Technology and Human Touch within Fabric Art – Kate Themel

A beautiful composition caught my eye at a quilt show.  The colors and intricate pattern were mesmerizing… it reminded me of abstracted light on water.  How did they do that? I wondered.

I walked up to the quilt and discovered it was created by a computer generated image that had been printed onto a whole cloth.  Oh, well that wasn’t as impressive as I expected.  The quilting, I criticized, isn’t even very imaginative.  The stitches just follow along the lines of the printed image.  All my amazement evaporated; I had thought this complex design must have been something only an expert craftsperson could have pulled off.  I was disillusioned to see how simple it was.  I have to say, I was disappointed.  Then I noticed that this quilt won a ribbon in the show.  Then I just got mad. 

I complained inside my head: “That’s cheating.  They did the whole thing on a computer.  What is this doing in a quilt show anyway?  What artistic skill is being demonstrated here? For that matter, what quilting skills are being rewarded by a ribbon?  This is digital photography, not fabric art.”   

But on the way home, I stepped off my high horse a bit.  I asked myself “What am I so mad about?  Why do I feel cheated?  Am I just jealous that they won a ribbon and I think I spent more time on my work then they did?”   

The answer was I was upset because I was conflicted.  I loved the design but I didn’t respect how it was made.  Is that a fair judgment? To test my position, I tried to make an argument for the other side: 

·    On first sight of this quilt, I was impressed and intrigued.  It had a strong composition and compelled me to come for a closer look.  For fine art, the visual impact is the top priority and I admit that the design here was very successful. 

·    The artwork was made out of layers of fabric held together by stitches, so it met the accepted definition of a quilt.  In practical terms, I could not object to it being in a quilt show.  There were plenty of other examples of “Whole cloth” quilts on display. 

·    The label explained that the design was a digital image printed on fabric; there was no deception in its presentation.  Therefore I could not accuse the artist of “cheating”.  

·    The use of technology does not necessarily preclude something from being Art.  Photography was not considered an artistic endeavor because it didn’t require any painting or drawing skills.  When the sewing machine was invented and used by quilters, many traditionalists objected to its use, arguing that it was an easy short-cut.  At first, machine sewn pieces were not considered “real” quilts.

So with the invention of digital cameras and computer software, of course artists will be experimenting & assimilating it into their work.  The quilt in question made use of the latest technology.  Is that any different than when I use an electric sewing machine?  Or when I take digital photos as part of my research? 

The whole thing reminded me of a joke – How many artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?  Answer: 100.  One to screw it in, and 99 to say “I could have done that!” 

So I amended my judgment as follows:

1. I was wrong in my assertion that this quilt did not belong in a quilt show.  It clearly met the requirements of art as well as the definition of a quilt.  

2. Technology may make the production process easier, but it is still just a tool.  It can be used to create a successful design, or as a crutch for a poor design.   The quilt in question demonstrated fine art principals successfully.  I wouldn’t have been drawn in for a closer look otherwise. 

With that said, I still connect with fabric art by the process as well as the result.  To me, the direct manipulation of materials by the artist and the wonderful “hands on” building process is my favorite aspect of the work.  

In this situation, I just couldn’t see the individual in the quilt.  This may be the limits of my own imagination rather than an affect of technology.  Clearly the manipulation of materials occurred, but the materials were digital pixels, bytes of data and an industrial printing machine, done before the quilt came into being.  Maybe it’s simply too far removed for me.   

Since no fabric pieces were used, I couldn’t read the story of the process in the artist’s cutting, piecing, layering etc.  There were no surface treatments to record a brushstroke of paint or even the passing of a needle through a bead.  The quilting stitches traced contours of the printed forms, revealing nothing of the artist’s hand.  In essence, the artist stayed hidden inside the technology. 

I discovered that my connection to artwork depends on what is revealed about the artist, maybe even more than what I see as an end result.  Of course, a strong design will catch my eye but it takes more to win me over.  The truth is, I found out that (for myself), visual impact without a back-story leaves me cold.    

What connects you to an artwork?  Do you care about the creative process behind the image?  Or is the final visual impact the only thing that matters?


23 Responses to “Technology and Human Touch within Fabric Art – Kate Themel”

  1. 1 Lynne Brotman January 13, 2011 at 10:59 am

    I can understand the first impression of why should digital photography be considered art when made into a quilt.Should the artist be considered an art quilter or even an artist? There are others who might argue that quilts are not even art at all. I believe as an artist that creativity is not exclusive to one technique or venue and putting hand to button (computer button)or hand to needle is the same. The thought process in creativity and the realization of the piece is the same.

