"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.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Abundant Community

This week I am reading The Abundant Community by John McKnight and Peter Block. Twenty pages into it, the premise seemed simplistic. But by page forty-two the quiet defiance of the words settled into my chest.

Simple but radical: We have allowed systems to co-opt community, and by doing so, we are gradually losing our connection to everything that is meaningful and potentially rewarding in our lives.

The authors write:
“All that is uncertain, organic, spontaneous, and flowing in personal, family and neighborhood space is viewed in System Space (caps mine), and in Science, as a problem to be solved…”

To paraphrase: What systems do best is organize human beings in ways that we may appreciate as the public school system, government, or the ease of knowing exactly what will be on the shelves in a big box store – because each store is laid out like all of the others. It’s the purpose of systems to create a world that is repeatable.

Embracing systems also means we don’t have to trust our own instincts about what is right or wrong or healthy any more, because we have trained professionals who know better than we do how our children should be raised, how much exercise we need, and whether a diet would be a good idea or not. How we should deal with homeless people. Whether it matters when a developer clear cuts a hundred acres of woods, or dredges the beach, to build a bunch of new houses.

Life is automated. Maybe it’s a relief. Maybe it’s a side step of decisions we could make ourselves. Feeling good about the decisions you make – whether they are related to your children, your work environment or your diet – is the foundation of a healthy sense of self esteem.

So it’s a trade-off. On the surface systems keep the wheels greased. Read further in the book, and you’ll be on to how this is all about consumerism. How human beings can be managed and automated until they actually think there is never enough, that acquiring is the name of the game, and that it’s every person and every family, for his or herself. Not anything new. But exactly what seems to be breaking down, all around us, right now. Perhaps we have reached the end of the rope when it comes to substituting impersonal systems for the slower, messier task of relationship building - a few dedicated folks at a time.

I am still thinking about how this impacts my art world. Based on the ideas proposed by this book, I must consider whether I am living in the world of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Last week I wrote about systems and classifications. This week I fear I’ve contributed to a system that will only serve to erase the personal face on all that is reverent and intrinsically human about making. It’s the paradoxes of Life that keep me humble.

We can’t throw out the systems completely without initiating chaos. Watching the events in the Middle East this week is evidence of that. But like the King of Bahrain, our best bet is to dismiss the troops and keep talking. Offering flowers, while rejecting the most dehumanizing of the systems. Making at least one peaceful, defiant choice every day that defies systems.

What could you do this week – in or out of the studio – that would defy a system and return a little bit of humanity to the world around you?

I’ll post my choices and experiences if you’ll post yours.

Talk on UTube

My lecture at the Carnegie - printed as an essay here ten days ago, is now up on Utube, thanks to Karen Gillenwater, the curator of the Form/Not Function exhibit. It's presented in four ten minute sections since there is a time limit on Utube, but it can be accessed here: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheCarnegieCenter - if you prefer a verbal verbose version to a written text!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Art Quilts: Emerging Genres

This is the text of a lecture given on February 1, 2011, in conjunction with the Form/Not Function art quilt exhibition at the Carnegie Center for Art in New Albany, Indiana.

One aspect of art history I find fascinating is the connections that exist from one art movement to the next.

Looking briefly at a few major periods in art history helps us to understand the evolution of art quilt genres – and gives us a sense of place and context – perhaps indicating what we need to do to further the growth and expansion of the art quilt movement.

It makes sense to begin an art history slam with the period referred to as Romanticism – from roughly 1800 – 1850. JMW Turner initiated a gradual shift away from classicism with breath-taking paintings, which were as much about light, as about painting.

Eduard Manet’s famous Luncheon on the Grass represents another shift, this time away from Romanticism, inching ever so gradually toward what we now call Modern Art. His painting caused a scandal in the established French Salon world and was a precursor to the age of Impressionism.

Most people are familiar with Impressionism – the movement that made it ok to paint from an intuitive or feeling, rather than from a realistic portrayal of the subject matter. But we don’t always think about how revolutionary these new approaches to painting were. Breaks with traditional art making were controversial, ridiculed, and shunned. But artists kept moving forward into new art territory in a process we can only call evolutionary.

Here’s another interesting fact: almost every artist who was living and working in Europe at that time tried on impressionism for size – at least briefly. In the Museum d’Orsay in Paris there is an entire wall of the same street scene, painted by a who’s who of painters from that period. Some of the paintings, including one by Matisse, are horrible. What do we learn from this? That even good painters made bad paintings, and that everyone has to struggle to settle on an individual style. We know, as far as Matisse is concerned, that he didn’t stick with Impressionism. Instead he cultivated color as a language, and established a niche that was firmly and unmistakably his own.

