New Jersey…


Today I am happy to admit that I am from New Jersey. I’ve been waiting for this day for a while. I also know that this is not something that I am supposed to admit on my professional blog, that I am supposed to stay neutral, distant, apolitical if I want to have a business. At least that is what I have been told…

A while back I was informed that a number of retailers, including some good-sized online retailers, had stopped carrying my work, that they were in effect boycotting my at least temporarily because of the ways I expressed my dismay following the shootings at Sandy Hook. For a week I turned over my professional space to my (admittedly liberal) thoughts about guns and public policy. I was asked by one of the companies I used to work with to offer an apology, and that moment was a pivotal moment in both my personal and professional life, a moment that has had me mired in self-doubt ever since.

Here is the thing: my work will always blend the personal and the political. It is the intersection of personal history and cultural critique that has informed my work for about twenty years now. That is never going to change, but in that moment when I was asked to issue an apology for my practice being what it is I split myself in two. Instead of doing what I should have done and walked away from that partnership there and then as one that evidently did not fit my goals and needs I hesitated, I followed the conventional wisdom and regarded myself as a business rather than as myself.

Yes, I have to make wise business decisions, but I damn well know that the only business decisions that are going to work for me are the ones that allow me to make my best work, not the work that I think might sell, but the work that matters. In that moment when I sought a way to appease the people that were never really going to support me anyway I accepted that image of what I thought the market wanted me to be instead of myself.

Of course this is easier to see in hindsight, and after nine months of anguished self-doubt, but there it is. That is the benefit of profound, even paralyzing self-doubt; when you eventually do get to the other side you have reduced things down to what really matters. Art, life, and politics are inseparable for me; art can never really exist in a vacuum. Just making will never be enough for me.

The waves of self-doubt I’ve been sharing this year came not from any uncertainty about myself as a designer or maker; I have no doubts that I am pound-for-pound as good as anyone on the planet. My doubt was in myself as a human being. The existential bifurcation that I performed in that moment, the one I brought upon myself by accepting advice that I now understand was never in my best interest, cast doubt upon anything and everything I could do. It was a doubt born of trying to be two things at the same time that could no longer sustain each other.

That doesn’t mean I can’t still have a business here in this industry; it just means I cannot and do not want to have the business I had before. My work is mine, first and foremost. I do not care what the market wants; markets are generally backwards looking anyway in that they follow trends rather than open up new spaces.

Luckily, I do think there is a market for meaning out there, not just style. I think the current marketing models, especially for modern, has drawn dangerously close to jumping the proverbial shark. What started as a countercultural practice has been enveloped and branded and is in danger of being sapped of meaning. But I still believe that the core of quilting’s resurgence is not as a hobby, and has little to do with technique and style. It is about finding connections and meaning in a world full of dissociative forces. In many ways it is a return to the early traditions, but within a new context. The current wave of quilting truly is something entirely new, but not for all the superficial reasons so often cited. It may borrow from tradition, but is part of a postmodern movement begot of the blight of homogenization.

So, it really is simple. I made a mistake, but that mistake was not speaking out, but staying quiet, and my inaction left me ashamed, which in turn lead to doubt. But I shan’t make that mistake again. I believe that quilts and fabric matter. Fabric is not just a prop for color, and quilts are more than just pretty. Part of working within a tradition includes accepting the burden of that tradition’s weight. Quilts have been powerful objects, containing countless stories and statements, troubles and triumphs, and it is in accepting that tradition that quilting has a future. And it is only in making my work, in being a designer first and foremost, that I have a future in that tradition.


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6 Responses to New Jersey…

  1. 1
    Flaun says:

    Yes, this, exactly this! But then, you already knew that.

  2. 2
    Maggie Magee says:

    You are absolutely right–art, life and politics are inseparable! Whatever we do falls into the realm of political–artists and everyone else, as well. Action or inaction about important issues define us whether we are silent or outspoken. Through art, awareness and dialog, change and awareness can occur–and continuing to express this through art is power. Am with you Thomas!

  3. 3
    Chloe says:

    I am horrified that you were asked to apologise. I am still outraged that Sandy Hook has led to no meaningful gun control laws. As an outsider, it’s baffling, and it’s people like you and Jacquie Gering who give me hope for change. Quilts that make you stop and think about things, that start debates and that have something to say are to be admired and welcomed, as are the quilters who put themselves out there to make them. I am truly sad that has affected your career and therefore ultimately your family and I thank you for being brave enough to do that.

  4. 4
    Joanne Jones says:

    I read your post before going to sleep last night and have just read it again. It’s making my mind boggle. Funnily enough, last time I checked you weren’t a democratically elected representative in the government, you were a surface pattern designer, in which case, I could maybe understand (a really tiny bit). Who are these people and why do they think they that people are so shallow they won’t buy your fabric because you think owning guns is a bad idea in the wake of (another) high school shooting?? And also, last time I checked, I thought America was the home of the free, and I thought that included freedom of thought. Just sad it made you feel the self doubt that you have described. Balls to them and more power to you.

  5. 5

    And therein lies what frustrates the hell out of me the most about America. How personal people take other people’s opinions! For goodness sake! I’m sorry that being you and standing up for your beliefs caused you grief and presumably money.

  6. 6
    Jenny Bonynge says:

    To thine own self be true…

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