  2. 2 Sunny January 3, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    I am also coming very, very late to this discussion … but still wish to have my say. The question we all grapple with boils down to ‘What is real?’ This is the question for our age. Photos used to be considered to bear witness. A photo was proof. Today anyone with Photoshop can create a scene that has nothing to do with reality. So what can the viewer trust? Where is veracity? What is real? I love texture and can’t stand to see a piece of fiber art framed under glass. Does that mean that a piece of work becomes less real for me when it’s framed? Yes. And maybe that will have to be the interim answer to this quandry. What’s real? Well, let me tell you what is real for me. Then you can tell me what’s real for you. And perhaps we can accept that somewhere between or beyond our two answers is the destination that we as artists and human beings will find one day.

  3. 3 Lorraine December 20, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    I am late in seeing and responding to this post. Thought-provoking indeed. I have to say, there is one expression used here that does raise my hackles. What on earth is “computer-generated” art? We would not describe a painting as “brush-generated” or a sculpture as “chisel-generated,” so I fail to see how a computer does much without the aid of a human hand. (Well, sure, there are exceptions, but I don’t think the piece described was likely one of them. Even then, they’d take a human to program them.)

    I think it is very interesting how we often value things more highly based on the fact we think they were “difficult” rather than “easy” to create. And having spent half the day working on digital photos for a Christmas present, I have to question the “easy” aspect of photography as well!

    For me, it’s all about the results, and the ideas behind the piece. I’ve seen a lot of quilts that were intricate and looked very difficult, but left me cold.

    I agree with both Alison and Sandy on this one. It was not that long ago when machine quilting and fusing were considered cheating and their results were “not real quilts.” With art, though– who gets to say?

    Funny, though, photographers get their knickers in a knot in very similar ways– I once looked into joining a local camera club, but when I read their “category” rules, I lost interest. They were all hung up about classifying the results into photos with no manipulation, those with manipulation that could have been done using traditional darkroom techniques, and those that could only be done with the use of modern technology. I couldn’t get past the idea that none of these judgments were based on the resulting image, but instead were based on some mental constructs about what the viewers counted as “real” photography.

  4. 4 Miss Snips October 28, 2008 at 11:15 am

    I enjoyed this topic immensely. I suspect that I would have a similar reaction upon first seeing this quilt, and after considerable thought may have arrived at similar conclusions. I am not a particularly good artist, I am an artist for ME, so my judgement is not something that other people would necessarily respect or rely upon, but I do know for my own self, when I see what I like, I know I like it no matter who or how or when it may have been created…

  5. 5 lookingforbeauty October 17, 2008 at 8:12 am

    After I made the comment above, I went back and read through all the other comments. This has been, indeed, a very excellent conversation on the art of quilting, fabric arts and the use of technology in creation versus traditional hand-making thereof.

    As I read through, I felt that what was missing from the digital piece perhaps, was what I so enjoy in art pieces – texture, surface qualities, and in fabric art – the sensual, tactile quality of the materials.

    I’m a visual artist working mostly in pastels, oils and watercolour. I have the same dilemma that Kate has when I see Giclee prints and limited edition art prints sold as Art, or enhanced reproductions of oil or acrylic paintings screened onto canvas. All the tactile quality is missing.

  6. 6 lookingforbeauty October 17, 2008 at 7:56 am

    I really enjoyed your dialectic here.
    I have similar feelings to yours when I see digital art made into prints and sold as art, at the same price or more, as something that has been done by hand. Even though I have dabbled in the medium of digital imagery and know that it is not an easy art to manipulate and control, that digital art takes time in a different way, I too, miss the personal touches – a brush stroke, a surface texture, the skill of the hand, the directness and imperfection of hand-to-eye vision.

    I’ll be back to read more. Your post is very thoughtful and articulate.
    I can see great parallels between the outcry of the Classic painters with their attention to detail and photographic likenesses when the Impressionists came along with their knowledge of new technology about colour and how the eye sees, revolutionizing image making. There was controversy then about what “art” was. The Impressionists outraged their the world, causing consternation amongst traditional artists of the time because their paintings appeared not only “ugly” in traditional terms, but facile – mere daubings.
    One has to admire innovation for it daring, for its creativity and imagination. But it sometimes takes us a good generation or two to accept it and embrace it.