We could talk about Expressionism, Art Nouveau, The Blue Riders in Munich, and Gustav Klimt’s role in an effort to unite fine and applied arts in Germany. These avant garde movements upped the controversy ante and inspired a subset of lesser known movements, including Futurism, Orphism, Rayonism, Dada and the establishment of the Bauhaus Design School. Why does it matter to us?

Because in every case, artists introducing a new way of defining and quantifying art met resistance from the galleries and artists who were the established powerhouses of the day. Most of the movements I’ve mentioned were actually labeled as degenerate by the Nazis.

In 1881 Pablo Picasso was born. It’s probably fair to say that he single-handedly developed one style or period after another, as only a true visionary can do. Revered during his lifetime, which is not always the case, his work still represented the continual tug of war between the establishment and the challengers to tradition.

We can skip ahead past Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. If you aren’t familiar with these periods of art history, do yourself a favor and surf the web. Each period is a fascinating study of artists seeking the new, the fresh and the original. Artists pushing boundaries.

One artist we can’t ignore is Robert Rauschenberg. A twentieth century visionary, Rauschenberg introduced work he called Combines – pieces that were still primarily canvas, but which featured an assortment of 3-D elements, including the one most familiar to quilters – a canvas with a quilt glued to the surface and partially painted. A picture of this piece is included in Robert Shaw’s wonderful The Art Quilt, suggesting that Rauschenberg’s work has played a role in influencing art quilters who incorporate mixed media elements into their quilts. Sad to say, Rauschenberg’s combine probably sold for more than all art quilts sales combined in 2010.

So what does this have to do with art quilts and emerging genres?

The field is now 40 years old, and genres are emerging. Some are recognizably linked back to traditional quilts. Others are not. What is true is that the same struggle to find a unique voice that characterizes ALL of modern art history is going on now – as art quilts evolve as an art form.

I wanted to know whether or not art quilt forms could be arranged into A CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM of stylistic influences or genres, so I researched the idea. I was able to identify a list of six basic categories into which art quilts fall. These are not all influenced by traditional quilts, but surprisingly, are influenced by the various art movements I have described.

There is overlap, of course, just as in other media where approaches to materials and processes merge and co-mingle. This classification system is still a work in progress. But here is what I have observed to date:

I. Quilts Inspired by Traditional Patterns and Processes
There are three sub-classifications.
1. Pieced Quilts:
Jan Meyers Newberry’s work is an example of a quilt based on a traditional design. (The Nine Patch)

2. Whole Cloth Quilts:
These are quilts where the pattern references a traditional pattern but the method of achieving the pattern is contemporary. Ellen Oppenheimer’s silk screened quilts are an example of this category.

3. Mixed Media Pieces:
Again, the design references a traditional pattern, but the quilt is made from surprising materials. John Lefelhocz’s Match Schticks – made from glued matchsticks – is a great example of this category.

II. Innovative Pieced Quilts Inspired by Traditional Piecing
Nancy Crow’s work is probably the best known work in this category.

She, as well as several other quilt artists, was influenced by the seminal work of Anna Williams.

Within this category there are numerous works that tread a fine line between improvisational piecing and pictorial quilts. In those cases, a piece may fit either category, but I place it in the category by which it is more clearly defined.
Lisa Call's current work effectively balances improvisational piecing with a story line.

III. Narrative or Pictorial Quilts
Within this category pieces may address controversial or socio-political themes or not. Some works have abstract elements but most of the time one aspect of the piece dominates over the others – it may be abstract, but the figurative or pictorial elements are critical to appreciation of the message.
There are four sub-classifications:
1. Quilts that represent (or are drawn from) a real life image:
These may be impressionistic or EXPRESSIONISTIC in terms of how the materials are used. The quilt may be pieced, appliquéd or created using surface design techniques. Lori Lupe Pelish is a master of this style.

2. The Self Portrait:
An entire lecture could be devoted to this fascinating sub-category. Alison Whittemore’s Funny Looking Kid is a delightful example.

3. Quilts with a strong graphic arts influence:
What I mean by this is several things: text may be used, or images that are graphic in the style of clip art - the shapes are typically flattened. The color palette is often simple, employing pure or bright color combinations.
Bean Gilsdorf’s piece is an example of this style.

