During my travels on the Internet this morning, I thought I’d stop in at IQA and see if the entry form for the 2008 show was available yet, thinking I might be able to finish up The Misery Quilt in time to enter, and wondering in the back of my mind what category I’d enter it in. It’s beyond “traditional,” what with the embroidery already there, the original layout, the mixed techniques, and the embellishments that I plan to add later.
…there were only two lonely categories for traditional quilts, one for appliquéd quilts and one for pieced quilts…
The entry form wasn’t there yet, but I looked at the page with the winning quilts from the 2007 show, and I was quite surprised when the categories for art quilts just went on and on and on, in multiple (but seemingly) minuscule variations for different sizes, types, and styles, and then way down at the bottom, there were only two lonely categories for traditional quilts, one for appliquéd quilts and one for pieced quilts which were not even further divided into “small” and “large.”
I didn’t enter the IQA show last year, but seeing the winners page reminded me that I’d been meaning to go on about this very issue for quite some time, ever since I read Paula’s post that referred to Jeanna Kimball’s post about judging the Houston Show in late September, 2007. Jeanna Kimball is a traditional quilter, obviously a good one since she’s out there judging, and she made some interesting observations about the number of traditional quilts that were entered in the Houston show:
One element of the contest, however, surprised me a great deal—I still can’t get over it. The last time I paid attention to quilt contests, the categories with the most quilts seemed to be traditional quilts.
It is not so any longer. The entries have dropped so low in traditional pieced and traditional appliqué that there is only one category for each—no longer are there two categories with one being large quilts and the other being small. What happened!? Where are all of the traditional quilts?
I have to second that question, but I’m afraid I know what happened to the traditional quilts. The quilters who enter the larger shows have discovered that traditional doesn’t win big. Oh sure, if you have the best traditional quilt in the show, you get the first place award in the traditional category, but when was the last time a quilt from the traditional category was awarded “Best of Show” with the big money attached? Truthfully, I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve watched (and entered) the major shows since 2001, and my overall feeling about it just from what I’ve seen and experienced is that it’s been many years.
Diane Gaudynski said something that struck a chord with me during our tour of the Museum when I was in Paducah for her workshop last March and it relates to this issue as well. We were looking at the quilts in the Founders Collection, which are all the big purchase award winners at the AQS show (that’s how quilts are added to that collection), and she said, “Look at all the Best of Show winners in the past 10 years. Every one of those quilts has been controversial.” She went on to say that the quilts that win big are the quilts that have something new, something different, something…more. It’s very elusive and never easily defined, but the “something more” might be a new technique, a new style, a different arrangement, a different use of a standard material, or something that just stands out to the judges.
Jeanna said something very similar in a follow up to the above post on her site:
To clarify this point about a quilt being unique and a new idea, and at risk of being offensive I will be even more blunt, any quilt entered that is easily recognized […] (with familiar patterns from published sources) or a reproduction of any well publicized and published pattern (or group of patterns) will not get past the first cut (no matter how much time was spent or how perfect the workmanship) simply because it has been done before and we have all seen it. That sounds harsh, but a quilt contest is about rewarding new ideas (or new interpretations of traditional ideas) and recognizing excellence in executing those ideas.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of “innovative?” Just for the sake of clarity, “innovative” does not equal “traditional.” There are separate categories for innovative quilts. To my mind and from what I’ve seen, innovative walks the line on the outside edge of the traditional, without crossing over into art quilts. At the Houston show, there were only four categories for innovative quilts, two for traditional, but nine for art quilts.
And the big winners? Not one of them was a traditional quilt, not even the quilt that won the Robert S. Cohan Master Award for Traditional Artistry; it’s a lovely quilt by Ted Storm which is appliquéd, and whilst I’m not an expert at appliqué designs, I’m not sure it could be considered an example of “traditional appliqué.” Of the seven top “named” awards, in my opinion only three could be considered innovative even, and the rest were art quilts. When did Houston become an art quilt show? I thought that was Quilt National’s job.
The Best of Show award went to Hope For Our World by Hollis Chatelain; like much of her work, it’s one piece of fabric painted with paints first and then “painted” and detailed with massive amounts of threadwork. In 2004, when Precious Water, another of her quilts, won the Best of Show award at Houston, the headline in the local paper the next day was something like “Is it really a quilt?” questioning it’s suitability as a Best of Show winner when it wasn’t pieced, appliquéd, or made with any other technique that’s traditionally associated with quilting. Don’t get me wrong, Hollis’ quilts and all of the big winners at these major shows are undoubtedly well deserving of their honors, but what I’m talking about here is traditional quilts and why they’ve become so sparse at the shows.
At bottom, I consider myself a traditional quilter, though I do veer off in innovative directions for many of my works; none of my work would be considered “art quilts,” as I’m aware of the definitions. Though my first entry into a show was a non-traditional quilt, it was still close to the realm of traditional, being an innovative interpretation of a traditional block. I was naive enough to think that I might win something big with that quilt. It was good, but it wasn’t that good. Since then, I’ve entered quilts the traditional categories at quite a few different shows, and won ribbons and awards for some of them, but never the “Best” awards.
When Stars in my Hand won 2nd place in the Bed Quilt, Pieced category at the NQA show in 2006, I wondered “what the heck to I have to do to be the “Best?” I think Diane G. understood that part of the reason I was in her workshop was to hopefully take my quilting skills to that next “Best” winning level, but what she said to me confused me for a bit: “It’s not your quilting that’s holding you back,” she said. Then when she took us on the tour and talked about the Best of Show winners being controversial, I understood: many of my quilts are traditional–without a twist.
I’ve entered two Broken Star quilts in shows, both of which were pieced and quilted to the best of my ability. It’s a difficult pattern, where precision piecing is critical, and there is lots of room for creative quilting in the background areas. Those quilts are technically masterful, but that “something extra, something more” isn’t there, because they’re traditional quilts. Adding that “something more” bumps the quilt into the “innovative” world, and then it might have a small chance to win big, but even as an expertly executed, masterful example of tradition in quiltmaking, it’s not going to win.
In her post, Jeanne goes on to ask:
Are we traditional quiltmakers intimidated by the non-traditional quilts? Are we not competitive? Are we not finishing our quilts? Or, heaven forbid, are there less of us!!!??? Whatever the reason, there is now lots of room at the top for anyone who will enter in traditional categories. Lets get going!!
No, Jeanne, we’re not intimidated by the non-traditionalists, we are competitive, and we are finishing our quilts. I’m not sure there are fewer of us either, but what I am sure of is that this is a downward spiral: Traditional quilters who enter the shows want to win, and they probably dream of winning big. Who wouldn’t (even secretly in their heart of hearts) dream of having their quilt receive one of the highest honors in the quilt world, and collecting that award in front of an auditorium full of their peers during an Academy Awards-like presentation on a night to remember for the rest of your life?
But when traditional quilts don’t win big anymore, traditional quilters quit entering. The shows, seeing entry numbers for traditional quilts going down, cut down on the number of categories for traditional quilts, and the focus shifts to innovative quilts and even more to art quilts. More categories for art quilts means more first, second and third place art quilt winners, which means less competition for those awards among the art quilts entered. By the same theory, fewer categories for traditional quilts means stiffer competition for those category awards, so actually, there’s less room at the top for traditional quilters. And really, the “top” in this case isn’t really the top, since that would be the “Best” awards that traditional quilts don’t get.
Again, don’t misunderstand me. Having a quilt juried into a major show like the IQA show in Houston is a high honor and not to be missed, but if you’re always a contestant and never a winner do you keep entering, or does the excitement fade? I think it’s natural to be less excited by having your third or fourth (or tenth) quilt accepted to the show than you were the first time. After a while, you want the big prize and if you know you’re never going to get the big one by making traditional quilts, maybe you start innovating a bit here and there, and maybe your quilts even start taking turns in the art categories. There you have it: traditional quilting loses another participant, and is one step closer to extinction on the show circuit.
I encourage you to follow the links to the posts that I’ve included here; Jeanne shares some wonderful information about traditional quilts and what judges and shows are looking for beyond the passages I’ve quoted here. Paula included a “call to arms” in her post about this issue, encouraging the traditional quilters out there to make a quilt and enter a show. I second that encouragement, but I do wonder how successful we’ll truly be in the shows if our traditional quilts aren’t sporting new and different blocks or layouts, or covered in paint, beads, and baubles, and generally looking “non-traditional.”
For myself, I will continue to enter the shows, but it’s highly probable that many of my future quilts will not fall into the traditional categories, since I’m adding the “extra” and the “more” that I hope will stick out to the judges, because (I’m not ashamed to say) I want to win big. I’ll probably enter The Misery Quilt in the mixed category, because it won’t fit strictly into any of the others, especially traditional. I don’t think I’m a complete “sell out,” since my creative muse just won’t be denied and I can see that adding the extras like beads and embroidery and other things will make this quilt truly sing, but it’s probably also worth noting that I might not even be thinking in the “extras” direction if quilts in the traditional categories were given the same attention as those in other categories at the shows.
Your Voice: What’s your view? Are you a traditional, innovative, or art quilter? Have you entered shows, and if you have, what was your experience? If you haven’t entered, do you plan to enter, and if not, why not? Leave comments, discuss, and share links to your quilts, traditional or otherwise!