Painted and Quilted: Up for Discussion, by June Underwood

A quick and dirty post this morning from June, since Kristin was unable to do one. I would like to have some continuation of a question that Terry’s last post and subsequent comments suggested. The question is — what are the differences between painting media and stitched textile media? Olga pointed out that making curves in textiles is less physical than doing so in paint, and I think that it’s much harder to make curves with textiles than with paint, and that the effect of the finished work differs subtly in the different media.


Faith Ringgold, Dinner at Gertrude Stein’s, 1991, Acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border, 79 x 84″

I’m not looking for champions of either format, just a list of what, as an artist, you can do with this but not with the other medium; what effects you can get with this but not that medium; what subjects work better in that medium than this one; etc. I would also like to hear from people who work in an opposite manner to the obvious way that the medium might suggest.

Yesterday, Terry Grant, Gerrie Congdon, and I saw Faith Ringgold ‘s piece, Marlon Riggs: Tongues Untied, A Painted Story Quilt, (1994, Acrylic on canvas with pieced fabric border, 89 x 59.5,”) in the Cooley Gallery at Reed College.

ringgold_marlon_riggs.jpg Marlon Riggs: Tongues Untied

Ringgold is obviously a painter, with a strong point of view and subject matter that she works in sophisticated (albeit apparently “naive”) ways. She paints in acrylic on canvas, and in the piece I saw, she stitched (“quilted” is too strong a word) with what looked like dental floss in a large all-over grid pattern. But her work, even if it stretches it a bit to be called quilted, references quilts, particularly in her use of borders and repeated motifs, like flowers. In the piece we saw, she centered her figure, bed quilt fashion, and echoed the border floral pattern in the pattern on the chair in which her primary subject was seated. Her borders and corners, however, while from a distance might appear to be a commercial fabric, are painted (even if “pieced”) in a fairly primitive style. She binds her paintings with traditional colorful bindings.

Ringgold’s work is also full, sometimes slightly chaotic, in the manner of many quilted works — lots of busy-ness, in the best sense of the word.


Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach 2, 1990, Silkscreen on silk, 66 x 66″

Ringgold is obviously aware of the confusions her work creates between the traditions of painting, of quilting, of black people, of cultural and material heritages in the world of art as well as the world of African Americans and white Anglos. She loves playing with stories that the confusions can create.


Faith Ringgold, The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles , 1991, Acrylic on canvas, tie-dyed, pieced fabric border, 74 x 80″

Comparisons can help us understand more fully why we choose to work as we do and how we can enhance our choices — or change them. So help me with this list — what can you do in your quilted medium that you can’t do with paint? How does Ringgold subvert the quilted medium while also referencing it? Does she honor it with her referencing?

6 Responses to “Painted and Quilted: Up for Discussion, by June Underwood”

  1. 1 Sabina April 1, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    Hi , Happy April Fool’s Day!!!

    Two Jewish women were sitting under hair dryers at the hairdresser.
    Sadie says, “So now, Monah, how’s your family?”
    Monah responds, “Oh just fine. My daughter is married to the most wonderful man. She never has to cook, he always takes her out. She never has to clean, he got her a maid. She never has to work, he’s got such a good job. She never has to worry about the children, he got her a nanny.”
    Sadie then asks, “And how is your son these days?”
    Monah says, “Just awful. He is married to such a witch of a woman. She makes him take her out to dinner every night, she never cooks a dish. She made him get her a maid, God forbid she should vacuum a carpet. He has to work like a dog because she won’t get a job and she never takes care of their children, because she made him get her a nanny!”

    Happy April Fool’s Day!

  2. 2 nancy September 22, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    I have just found the “Ragged Cloth Cafe” blog and it is an extremely timely discovery. As I write, my book “What The Surface Reveals~The Threads Project 2001-2007” is being printed by the on-demand company Blurb.

    In this book I document my work of over six years in which I attempted to answer the questions put forth on “Ragged Cloth Cafe” concerning the issues of “fine art” and “craft”.

