ELAINE QUEHL, Quilt Artist, Teacher, Dyer, Designer

Thursday, June 9, 2011

When Can I Call Myself an Artist?

My husband claims that I seldom answer a question directly. Typically my responses leave him more confused than before he asked! Likewise, I once had a boss who told me I had an annoying ability to see issues from all sides. Can I help it if I see the world in shades of grey (or shades of green if you have seen my hosta quilts!)? So you will need to keep all of this in mind when you read what I have to say. On top of that, this is a question that will never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction, and certainly not by me! I merely offer my own thoughts and opinions here. I’d love to hear from you!

I have been asked this question by students on a few occasions, and after the most recent occasion I felt inspired to write on the subject. I realize I may be opening a can of worms. Please note that no one is saying that all quilts must be fine art to be valid, nor are we saying that there is anything wrong with craft. What I hope is that this post will spark an interesting discussion.

My short answer to the question “When can I call myself an artist?” is that it is entirely up to you to decide if you are an artist. You get to call yourself artist or not. However, you have to be strong enough to wear this title with confidence, and therein lies the problem.

There appears to be a lot of baggage associated with the word “artist”. Sometimes people think you are telling them that you are “special” or “good” when you use the label. To call someone an artist is often done to laud their talent and can be the highest compliment. The artist herself can often feel that the label is just too arrogant for her to use. My husband, being a modest kind of guy, has sometimes been embarrassed when I tell people, upon meeting, that I am an artist. He thinks only other people can decide if you are an artist and worries that I might seem self aggrandizing.

But consider what happens when I use the word “quilter” to describe my occupation. Invariably the person I’m chatting with responds with stories about their grandmother’s patchwork. Most people have a very limited understanding of what a quilt is, usually related to a cover placed on a bed. I use the word “artist” because I think it more accurately describes how I think and what I do these days. For a long time I called myself a Contemporary Quilter, but at that stage I would say I was still a lot more influenced by the work of others.

The decision to use the label artist came in 2006 and I did not personally have the constitution that could do this without outside recognition (I wish I did!). That was the year that the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery used a photograph of one of my works on the cover of their Summer brochure. This was not just a brochure about the Grand National Quilt Show that used to be held there every year, but was the cover for all of their summer programming. There has been further reinforcement over the years. For example, while I was hanging my solo show in one of the City of Ottawa Galleries two years ago, two young men walked by and I heard one say to the other “look at the artwork”. I think this is often the reaction of people who have not been fortunate enough to know about the art quilt world. A friend of mine sent her art quilt to an art quilt show at an art museum, and when she told another friend her quilt was in a show the friend responded, “that isn’t a quilt, that is art”.

I am not optimistic that we will ever come to an agreement on the definition of an artist. To answer that question, we have to first ask ourselves “What is art”? I belong to a couple of on-line groups where we all fear that the debate about what is art will raise its ugly head yet again. The word “art” is sometimes used so loosely now that it means almost nothing. On one side are those who see every creative endeavour as art. On the other side are those with such stringent criteria that almost nothing is art.

For me a quilt artist is someone who creates art, but simply uses the quilt as the medium for their art. The Free Online Dictionary defines an artist as:
One, such as a painter, sculptor, or writer, who is able by virtue of imagination and talent or skill to create works of aesthetic value, especially in the fine arts.
Many quilt artists, including me, would like to see quilts listed alongside paintings, sculpture, literature and music. This is what Studio Art Quilt Associates is all about … pushing the quilt forward as a fine art medium.
SAQA defines an art quilt as “a contemporary artwork exploring and expressing aesthetic concerns common to the whole range of visual arts: painting, printmaking, photography, graphic design, assemblage and sculpture, which retains, through materials or technique, a clear relationship to the folk art quilt from which it descends.”

For me self-expression is an important component of any definition of an artist. Wikipedia defines the word artist as follows:
Artist is a descriptive term applied to a person who engages in an activity deemed to be an art. An artist also may be defined unofficially as "a person who expresses him- or herself through a medium".
This notion of art as self-expression is definitely a modern notion. At one time in history an artist usually only created what he was commissioned to do by a patron, aristocrat, royalty or the church! There was little freedom of expression.

During my workshops I often ask students to introduce themselves and tell me and the class a little about themselves. I have noticed a tendency for quilters to place themselves in either the traditional quilt camp or the art quilt camp. I think there is a widespread misconception that anything that isn’t a traditional quilt is an art quilt. I don’t see it that way. I think that a contemporary quilt is a closer relative to the traditional quilt than an art quilt is. A contemporary quilt can still be made from a pattern or can be a copy of another quilt. A copy of an art quilt is not an art quilt in my books. Art is something that is your own vision. Naturally I then also have reservations about labelling quilted work that is copied from art in other media as “art”. Others may differ with this opinion. Photographer Harold Feinstein gave me permission a few years ago to use a photograph of his as inspiration for a quilt. The problem, as I see it, is that my interpretation would be too literal. I haven’t been able to bring myself to use the photo as I feel it is not my vision. Harold set up the composition and captured the light. I would be copying his art.

There are some who only see artists as those with formal art degrees. They are entitled to their views. One thing I will say is that if you are going to call yourself an artist it would be wise to study up on the Elements and Principles of Design and look at art in other media to train your eye. This is one of the areas I have had to work at and one of the weaknesses in some of my works. I recall hearing an IQA quilt show judge say that the art quilt category showed some of the poorest design of all the categories exhibited in Houston. Traditional quilt designs have stood the test of time and likely continue to be popular because they show strong design elements, but don’t always fall under the definition of art because they aren’t an original design.