  7. 7 Sandy Donabed September 28, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Oh boy, three decades ago I heard this same argument about machine stitched quilts. two decades ago it was hand dyed fabric, one decade ago it was all the junk people attach, angelina and onion bags and that cheatin’ art, paint! Over the years I have been extremely IMpressed as well as extremely DEpressed at some of the developments. It’s all in how it’s handled! I still see ugly hand stitching out there, and of course hand dyeing isn’t always- umm, Hand Dyeing. But after seeing Miriam Nathanson’s whole cloth piece in QN a few years ago I am a convert- it was stunning. Same rules apply for any kind of quilt, no matter what it’s made of, excellent craftsmanship, and mastery of materials. Interesting thought process, Kate- thanks for documenting it all for us.

  8. 8 Kay September 23, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    This was an very well expressed piece, and as other people have said, it articulated my feelings about some computer generated work. I second the idea that textile art should reflect or celebrate the medium, and the comment that this piece might equally well have been a photograph seems to pinpoint one problem. I have an equally negative reaction to quilts that are so realistic they look like paintings or photographs, showing no sign of the cloth medium. I think the problem with both types of work is something about the relationship between art and a medium, and is not a question of a “real” quilt versus an “art” quilt, which some posts seem to suggest.

    I also like Pamdora’s comment that there was a level of interest missing in this piece. How interesting that she, and I think all quilters, like their work to become stronger when viewed close up; the piece you described became weaker.

  9. 9 pamdora September 22, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    I use the computer as a tool throughout my whole process, but it is not obvious to most people when they look at the work.

    Art by others I most appreciate when it works on many different levels — be it a painting, I enjoy looking at the brush strokes and paint textures, or sculpture, the details by which it is fabricated or crafted. So when I create my own work, I want it to have the drama and impact at a distance at first impression, but have more meaning, interest, and surprises when you get up close to look at the details.

    Maybe on some level, the art piece that you are discussing in the post only satisfied your interest on one level, and I understand you for wanting more.

  10. 10 glennis September 20, 2008 at 11:02 am

    I’m coming to this post today as a non-quilter and like joan, not sure what exactly TO call myself other than a maker currently practicing shibori.
    If you move away from classifying the object as a quilt and the criticism of it’s use of technology, what you have is an art/object that was pleasing to the eye and provoked the viewer to numerous questions and this discussion.
    I am a self proclaimed process junkie and am always interested in the making of an object-even to the point of “mass” production in my studio as crass as that may seem to some. My thoughts on this are more akin to joan’s in this as well- that we DO live in a commercial society- god forbid that we make things to sell and support ourselves.
    That being said, I would be interested in knowing more about how the Artistherself came to the point where she created this technological marvel of a “quilt”. It’s hard for me to have a informed judgment of any artwork by viewing a single piece of an artist’s work. I want to know more. She may be a master quilter and this piece was a departure and exploration into new technology and experimentation challenging the very boundaries of quiltmaking for her. It’s this exploration that I am drawn to.
    It’s hard to know without understanding the larger context of her work.
    As an artwork, it seems as if was successful in it’s own right.
    Art is often messy in more ways than one.

    I am feeling a little more informed by all the thoughts presented here-thanks.

  11. 11 alison schwabe September 17, 2008 at 3:55 am

    Cathie is saying that digital images on fabric in a quilt should be juried/judged separately from others… and I am sorry, but I totally disagree.

    The ‘quilting arts’ processes you mentioned plus the manipulated digital images are ALL surface design techniques. ( and there is a whole Surface Design Assooiation you might explore some time) Once the surface design has been achieved, if the artist then wishes to layer and quilt the design by hand or machine or a combination of them, then that is the artist’s design decision, too, since quilting adds a final layer of texture (design element) to the whole work. There are peoople making quilted textile art who have never ‘Made a Quilt’ in their lives. For the art quilter there are no rules. What does often happen though is that large or guild quilt shows/exhibitions add an art or innovative category, and some who still like to have one foot safely in the quilt show arena will exhibit what they are doing there, and then almost certainly score negative judgemental comments from people seeing something they don’t feel fits with their concept of ‘quilt’.

  12. 12 Cathie September 16, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    You’ve brought up a very thought provoking point here — and one that I certainly can relate to. To the point – I do believe that photography (digital photography) is truly an art, and manipulation of that art is another form of art – in and of itself. Like you, I have often stopped and admired quilts (art quilts) that I think are just spectacular, only to learn upon close evaluation that they are really not “quilts” at all — but photographs with machine stitched embellishment. And, like you, I have felt hugely disappointed – particularly upon my first few confrontations with this type of “quilt” art.

    I think that digital photography may very well have a place in quilting arts, however in judged/juried shows they should be in a separate “digitally manipulated images” category and NOT judged alongside (pieced, embellished, hand/machine stitched, collaged,etc.) art quilts.

    I enjoyed reading and contemplating your post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject as it is one I have pondered many times in recent months, and it was interesting to get another’s point of view on this topic.

  13. 13 Anaka Narayanan September 16, 2008 at 8:36 am

    I thought this well-written post brought up a really important and interesting point. I also can’t help but wonder who the judges were in that contest- who decided to give that quilt a ribbon? I started a small clothing company because I wanted to reach out to a different market in India- a market that wouldn’t normally gravitate towards natural fabrics or traditional textile crafts for the sake of the fabric or the process. So my goal is to use crafts that I am passionate about, but I make sure the final garment looks contemporary and urban because I cannot expect my customers to care about the process and the craft in the way that I do. The upside is that I get them to support a craft while they get to buy something that fits in with their lifestyle and wardrobe. But the drawback is that once you transform a fabric so drastically, it is very difficult for anyone to connect with the fabric anymore- it is just the consumer and her garment.

  14. 14 joan September 16, 2008 at 8:12 am

    This is a wonderful, thought-provoking discussion. I am delighted to see Olga’s post. I find your work very inspirational. I read your blog regularly.

    I have been avidly observing Melody Johnson’s painting progress and the responses it has engendered. Someone commented that her current output was “commercial.” Artists are not supposed to eat? We do not live in a commercial society?

    s one who is struggling to understand why I make art (let alone whether I am entitled to call what I do artmaking), I have concluded that one good justification for attending art school is that hopefully one becomes inured to these arguments. I’m sure that commercial is pejorative art criticism-speak but I’m not planning to go to art school to find out.

    The Damien Hirst direct-to-auction event seems to me to dovetail with Kate’s post. The financial markets are in disarray. Billionaires hire art consultants to advise them in “investing” in art. Artists are trying to cut out the gallery owners. Exciting times.

    I keep going back to the first statement: a beautiful composition; work that draws one in for further study. I would be happy to accomplish that.

  15. 15 Olga September 16, 2008 at 7:47 am

    I am one of those dratted folks who uses a computer to generate the image which I then (gasp) have commercially printed onto fabric. I then hand quilt the whole cloth (taking weeks to do so), using a sewing machine only to stitch on the backing.

    In making an image I think that I can use the tools which suit me. I used to paint with acrylics, but something was missing. I would painstakingly draw in a ‘woven’ background in many of them. Now I love the contrast of using my hand holding the graphic pen mouse to create the image, and using my hand holding a needle to manipulate the cloth to finalise the work.

    The quilting is important for the final work. The image that is printed out is in most cases not finished. Texture is necessary, and is very much part of the emotional impact of the piece. Quilts are comforters, and I deal in emotional issues, so presenting in the form of a comforter is part of how I want to communicate – sometimes making the image more enigmatic, or disturbing. I hope so, anyway. It is my intention.

    I use the quilt form when it is appropriate for the work. I do make other work using stitch, but in an embroidered form. It is not always developed on the computer, but I do not think of this therefore as more valid as art.

    I agree with Alison Schwabe: the computer is a tool. I would not say that my hand quilting is more valid than machine stitching, although personally I do not like to see some kinds of all over fill-in machine stitching. What is important is the work – especially if it is to be regarded as art.

    What connects me to an artwork by someone else? – a communication of feeling and thought, an emotional response, a memory of it long after I have stopped looking at it.

    Do I care about the creative process behind the image? – yes, as a kind of intellectual curiosity. And yes, it can enhance my appreciation – such as finding out that Henri Cartier-Bresson only took one snap of situations he saw, not shooting a whole film and then choosing the best frame.

    Is the final visual impact the only thing that matters? – yes, in the appropriate context, because that visual impact should include the manifestation of the work: the way it is composed, crafted, and presented.

  16. 16 kate September 15, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Good point, Eileen. Although I don’t think it would be MORE effective as a photograph, I feel it would have been EQUALLY effective had it been printed on paper rather than on fabric.
    To be clear, I’m not saying photo-printing on textiles can’t be an effective and important design element in art quilts.
    But the use of textiles as a medium (in this particular case) did not add anything of value to the artwork.

  17. 17 eileen d September 15, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    A very good topic for discussion, and one that will be with us for a very long time, no doubt.