    I was prompted to write when I read from the archives the article and comments on Angela Moll’s “Craft vs. Art, one more time”, published March 7, 2008. It is clear that the subject is still, as I commented in the book, of great interest and remains open to further discussion. In particular, the response to the article by Lisa Call refers to the primary question I sought to answer in The Threads Project, “Why does choice of methods and materials define the resulting project?”

    In my introduction to “What The Surface Reveals” I wrote of my motivation: “In 2001 I began an extensive body of work which came to be known as “The Threads Project”. It was my intention to find a bridge between my interest and experience with both textile and surface design and my fine art practice. I wanted to create work which would blur the divisions and perceived value based on material, process, or technique that might be associated with one area or the other.

    Drawing has been the lifelong focus of my work and over the years I have created both figurative and non-representational work. At the same time I have always had an affinity not only for the surface often used in drawing-paper-but for the equally tactile surface of cloth.

    I had briefly used fabric in my work in the 1970’s, making sculptures and wall pieces. Artists were encourgaged to break down old concepts of ar, process, and techniques formerly defined as “craft” and narrowly assigned as “fiber” art….

    In 1989 I began a serious exploration of surface design with fabric, including ancient dyeing methods such as shibori as well as painting printing on fabric, and eventually, garment design…and

    My personal issue reflects, I believe, the ongoing attempts at integrating “art” and “craft” by artists everywhere. I still felt a divide between theory and reality and began to try to find a way to reconcile this in my work.

    I began with two lists. In one I listed terms relating to “traditional” methods of making art such as drawing,painting, sculpture, printmaking, collage. In the other, terms pertaining to textiles such as sewing, applique, quilting, thread.

    I determined that I would combine the elements found in these two lists in works which would prevent the viewer from judging them as either “fine art” or “craft”.”

    The period of exploration into this issue resulted in dozens and dozens of works including drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures, textile pieces, digital drawings, artist’s books,and of course,”mixed-media” works.

    Early on several events provided “clues” to my exploration. I attended an exhibition of Sean Scully’s paintings, with geometric bars and patterns that immediately call to mind quilt patterns. (This was before the momentous exhibition of The Gee’s Bend quilts in which the value of quilts as legitimate art made such an important statement.) At the Scully exhibition my first thought was “If a similarly-sized, patterned quilt were to be hung next to this painting, created by (most likely)”Anonymous”, what value would be placed on each?”

    In 2001 I attended a second etching workshop at Crown Point Press in San Francisco. Learning the process of etching, including aquatint, I was struck by the resemblance of these prints’ surface to some of my hand-dyed cloth. Also, I recalled seeing a gallery announcement for an exhibition pairing ancient hand-dyed textiles and modern color-field paintings. The idea of “pairs” of analogous images was thus begun as a method of blurring those perceived divisions in “fine art” and “craft”, a method that I used throughout “The Threads Project”.(If one could not immediately identify the means and material used, one could not judge based on these, thus a pair of works side-by-side.)

    At Crown Point Press I used the chine colle’ method to pair hand-dyed cloth with etchings, “thread drawings” done with tulle and thread and chine colle’, and used etchings as the surface for paintings and drawings with acrylic and thread/tulle.

    The exploration of each idea led, of course, to more branches of discovery. Using thread as both medium and subject, I sewed unspooled thread onto paper, sewing and glueing to the surface and resulting a raised “thread drawing”. These in turn were analogous to the drawings on paper with color pencil.

    In a series of “Quilted Thread Drawings” I used rectangles of white sateen as though approaching a sheet of drawing paper. I did not want this to reference “embroidery”. Relating these white rectangles of cloth to my ubiquitous sheets of drawing paper, I let the cloth respond in its way as pencil does to paper, each having their own natures.
    The edges are unfinished, the black thread stitches on white cotton are marks but the in-and-out of the thread pull created a textured surface. Further rectangles of black and white cloth are the analogous “collage” on these pieces.

    A spontaneous triangular stitch used initially on a textile piece became a significant motif. This “stitch-mark” was then applied to sewing on paper, as a frottage element, in “web” paintings and drawings, as well as in important textile pieces.
    The combining of elements on the intial “two lists” developed much farther than I had ever anticipated. Overall, during these six or so years, “The Threads Project” not only explored the issue of “fine art” vs. “craft”, in this case cloth and paper, textiles and drawing, but went on to challenge my ideas of my definitions of my primary means of expression, drawing. It opened my eyes to digital drawing, to a deeper investigation into painting, mixed-media work, printmaking, artist’s books and so much more. The issue was the start, but in the end became the means.

