant to be. Having said that, this is all predicated on the fact that I do not have to earn a living from my art. If that were the case, then I might have had a very different approach, and certainly, would not have been able to have the luxury of learning and creating for their own sake. And, I probably would not have looked to be supported by my art, but it would have remained something to be done in my free time.

  16. Dear Jane,
    I'm writing first, then I'll read others' comments, backwards for me, but I want these thoughts to represent me.

    First questions: I work because making art completes something in me that is absent when I'm not working. I appreciate the process, during which I'm often transported into another plane, like meditation, maybe that's the famous 'flow.' I am pleased with the products but really, when I'm finished with a piece, I evaluate it and am ready to begin something new--it's the process. Also, I seem to see/perceive the world differently than most other people and enjoy making those observations visible and concrete for others.

    Initially I thought I made quilts because I had a sewing machine and knew more or less how to use it. There's more to it though. I've taken art classes in other media and never really was transported by them as much--though in honesty I didn't give them as much of a chance. I could write more on this aspect, but I'll move to the next question.

    One small reason art quilts may not have been fully embraced is that I think quilts look different on a wall, that is, they're not in a frame and hang differently. That will take some getting used to. Must all art be in a wooden frame? I have many of my quilts hanging in a local bookstore and am becoming known locally, but have not had many sales. Sure, I'd like to sell more, I'd like to win a big prize in a prestigious show, but I don't dwell on those thoughts, it's just not productive. I do the work that interests me and did a commission. I don't want art quilts totally out of quilt shows, and I don't know where I belong, but I'll just keep working.

    Thank you for provoking these thoughts, it's taken a few days to articulate and I could go on and on...

  17. A woman recently moved onto my street who is a weaver; she uses one of those big, complex looms that look as if it takes a mechanical engineer to operate it. As we became aquainted, she called herself a "production weaver": she chooses color combinations and patterns that will sell and makes limited runs from each. Within the first month in the area, she had hit every possible outlet within a 100 mile radius. The point of this story? She also told me if she doesn't weave, she goes nuts. She and her husband are renovating a 150 year old, very tiny house while living in an older travel trailer out front. The first priorty? To get at least one room cleaned out so she could set up her loom. That room, by the way, is barely big enough for the loom and a little space to move around. But it is up and she is weaving for production and she is happy. So...

    Regardless of motivaton, the drive to create seems to function pretty much the same for all of us once the fears and angst and ego let it all happen.

    I have had a needle of one type or another in my hands since I was 8 years old. My mother sewed beautifully, my grandmother taught me to tat by feeling my work because she was mostly blind, and my German aunt taught me to knit "the easy way". At 61, I am a closet artist finally coming into the livingroom because I am retired, because I have banished most of the devils in my psyche, and because someone CAME TO ME and asked with "pretty please" if I would put three of my creations in an annual fiber arts show in a neighboring community.

    In case it's important, I don't do art quilts; they are just not my thing (I quilted in various styles for several years). I think some of them are breathtaking, and others leave me with no response except "huh?" and an appreciation for the work involved. Five women have seen my jacket for the show; 4 of them raved about how great it was and the 5th said "Hmm" and moved on. Talk about a reality check! But isn't that mixed reaction the bottom line for the very personal act of creation?

    I haven't missed the point of the blog and I very much enjoyed reading other comments. I suppose if the Impressionists hadn't fought for their spaces in the French galleries, ... On the other hand, many people still think they are just a bunch of paint dobbers (sp?). My art is just that: my art. I do it because it is an expression of me and is vitally necessary for my mental health; mostly I do it because it is great fun, even when I want to wad something up and throw it away. I love it if someone else also appreciates it, sees talent I'm too shy to acknowledge, and helps me learn from it through our conversation. If they don't, that is OK too because, after all, my art is my art.

    Jane, I really admire your dedication to your media and your desire to improve its status in the art world, and I know that requires some type of definitions and ground rules or whatever you want to call them. And there in lies the rub. People ask me what I do, expecting a simple answer like "knit". The best I can tell them is that I play with textiles and try to bring an idea in my head into some type of form - one time it may be a doll, the next a jacket. When they ask what I do with it when I'm finished, I now say, "I don't ask that question anymore. Something always comes along, even if it is a shelf in the closet."

    "Artists" in all cultures and time periods ask your questions and more. For me, if this go-round leads to learning and growth and more creative freedom (whatever THAT is), I'm all for it. If it means more definitions and exclusions than inclusions, it's not of interest. And the gender thing - I think the issue is more complicated than that.

    Thanks for the chance to think. It's why I hang out here once in a while.

  18. I work because I can, after years of full time teaching of art it is amazing and rewarding to actually put lots of what I demanded of my students into play. I do try to keep it play too.... I am not always as successful with keeping it joyful, sometimes it is more like jumping jacks that will help strengthen me and make better work possible.

    My choice of medium is based on what is possible with that medium. I think I am really much more a painter than most anything else, but prefer to work on fabric because of the range of results available.

    The political divisions between the art forms are frustrating and like most politics seems to favor the group in power. I suspect fibers is relegated to women's work, but it is the media of my choice and I am not motivated to join the barricades. I would love to see the larger art world take an unbiased look at what is being done in this field. I wish we could eliminate all descriptive categories and just look and see the work.

  19. I work in textiles because I love it- I love the touch, the drape, the texture, the sculptural quality created by stitch and medium.
    I create because I must. I see things that turn me inside out and I have to share that insight, that crazy moment of clarity.
    I enter shows and exhibits because I create. I have an abundance to share.
    I am fortunate not to have to make a living with my art. Perhaps that gives me a freedom to embrace the brass ring of creativity.
    But I don't think I could live without it.

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