    When I’ve been in similar situations as Kate, I find myself wondering why the artist chose to use the fabric medium in the first place. Particularly when the quilting stitches or fabric layers don’t really add anything to the piece. It seems that, if someone chooses to use textiles, they really should be invested in USING the textile medium. Perhaps the piece Kate saw would have been more effective if it had stayed a photograph.

  18. 18 alison schwabe September 15, 2008 at 9:22 am

    What Kate encountered was the product of an artist using just another tool. In skillful hands the end result is either a wonderful composition totally resolved in every aspect, or it fails on some level. Whole cloth, hand or machine pieced, printed, painted, whole cloth, hand or machine appliqued or quilted – they are all processes available to art quilters in addition to digitial image manipulation and various forms of print generated using computerised equipment. IMHO far too many quiltmakers who aspire to being regarded as ‘artists’ become totally hung up on the processes used to create a work; but considering how many come from quilting/sewing backgrounds that is hardly surprising. However, it is one reason, perhaps the principal one, why collectively we have such difficulty being taken seriously, imho. In response to your second last paragraph especially, the imagery I see is where the story is, not how the artist did whatever was done – I am simply not into technical gee whizz, and my comments apply to any art medium, not just quilted textiles. I don’t need to know and actually don’t care if a wood sculptor used a dremel tool or picked out detail with a tiny hand chisel, the end result is what impacts me, or doesn’t.

    Personally I would do away with all technical descriptions beside quilted art works in galleries and in catalogues, to gently force the viewing public, and the artiststhemselves to concentrate on the actual works .

  19. 19 Connie Rose September 15, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for this wonderful topic, it helped clarify some of my own feelings about the making of art. I am very hands on plus I have a small studio setup and do all my wet work in my kitchen. I don’t have the luxury of lots of space and expensive equipment, so I always strategize methods of achieving certain results with what I have and what I can do. In other words, I may see another artist’s work that I am intrigued by and then try to figure out how I could achieve a similar end with less technology and/or more hand work.

    I used to do shows when I worked in a different medium and I was constantly bugged by so many artists doing work that was easily reproduceable and making so much money at it, while I toiled away at truly unique pieces, one bead or stitch at a time. In the end I think it’s about personal satisfaction with the work we do. And I suppose we need to embrace diversity of methods because our not liking them isn’t going to make them go away any time soon.

  20. 20 Marg in Calgary September 15, 2008 at 4:15 am

    In reading this article, I could understand your conflicting feelings; I appreciate your articulatinig a process I think I’d have experienced myself, in the same situation. For me, the creation of a piece of art in quilting — be it traditional forms, piecing, applique, embroidery and the quilting itself — or contemporary versions of those same skills. One criterion I would suggest for ‘art’ would be that there is some sort of connection between the artist and the viewer. This, for me, would require some sign from the artist, some indication of what he or she was trying to express in the work.

    This expression can be seen in photography, which is is why I think it has become a popular artistic medium.

    I believe it can also be seen in the use of computer-transferred images, such as you describe — but clearly, something was missing in the piece you viewed: that ‘something’ that takes the piece beyond the showing of technique and transports it to the expression of emotion or feeling.

  21. 21 jude September 15, 2008 at 3:56 am

    i really like this post. i can be right with you here, there are many reasons why i reject certain forms of technology in art. probably because there are so many personal reasons for my staying unplugged. but it isn’t fair really. i guess i honestly hate the look and feel of a machine stitch and mostly find computer images harsh and ugly. BUT if someone actually creates something outrageously wonderful it should be recognized on any level. and we must acknowledge the context of our time. i am getting old you know, things are changing.. yes context is important, but hell some things are just amazing. you just have to admit it and move on. tks for the post.

  22. 22 Robyn Henwood September 14, 2008 at 9:22 pm

    Interesting. It is surely that the imagery or idea was strong. I feel as a textile artist that whilst my idea (before the actual design goes to production or the art idea to the piece) that there is this magical thing that happens when I start to make the actual work -and that is the materials respond or dictate what I can do. I think there would be those judgements and constraints which are the limits of that particular material whether it be computer generated or not.
    I personally prefer hands on but have no qualms about using photograhic images that are computer generated. Surely work(art ./design) can become stale no matter what medium you are working in.

  23. 23 Tanya Brown September 14, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Thank you for articulating the reasons behind a conflict I’ve also felt about whole cloth quilts comprised of images printed on fabric.

    I have a fairly extensive background in CGI. If I wanted to, I could create some very unusual images, print them and quilt them. Somehow, though, it doesn’t feel right. I think you may have put your finger on why.

    I feel a similar way about photos which are printed on cloth, then quilted. They leave me cold.

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