    I consider myself an artist. I make quilts occasionally but do not consider myself a “quilt artist” or a “fiber artist”. I use cloth and textiles to create as I would use paper, paint, and canvas. In the long term and now that I have had time to look over the enormous work and thought that went into this project, I suddenly see that I have finally “bridged” the division between “fine art” and “craft”. My reactions to the issue of “art vs. “craft” have been externally informed and that is now understood in more ways than the merely theoretical.

    Perhaps one of the most important results of this body of work is that in trying to answer the question of “What importance is the material, process, or technique in valuation of work?” I opened up to the richness of opportunity in using these and challenged old parameters of my definitions of both “fine art” and “craft”. It now seems that I had wanted to validate my interest in “craft” and felt as others did, that it merited less than “fine art”. My attempt to blur distinctions to others opened my own eyes to the idea that such distinctions are not valid.

    I created work which answered the need to prevent perceived divisions but now see that intention is paramount. The exterior art world is arriving at the same conclusions as art and craft find common ground.

    Looking at exhibition opportunities for such work as “The Threads Project” over the six years has shown that there is certainly now less disparity than perhaps ten years ago. Looking farther back to the time of Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” and now the recent revival of interest and acceptance of the importance of her’s and other artists’ work who were early “pioneers” in the “art and craft” issue, it is clear that we have come far.

    As a post-script, I believe that the impetus to the entire process of creating “The Threads Project” was the question by an art dealer to me, of why I was “wasting my time” dyeing cloth when I could be producing drawings? That struck such a deep note of frustration that it fueled my need to understand this division of value placed on our creative efforts. Much has changed since that event ten years ago.

    While my work with “The Threads Project” seems finished, and while I have taken a year’s hiatus as a mental break and to work on the book, the impact of it continues in other work. Work descending from a major textile piece, “River, Stones” which uses the “stitch-mark”, painting, collage/applique, on silk, can be seen in a series of “Black Drawings” posted on the website of The Drawing Center (New York) on their Viewing Program. This series follows a previous series posted there of “Web” drawings on paper also using the triangular “stitch-mark” motif developed in “The Threads Project”.(A detail of “River, Stones” is shown as the major image linking to The Black Drawings.)

  3. 3 thelmasmith March 9, 2008 at 9:06 am

    I like how neatly Olga defined the big question: “In essence it is the fundamental why-make-art-in-the-form-of-a-domestic-craft question.”

    Like the rest of us, I have no good answer. I do know I like the contrariness of presenting serious ideas in a medium that the world has defined as comforting. It allows me to draw people into a work. The serious questions sneak up because of the medium.

    I was raised with textiles. My grandmother taught me embroidery before her death when I was in first grande in a one room school house. Cloth is definitely one of the defining parameters or domesticity. That’s that for good or bad. I picked it up again in my forties when I had time available.

    The other aspect of the continuting choice is a statement the late Arlene LewAllen made at a saqa conference in Santa Fe in 1999, “Show me something I’ve never seen before!” That command comes into play if, as artists, we wish to engage in the public aspects of our work.

  4. 4 Kate Themel March 7, 2008 at 8:28 am

    Hi June,
    In answer to the question “What can you do with quilted medium that you can’t do with paint?” One answer is: Wrap it around your body to keep warm.
    This idea may be simple, but to me it is no small thing. In fact it may be the single biggest reason that I prefer fabric over paint. Part of the appeal of using fabrics is the feeling described by Olga. When I’m stitching a quilt (small, large, art quilt or other), inevitably some of the material rests on my lap or runs across my arms. At that moment I’m reminded that what I’m creating has been created millions of times, over centuries, in myriad forms all stemming from a basic human need – to protect us against cold.
    This drive to create may come from deep within my DNA, a primal “nesting” instinct passed down from my cave woman ancestors. Quilts have a unique potential to be pratical utilitarian objects or evocative works of art (even both at the same time).
    As our technology advances and we no longer need to quilt for physical warmth, we still hang onto the practice. Without the pressure of survival resting on our work, we can use what we’ve learned to stretch the boundaries & explore the limits of fabric as an artistic medium.
    How cool is that?

