Just a small segment of the newest quilt. Design based on data visualization of the #33000 #gundeaths every year in the United States…
Just a small segment of the newest quilt. Design based on data visualization of the #33000 #gundeaths every year in the United States…
While Modern Quilt Perspectives was a very intuitive book to write, feeling my way through the quilts and the words, The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook was more carefully crafted. I don’t mean that in a cynical way, that it was engineered as a product, something to capitalize on a perceived market; rather I spent a good deal of time thinking about just what I wanted to impart through people playing with the book.
Of course play was a central element; whatever I wanted to offer, to teach, in the book needed to be fun, but there were definitely lessons I wanted to impart as well. Though the primary audience may be individuals, people picking up a copy and coloring, designing, reading, playing, and (hopefully) learning. But there is indeed another audience, one I tried to keep in mind throughout the process of pulling all the components of The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook together into a coherent whole: Quilt Shops.
Obviously, I hop shops carry the book for individual sale, but as I was pulling all of the threads within the book together I envisioned something else as well: coloring confidence groups, get-togethers in shops akin to the emergence of adult coloring parties. While I think the book offers a lot for individual exploration, I also saw it as a resource for shops to provide guide that growing constituency of quilters interested in designing and making their own quilts.
While traditional quilt classes readily provide instruction in techniques and guidance through patterns, individual expression is again returning to the foreground of the quilting world. It is there that I see The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook as offering a means for quilt shops to offer something unique to quilters looking to develop their own voices. In gathering to color together, seeing how others play with the same quilt designs, how different color approaches yield a wide range of results, those manifold insights possible within the book become clear, are transformed into collective understanding.
Even as I envisioned these get-togethers, coloring together with coffee (or wine), as a means encouraging quilters to play more with color, to experiment with fabric, I saw something else as well. While classes often draw a particular audience, I imagined these get-togethers, more casual than specific classes, as a means to support quilt shops as centers for their quilting communities, as loci for more than purchases. As more and more of the quilting world moves online, we in the industry need to find ways to help shops offer experiences that go beyond the point of purchase, and I see The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook as an effort to do just that. As products become ubiquitously available, quilt shops can still provide something more, community, experience, connection, in short a home.
In addition to coloring confidence, I was looking to provide opportunities, and lessons, for developing design confidence as well. And with that, design confidence get-togethers as well. Once quilters develop those basic material techniques, the bridge that so often remains is confidence, trusting in one’s own ideas. All the technical mastery in the world does not necessary provide a path across that bridge, and that is the aim of The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook, to help quilters and crafter, artists and makers, find their own paths. And therein lies the power of quilt shops to offer these get-togethers, to use this book to help their customers find their way through their weeds, to explore the possibilities, and help them translate the individual voices that emerge into fabric and thread, to take the designs and ideas off of the pages and into the material world as quilts.
I can only hope to see these groups start popping up in shops and guilds all over the place, to see my book come to life in novel and exciting ways in the process. While I am excited to see all your coloring and design experiments, what I am really looking forward to is seeing the quilts that come from that. And to that end I’d love to reach out to shops and guilds all over to help in making that happen however I can.
Many of the quilts I make are made for a particular person; Bee, Babbit, and K have more quilts than they could shake a stick at, a very large stick. Others only find homes with the passage of time, when something happens: a quilt I made with my Asbury fabrics only found its proper place with my stepmother in the months that cancer imposed it ineluctable pull (she grew up on the Jersey shore, the quilt a reminder of a wonderful life).
And now another quilt has found its home, its place. This time with a friend from back in my art school days. As you may have guessed if you’ve followed this space, or over on Facebookland, I don’t make friends easily; I fully understand that my inability to turn off my analytical brain can be, well, difficult for others. To put it bluntly, I can be complicated. But when I do forge friendships I feel them deeply, and even if I am not in constant contact, those bonds are resolute.
Anderson is one of those few people who worked through the weeds. We’ve been talking about finding a quilt for him for quite a while, but I just hadn’t found the right one, the connection. Simply sending along a bed quilt didn’t seem quite right; as our friendship was forged in the grind of grad school it was a question of art, a piece that spoke to his experience. It was a conceptual problem, not a material one.
I’m not sure why the pieces so suddenly fell into place, but the this quilt has found its home. While the quilt was made almost two years ago, it only recently came clear where it needed to go. I suppose I had something else in mind for it that stood in the way, a preconception of where it should go that barred me from seeing where it needed to go.
But now it is there. It is home.
Here is where I might normally explain why, but my words could never do that justice. That isn’t my story; it is his. So please, take an additional moment or two to read Anderson’s words, his story, the reason why Trayvon is now a part of his home.
(Seriously, go read this. Not only is it filled with meaningful reflection; Anderson is a beautiful writer. Go. Now. You won’t regret it…)
I regard myself as profoundly lucky to have met Anderson, and the many others who entered my life during my art school journeys. And I am eternally grateful to Anderson for having braved the tangle of complexity that is me and offered his friendship.
And for opening his home to this quilt…
Okay everybody; we've finally nailed down all the details and the official invite for my exhibit and public lecture at Drake University is ready to go. Hope to see all of my Iowa quilting community there… Beyond Patterns: Activism and Identity in QuiltsOpening Reception: Friday, Sept. 9 from 5-7PMwith Gallery Talk with Thomas Knauer at 6PMAnderson Gallery, Drake UniversityPublic Lecture with Thomas Knauer"The Meaning of Things: The Importance of Quilts in an Era of Excess"Thursday, Sept 8th from 7-8PMBook Signing for "The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook" from 6:15-6:50Olmsted Center, Sussman Theater, Drake University
If you’ve followed my ramblings here on the blog or over on the Facebook page you may have picked up that I wear my emotions on my sleeve. The highs are very high and the lows are incredibly low, and publicly so. I don’t hold much back and that has not always been a good thing for my career in the quilt world. But simply I cannot help that. Ask my wife; it is part of my very DNA, or so it seems. And as my time here in the quilt world has certainly been a rollercoaster, rising and falling and rising again (only to inevitably fall again) with maddening regularity. One minute I am on the way to being the king of the world, and the next that world is in tatters around me.
While I recognize that this is very much the nature of life, it feels profoundly at odds with my internal experience of being a quilter. Though I am certainly an accidental quilter – I made my first quilt purely to get a sense of how to design fabric for quilters, how cutting the cloth into small pieces might change how I design – I very quickly found myself devoted to the craft. Although I have been a working artist in one way or another for 25 years now I had never before found a medium so perfectly suited to my ideals. Though the shift from experimental new media to bed quilts may seem a radical leap, within me it could not feel more natural.
And therein lies my source of perpetual confusion and consternation. (Side note: I feel like I ought to drop a dagnabbit every time I write the word consternation.) With the passing months and years I feel I am growing closer to those ethereal matters essential to the quilting tradition; with each new quilt I simultaneously find myself more in communion with my forebears in quilts, more in tune with those that led the way decades and centuries ago even as I feel that I am stitching together new connections, introducing novel approaches that arise entirely from my explorations on the edges of the art world.
I’m not entirely sure what I am trying to say here. The thing is that the more time I spend thinking about quilts, researching the past, working with fabric and thread, the more I feel as though I am tapping into a deeper understanding of and reverence for the history of quilts. In those minutes, hours, and days I feel less and less an artist or designer and more a quilter. Not a quilt artist, a quilt designer, an art quilter, or any other term; simply a quilter. My quilts are finding their homes: in our house (Bee and Babbit are most ardent about their relationships to the quilts I have made them), as gifts when the right quilt find the right person, as donations for auctions and shelters, and inevitably as commissions and sales (though the commissions thus far have been part of fundraisers or exchanges with people I think of as family – James and Katie, your quilts are up next).
It is the prospect of selling quilts, I suppose, that is really prompting these ruminations. I have an uncomfortable relationship to the idea of selling quilts. I am not opposed to it, and recognize it as a longstanding element of the practice, but it hasn’t really felt right to me. After those first months of just figuring out how to make quilts (literally learning to sew, to bind, and eventually to quilt), my quilts have been a vehicle for giving voice to my concerns, a means to writing essays, stories, and poems that words could never manage. And I have never really figured out how to wrap my head around the notion of selling an idea.
But there it is, an economic reality, staring me in the face. As I go deeper into my connection to quilts I have found myself increasingly on the edges of the quilting industry. Back when I was something of a blank slate in the quilting world the opportunities seemed infinite. I signed my first contract for quilting fabric before I had made a single quilt; I inked a book deal based on a single idea for a quilt (In Defense of Handmade/Martha). Part of that was timing, those were the early years of Modern Quilting, and part of it was, to be blunt, the fact that the industry was looking to capitalize on the notion of the man-quilter (though I have done everything I can to distance myself from that term, turning down any and every request to be part of man-quilter themed projects). But between those two factors I think the first had the biggest effect; because I was just starting on my path in quilts I could be interpreted in whatever ways were most advantageous to those I was working with.
But there was a turn. By the time I finished Modern Quilt Perspectives my relationship to quilts and the quilting tradition began to come clear, the proverbial forest emerged despite the trees. While I still love that book, it became clear to me, and everyone I was working with in the quilting industry, that just one of the four chapters in that book made my heart (and brain) sing: Social Commentary, which included In Defense of Handmade, Palimpsest, and Excess, the three quilts from that book that I believe truly stand the test of time (along with URNH, the secret thirteenth quilt and pattern in a book that claims to have twelve). And with those quilts, and the path they set me on, I began my journey to the edge of the quilt industry.
Let me take a second to make a distinction: the quilt world and the quilt industry are two very distinct things. I think we have all seen it, sensed a widening gulf between our lives with quilts and the industry behind it. I don’t mean this as a critique of the quilting industry; it does what it needs to do to survive in an ever-tightening economic landscape. I do not wish to besmirch the industry, but I do believe there reality of trying to predict audiences and purchases is something profoundly other than being a quilter, and that gulf grows ever wider as the established avenues for sales changes. I don’t see that as a good thing or a bad thing, just a reality as it appears to me.
But I suppose that sets up this odd relationship I have with the quilt world and industry. I more and more feel like I am a traditional quilter, but not as it is understood in the industry. I feel increasingly connected to the Amish tradition, the quilters of Gees Bend, the extraordinary quilts of the Westward migration in the mid-19th century, those patterns that made sense of new experiences and realities, the rise of appliqué to translate a new world. As I feel more and more in touch with what came before, I feel as though I am moving further to the edges of the quilt industry, neither a part of it nor completely removed.
Even as I can barely keep up with exhibition requests, I find myself struggling to find homes within the industry. Even as I at last feel genuine connectedness to my practice, I feel adrift in the quilting world writ large. The shuttering of Quilters Newsletter was a profound blow to me, not only because it meant my philosophical essays there would come to an end, but because it foretold a larger shift in the industry, a move away from those things I held most dear. As I find myself profoundly committed to quilts as bearing something essential, something truly meaningful for these early years of the 21st century, I find myself on the outside looking in, on the edges of an industry I believe is resonant, important for making sense of just how we continue to be human.
Perhaps I am going about this all wrong, putting too much weight upon the shoulders of quilting. But when I look back at the extraordinary moments of quilting, at the extraordinary manifestation of values embedded in those Amish quilts, at the beautiful weight of making due, and what that meant, in those quilts from Gee’s Bend, I cannot help but see the tradition as something more than bundles and kits. Quilting is a medium that sings the story of devotion and suffering, of family and compassion, of story and resolve. So I sit here confused as to just how my devotion to those ideals has landed me here, on the edges, unable to shake the memory of those halcyon days just a few years ago when I seemed to know how to do it right. But for now I cannot avoid seeing my accidental business and my commitment to quilts as fundamentally at odds, as an intractable problem rather than the absolute joy it was even just a year ago.
Luckily I still have Bee and Babbit, a built in audience that will endlessly love these quilt I now feel compelled to make. And to be honest, they were always my first and most important audience. So for that I am truly lucky, and will remain forever indebted.