It is your decision to call yourself an artist, but you must be strong enough to weather criticism of your work. The only way to escape criticism in life though is to do nothing (definitely not an option). I have been criticized for not putting stems on my poppies, for using photographs as inspiration, for creating realistic work, for using too much colour, for using green too much, for making too many hosta quilts. None of these bother me too much anymore. Learn to please yourself and stop worrying what others think.

Worrying about whether you are an artist or not takes a lot of energy. This energy would be better spent in the studio being creative (making art?) Go to your studio and dig deep and create something from your own vision.

I really love this definition of an artist by Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures”.
I think quilt artists do the same, but they do it with fabric and stitch. A bit vague maybe, but to me this definition says it all! No one can give you a foolproof definition of art or artist. There is something of yourself you put in your art that distinguishes it from someone else’s art. It is your style, and you cannot help but have a style, unless you are copying someone else’s work. I’ll leave it at that.


  1. I read something the other day that stuck in my mind about this. The person I read about was described as a quilt maker because she used patterns and designs from other people. I thought that was a great description and that person was not an artist. I don't describe myself as a 'quilter' and started using textile artist a long time ago. I also have had people refer to my work as art without any prompting from me. So it seems the public gets it more than we do sometimes.

  2. You raised some interesting points, but for me, the bottom line is that I don't care what other people call my work. I refer to it as fiber art. I try to translate my vision with cloth, paint and thread. It is what I enjoy doing, so I will try to satisfy myself. If other people enjoy it, that's a bonus.

  3. Thanks for commenting Judy. I think it's great that you don't care! There is so much freedom in that. I don't know if you make a living from your fiber art or not, but wouldn't it be important what galleries, shows, potential students, the market, thought of your work if you were? Having your work seen as art is important if you are trying to sell it as art, have it shown as art, etc. And what would you say to someone asking this question who had aspirations to be an artist and wanting to make a career of it?

  4. Janice, I probably wouldn't define a quilt maker as someone who uses patterns and designs from other people, although the majority of quilt makers probably do. The quilt is the medium to me. For example, an artist can also be a painter or a sculptor or a photographer in addition to being an artist. So an artist can also be a quilter because she/he is using the medium of quilt to create her art. By definition a quilt is something that contains stitching through all 3 layers, and usually has nothing to do with the use of patterns or not. There are some pretty famous artists who call themselves quiltmakers!

  5. "Works of aesthetic value" is a good start for defining art, but for the "self expression" dimension I would substitue the concept of "intention", ie the vision behind the work.
    To siddle around the "I am a quilter" issue, I say that I work as an artist, using fabric and other media. But lately I've turned to studying book arts - if quilting is misunderstood, book arts is even more misunderstood!

  6. Love the post... lots of work doing that one... great quotes, good examples... super job! Now get back to making art!

  7. I'm not saying a quilter can't be an artist. I think using a traditionally female medium is the reason many people don't want to use quilter to describe what they do because historically women's work is devalued. [sorry, don't want to open another can of worms]. However, like an artist who uses paint or sculpture material we gravitate to that simple word of quilter, like painter or sculptor. Maybe that isn't bad either, since we don't hear the term 'painting artist' but simply painter.

    I guess I wasn't clear with what I said since I believe that anyone who has the skill set can be a quilt maker and follow patterns to make a gorgeous work but they aren't an artist. And that person can make a decent living doing that. I know of a quilt maker who [with permission] makes a well=known applique pattern to sell on Etsy. She is making about $20,000 this year. She calls herself a quilt artist but I disagree.

    If I want to call myself an artist, I should be doing original work in design and color. It should speak to my soul and come from a place inside my head that nobody else can duplicate. I do those things so I am an artist and it doesn't matter what my medium is.

  8. Jackie, you are so on to me! Now I need to figure out why I decided to do the blog post instead of spend a few hours in the studio??

  9. A great post, Elaine, with much to think about. I call myself a fiber artist and people always want to know what that means. I say that I make wall hangings using quilting techniques, but that they are all original designs, mostly using my own hand dyed fabrics.
    BTW my late husband always accused me of never answering a question directly. I just was seldom happy with a straight yes or no.

  10. Thank you for a wonderful, thought provoking post! I have been thinking about this a lot, there is so many layers to this! But the quote you have from H. W. Beecher really, really speaks to me! It seems to have it all! Thanks!
    To me, the criteria of "dipping the brush in your own soul" is the main one. What I mean is that one can make a stunning work with excellent design, composition, colors...all the elements he/she LEARNED from books, studies etc. Surely most will call it art. But if there is no "soul" in it, is it really art? On the other end, imagine a woman, long time ago, pouring all her joy, or grief or protest into a traditionally pieced quilt (yes, many may used the same pattern before), because that is the only way she can express her soul, where each piece of cloth means something to her, or each color... - most would NOT call that an art, but I would. There is a "brush dipped in her soul" in that one. The problem is, how much of this "soul dipping" there is in ANY work is not easy to know. Or it is in the eye of the beholder? :)

  11. What a great discussion from all those who posted and from the original article. Much to think about - years from when you first posted this. :) Ahhh, the beauty of the internet.


Your posts are important to me. Due to a huge amount of SPAM on my blog recently, I have decided to moderate comments, at least for the time being. Please be patient, your post will be approved as soon as I can get to it.