  5. 5 june February 28, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Hi Olga,

    Just because a question is unanswerable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t conjure up conjectures — some of the best unanswerables have many tomes written and still being written about [add snort here].

    The weaving you linked to is extremely interesting in part because it seems to violate the gridded regularity of weaving, but makes apparent what happens to fabric when it’s hung. It emphasizes the textility (drape) of the textile as opposed to the usual stretching of it like a canvas; at the same time, it violates the usual gridded character.

    I also think separating out the gallery/exhibition/art/craft questions from the smaller ones of what can the artist can achieve with different media and how the artist matches intentions to specific media is useful (and you have helped to make that sort). The external world is generally layered over our personal preferences — we learn to work around/with/through the Art World, while holding onto what we feel works best.

    So that still allows for the questions of personal preference — like you, many textile artists simply love textiles — the touching folding softness and the connotations of fabric; many painters simply love the paint (James Elkins connects this to a scatological primal element, which always makes me laugh, because I love the smooshy pudding/mudness (to be less primal) of paint).

    And you have pointed out that sometimes the subject matter makes the choice quite clear — certain subjects seem to go better with certain media. But many can go either way, and I think I’m interested in what happens when you make the choice — what happens to the imagery, and the intention that gets focused because of the media.

    And then there’s what you can actually do with the media with any ease and coherence and whether to bother with a different mode.

    Thanks for attempting to respond to a Big Question. The question is not as bad as “how to fix the American Economy” or “Whether there’s a God or not,” but I find it a whole lot more interesting. Your ideas contribute to the ongoing interest.

  6. 6 Olga February 28, 2008 at 7:13 am

    Wow! And how long do we get to write this thesis? This is a fascinating question, but such a huge one. In essence it is the fundamental why-make-art-in-the-form-of-a-domestic-craft question. What follows is more or less top of the head stuff.

    I kept mulling over the curves subject, and began thinking about the work of Magdalena Abakanowicz. She started with large textiles, weavings which used curves in the overall outline, but which also described curves in the way that they hang. It strikes me that this latter curve is an important one in this choice of medium. Soft random curves. Somehow I feel that the randomness, or at least the probable unpredictability of the curve is vital. I have not really thought about this – it’s just an instinctive feel.

    Anyway, MA has gone on to make figurative sculpture, hard, often without heads. It is such a change of medium. Is this an artist becoming serious in her choice of ‘legitimate’ medium? Are textiles limited in expression, or just limited in serious outlets?

    Does Faith Ringgold use textiles with her paintings, or does she paint her quilts? I suspect that she is a painter who wants to include the materiality and the evocative qualities of domestic cloth in her imagery. I think that the loose category of art quilts can be a muddying of waters, and a fudging of thought about purpose.

    I stop and ask myself why I am working in cloth and stitch. Part of the answer is that I need the theraputic meditative calm of repetetive stitching with the soothing feel of fabric through my fingers. Another part is that I am concerned with expressing emotions which arise through a domestic/family situation, and I want to evoke as well as subvert thoughts of comfort/discomfort/enigma in that way, so for the most part I believe that the materiality of fabric and its companion marks of stitch can get me nearer to what I feel I am saying.

    However, I do find myself editing my work because not everything is appropriate for the medium. Only the other day I encountered a case where a piece has developed through use of stitch out into a kind of limbo where I don’t know what medium is appropriate other than perhaps photographic print, whether on paper or on fabric. This is fine if simply developing work for oneself, but is a knotty problem if trying to achieve some kind of position in the gallery/exhibition/art/craft/whatever world.

    I suspect that this reads in too rambling a fashion, so I shall stop here. I’m sorry that no-one else has commented, because it is such an interesting question. On the other hand, as I said – such a huge one too that perhaps it just is to big even to nibble at coherently.

Comments are currently closed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 221 other subscribers


%d bloggers like this: