Guild Visits · Something to Think About

Who Gets to Make Art?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our world of quilts, and by that I don’t mean the larger world–just our own little world. I’ve made some hideous quilts, some use-up-this-fabric quilts (above), some quilts I consider my best masterpieces. Our own little world is echoed out into our guilds, our social media, our quilt shows, publications and then it echoes back to us in terms of the materials we can use. It’s a cycle, a circle, but at the nub of it is that one quilter looking at her one stack of fabrics, or the sketch she made while waiting at the doctor’s office and seeing the print on the back of the chairs. It could be she was messing around with a traditional block, or created one of her own. And from that nub, that spark, hopefully art begins.

from here

I’ve been thinking about this because of an article by Guy Trebay (found while cleaning out) where he asks straight off, “Who gets to make art?” Written about the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, it is an interesting overview of this age-old question.

from here

Do you get to create art? Do I? Or is it only relegated to that famous quilter that is all over Instagram? The lady who has her face on the ads of the sewing machine you like? Does more fame equal more entitlement to call it art? And then there is the pressure from the outside world, debating forever and ever if making a quilt is a craft or an art?

from here

Trebay attributes this question to Luke Syson, and says that “In asking [this question], Mr. Syson was adding his voice to a growing chorus of museum professionals who are challenging traditional hierarchies of art production. He was talking, in this instance, about the obscure craft of scrimshaw, subject of a fine study show at the Fitzwilliam, but more broadly about the importance of recognizing and celebrating those gifted artists whose work is so often relegated to the stepchild status of crafts.”

from here

Luke Syson, now the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge (Britain), shares his experience of having to address some of his biases about what iconic art is in his TEDTalk, which he titled “How I learned to stop worrying and love “useless” art.” It’s worth a listen, if you have a few minutes. In that afore-mentioned Instagram post about scrimshaw art, he asks “Who gets to be an artist?” In the text he writes ” I thought about the scrimshanders then – working class, almost entirely anonymous, using their time to making things that were beautiful and that documented their lives. Amateurs, yet completely excluded from the world of leisure that this word implies. But I’m guessing there was a collectors market for these objects early on – that these were a sideline rather than simply the making of personal souvenirs.”

Which leads me to think about the anonymity of women, making their art for years and years, hidden in plain sight. They were making that which was beautiful to them, and which represented their lives. And yes, amateurs, all. We’ll leave this discussion here, with a quote from Trevor Bell:

“Art condenses the experience we all have as human beings, and, by forming it, makes it significant. We all have an in-built need for harmony and the structures that create harmony. Basically, art is an affirmation of life.”

Today is Mother’s Day. My mother is on the left (c. 1948), my daughter (named after her) is shown in the center in a photo from high school (c. 1998). (I sent this photo to her when she complained about one of her children being always on her phone.) I’m on the right (c. 1972).

My mother made art: seven of us. She never quilted. She read. She never painted, as did my father. She did do dishes, laundry, dressed elegantly, organized us, kept us going. I owe her everything, and as she approaches her 93rd birthday, this Mother’s Day I celebrate her as a different kind of unsung, ungalleried, un-media-ed, unknown sort of artist, but she was significant and affirmed us all.

I’ll be in my happy place this week, hanging out with the Orange Grove Quilters. We’re making Merrion Square in our Workshop. If you want to hear my program of Abecedary of Quilts or participate in a live/online workshop, please contact Pat (the Workshop Chairman) at or drop me a note (and I’ll check with Pat). I love teaching this little quilt, as there are as many different quilts and there are quilters. Each one makes this little village their own.

And as life moves on, it seems this will probably be the last time I teach this class. Let me know if you are interested.

Happy Quilting! (turn the sound on)

11 thoughts on “Who Gets to Make Art?

  1. Sorry for you that you won’t be teaching this workshop anymore. I know how much you enjoy teaching. My teaching opportunities have slowed dramatically since I have not been able to adopt the Zoom platform. Love the pictures of your mother, daughter, and you. Young versions of the same person! Happy Mother’s Day to you! I hope you’re remembered too.

  2. I think there is a generosity in terming something art. I certainly would call what Barb does art!! And there is an artistry in home keeping. I don’t think it gets it’s due. And your mom did it with far fewer conveniences! ( thinking of my Rhoomba!) Love to you and your associated moms!!!

  3. Lovely to see the photos of your mum and your daughter. Your words about your mum reminded me of mine. I spoke about her at her funeral, 15 years ago. My mother had no ego or belief in herself, leaving school at 12 in 1924 to help supplement the family income. She did however, have great creative skills- sewing, of course, but painting (walls not pictures), wall papering, baking, and gardening as well. I was proud to herald her talents!
    I hope you enjoy teaching Merrion Square again, and hopefully not for the last time. I came across the PDF in my drive the other day. You had kindly sent it to me some time ago. Now seems a good time to make one of my own.

  4. I wish you a most Happy Mother’s Day !
    Thank you for sharing your pictures. Mother’s have a special place in our lives.

  5. I love your posts. I have pondered the “art versus craft” question a lot. If I’d gone to art school, could I call myself a “fiber artist?” I call myself a quilter. Mmm. I teared up at your paragraph about your Mom. Creating and nurturing a family is a great ongoing act of faith, grit, creativity – yes, art!

  6. What a thoughtful article on this subject. Being an artist is a way of life, cooking, gardening, quilting, even the way we think.
    I loved the photo of your daughter, especially the hot roller set! This must be the 70s? or early 80s?
    Really enjoyed your talk yesterday and I know you’ll have a great workshop!

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