4. Visionary Quilts:
This is one of those classifications where you know it when you see it. I was uncomfortable with the term folk art as it implies a simplicity that lacks sophistication. But outsider art isn’t right either – as it implies someone not connected to any part of the art world experience.
Susie Shie’s pieces are thoughtfully conceived and executed but she is definitely not an art quilt world outsider. She is a visionary.

IV. Quilts that Reference Formal Design Concerns
Quilts in this category are often created by artists who have moved to quilt-making from other art backgrounds, or who have art degrees, but this isn’t always the case. It’s quite possible to study design and color theory independently and to use that knowledge to fuel a body of work. I would never insult any of the fine art quilt makers whose work fits this classification even though art school was never in the picture. There are three categories within this genre.
1. Abstract Compositions.
There is overlap here with innovative piecing. Darcy Falk and Sue Benner are great examples of artists who work in this style.

2. Color Field Compositions.
These pieces are characterized by the role color plays in the development of the surface – either because it dominates other considerations or plays a singular role. Emily Richardson continues to produce mesmerizing color field works.

3. Whole cloth pieces created through the use of a series of surface design processes.
These include but are not limited to dyeing, discharging, painting, foiling, silk-screening, and the use of resists. Astrid Hilger Bennett's work is an example of this style. Whole cloth surface designed pieces may be the fastest growing category of art quilts in the world today.

V. Mixed Media.
A catch-all, right or wrong, of pieces that rely primarily on the addition of components that are non-traditional in use and application. There are two sub-categories in the mixed media genre.
1. Whole Cloth Quilts.
Fran Skiles pioneered this approach to the art quilt.

2. Assembled Quilts.
The term assembled is used here to separate the action of adding elements to a surface from the acts of piecing or appliqué. Pat Kroth’s eye-popping thread pieces are examples of assembled work.

VI. Three Dimensional Quilts.
This category is defined as any piece that exhibits three-dimensionality as a key aspect of the presentation. Susan Else’s humorous sculptures are just one example of this quirky genre.

My original plan was to draw conclusions and propose goals art quilters could work toward into the future. But although I worked on ideas for this lecture several weeks almost nonstop, when I started to write it I found I had only a few observations to share.

There are some intriguing oddities in the art quilt movement. Among them:

1. Art movements have so infiltrated popular western culture we reference them without evening knowing we are doing it. Case in point, the number of art quilters who are not familiar with any art history because they have never been exposed to it, or haven’t taken an interest in learning about it.

2. This is a field made up predominantly of women, which is contrary to every art movement to date. Form/ Not Function had one male participant. In the recent Surface Design Journal, twenty-four women artists were mentioned in articles. Only four men were included in that issue.

How does this gender reality affect competition? Or pricing?

3. Art quilting is like a huge organized religion, which is also unlike any art movement to date. The Studio Art Quilt Associates is an example of women artists taking matters into their own hands to develop the venues that are desired and needed in order to progress. Without being overt, this is a socio-political statement. Art quilters are no longer waiting to be invited into the mainstream art world. They are creating venues for parallel play while devising efforts to go mainstream. This has so far, been relatively frustrating because the art world is territorial and also traditional in the sense of how the “rules” work. Hark back to every art movement in history, kids.

With such force of numbers why aren’t art quilters taking the mainstream art world by storm? Maybe we don’t care? Or is this one of those shifting societal issues that does effect change, but more slowly than we would like? Forty years is not that long. Evolution is long.

Other questions and observations:

Have we created a textile ghetto by being willing to develop our own venues?
Should we be trying to play by insider rules? Could we alter some visual clues – like how a piece is finished – in order to remove references that don’t serve moving forward?

Would we be willing to re-characterize work as mixed media construction in order to help it go mainstream? Is the resistance semantic?

Because women ARE so nurturing and sharing, do we run the risk of becoming too homogenized? Frankly I think women are very competitive – many times in unhealthy ways. But can we intentionally or consciously marry our nurturing ways to good boundaries?

And what about the charge that art quilters don’t take critical analysis seriously?
There is a palpable tension between the desire to welcome newcomers/beginners non-judgmentally and the reality of the importance of refining standards of excellence, so that collectors will take art quilts seriously.

These are choices that can be made collectively if we orchestrate a dialogue, but they are also choices that must be made individually - which is where we have the only real control. In any event, there is much to discuss and I hope this lecture will get the conversation started.

Because of everything I’ve said, it is interesting to note the classifications... and It is grist for the mill to point out the observations…

but the most significant reality is that it still comes down to one artist, in one studio, becoming intimately aware of her own process and preferences; actualizing her own quest for meaning and/or creative growth, and then having the courage to pursue it independent of others. We must do whatever we can to honor that impulse.