Questions, questions (by Olga Norris)

In her juror’s statement in the Quilt National 2011 catalogue Eleanor McCain, started with the question ‘What about these works of art demands that they be formed from cloth and thread?  Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?  What in the quilt form is important to the art?  As a fiber art professor once asked, “If it’s not about the fiber, why work in that medium?” 

 I was struck with these questions which set me thinking.  I can only talk about my own work, which was successful in being selected for this exhibition.  I have not seen the discussion which June spoke of in her comments in the previous post, so forgive me if I am duplicating.  (I have had irritating experiences with Yahoo which are too tedious to go into here.)  The thoughts I have originate with my own work(s), but I hope that those thoughts will elicit responses from others. 


What about my piece demands that it be formed from cloth and thread?  Well, certainly not the subject, whatever people interpret it to be, because subjects can be explored and manifest in all sorts of media.  It is essentially how the artist wishes to express themselves that dictates what medium, and what techniques within the medium are chosen.  I suppose the question that I should perhaps ask myself each time I make a piece of work in quilt form is ‘Is this the most appropriate medium to choose?’  I do know that although those are the means I mostly use to express myself at present, some ideas and designs ‘do not work’ for me in cloth and stitch, and demand a different treatment.  This is a kind of discrimination on my part, but I must admit that I do not rigorously investigate how far my works demand to be formed from cloth and thread.

 This ties closely with the next question: Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?  Again, the answer is probably no in the case of my piece.  Choosing a medium has more to do with the language, the voice in which I ‘speak’ rather than to do with the message or the meaning.  Of course the medium can colour the delivery of any message, just as it does the interpretation – but is it so important that the message should only be revealed in this medium?  Are there any – or many – messages which can only be revealed in this medium? What in the quilt form is important to the art?  At last a question I can answer without frustration.  As Eleanor McCain said: ‘The quilt is laden, even burdened, with symbolism.’.  It is that symbolism and the symbolic values of cloth and stitch generally which contribute to the way the message is both presented and interpreted.  Indeed this is part of what makes quilt-making a slow art: not only is it obvious that the making takes time, but also the full interpretation should take time.  In this way, being judged for exhibition becomes even more of a lottery if initial impact is not part of the message. 

One of the qualities of the art quilt is that it is derived from an everyday practical object to which one does not regularly pay much attention.  But in that familiarity as part of the background, at a receptive moment it can catch the viewer’s casual glance to reveal more, drawing the eye to consider and perhaps understand more.  Of course enigmatic work in any medium can do that.  And choosing to make work in quilt form is a double-edged sword in that by that very use of everyday materials which hang as they are the work can be dismissed as somehow inferior, easily made, domestic in a pejorative way compared with neat framed wall art which is believed to take skill, and uses special materials which are only to be found in artists’ studios.

I therefore think that it is so much more difficult to make good art using a medium which is so easily overlooked or dismissed.  But the question of good art was not raised. 

The professor’s quoted statement of ‘If it’s not about the fiber, why work in that medium?’ I find it useful to keep asking myself questions such as whether I am a fibre artist.  I could be described as a digital printmaker who uses cloth and stitch.  And sometimes I develop images/designs which are not always suitable for use with cloth and/or stitch.   

Part of my use of medium, I must frankly admit is practical.  I develop designs digitally, which means that it’s clean.  I can pick up and put down my physical work almost anywhere without having to clean up or manage materials in the way that a painter or ceramicist must.  I can stitch while spending every afternoon with my aged mother with whom I do not get on and have nothing to say – but she approves of the activity which thus keeps me sane. I love the feel of cloth, and appreciate the meditative qualities derived from repetitive stitching.

But it is not just that.  I’m interested in comfort and discomfort in human relationships, and for that reason domestic techniques and materials are an appropriate language for me to use at present.

 What I am much more interested in really is Is it good art?  And in a way the only person who can answer that is me.  Hey ho.


14 Responses to “Questions, questions (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 Gina August 29, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    Hi – I’d like your permission to use your “ponder det2” image on an invitation.

  2. 2 june July 24, 2011 at 1:08 pm


    Neither you nor I had access, so I assumed, to the full McCain essay — or at least I didn’t. So I had no idea what she had to say beyond the query. Besides, these are questions we can only answer for ourselves (as you point out about making art –hey ho). So, if you’ll forgive the cliche, stop beating yourself up and start feeling good about bringing us all to more thoughtful places in our own thinking.

    Besides, unless I am using them as prompts to make art, I find my entrails seriously boring. I wouldn’t want to encourage you to examine your own on my account –snort–

    Thanks again for taking on these questions in so thoughtful a manner.

  3. 3 Olga Norris July 23, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Kathleen, yes, and if we take it further, I suspect that quilts will biodegrade more quickly than oil paint on stretched canvas too!

    June, you are right: I should have quoted the whole of Eleanor McCain’s essay in the QN’11 catalogue. It is a kind of mental knee-jerk which has me almost constantly questioning the worth of what I do, and therefore spending time analysing my own entrails at the slightest excuse. I continued the disservice to Eleanor McCain by perpetuating the impression that the first paragraph of her essay expressed the tone of the whole. Apologies.

  4. 4 Kathleen Kastles July 23, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Okay, here’s a shallow response to the question “why fabric?”: As a painter, I have dozens and dozens of paintings on canvas and stretchers, stacked against a wall in a storage room. It’s inefficient and a wasteful use of space, but that’s what do you do with paintings that have seen their day and haven’t found another home. They take up space. And no, I do not fancy removing the paintings from their stretchers and storing them flat or rolled–then they’d never find a home.

    Quilts, however, can be rolled around a foam noodle, tucked inside a fabric case, and stored in a space-saving manner, even stacked like logs atop one another. So aside from the intrinsic nature of fabric addressed by the others who have commented on this issue, there is efficiency of storage.

  5. 5 june July 23, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Mary Beth Frezon ( ) has put more of Eleanor McCain’s jurying comments on her blog. The statements seem, to me, to elegantly capture many of the thoughts Olga has expressed about the use of quilted art as an art medium. Well worth checking out more of McCain’s thinking.

    And thanks, Mary Beth, for helping to clarify.

  6. 6 Sunny Hemphill July 23, 2011 at 5:26 am

    I am so far from being considered an ‘artist’ that I simply refer to myself as a ‘stitcher.’ Why have I pursued fiber as a medium to explore? Because I love it. I love the feel of the fiber between my hands. I love the hum and rhythm of my sewing machine. I love the way thick threads slide between my fingers while embellishing. Fabric has a fragrance, and fabric that has been worn (Bobbie, I also mainly use ‘re-purposed’ textiles) has a life that can’t be denied. My medium is my message. Marshall McLuhan would approve.

    • 7 Marg in Mirror, AB August 11, 2011 at 3:15 pm

      Sunny, I’m with you. While those I meet who are neither artists nor quitlers/stitchers admire my work, in the past year of ‘putting myself out there’ I discovered that I have a long way to go before anything I make — notwithstanding my ability to create an original design (read: not using someone’s pattern) — is considered ‘art’ — certainly in the “Fine” art sense. There are many finer and more talented artists working in textiles/fabric. I work in fabric, fibre and floss because, like you, I love it. I love the juxtaposition of colour and texture. I do a great deal by hand because I love the calming, meditative aspect of stitching, whether it be for embroidery, quilting, or applique. I love to dye my own fabric for the fun of seeing what happens when I mix colours. I love the entire process. I don’t aim to make statements; I aim to make people smile.

  7. 8 Bobbe Shapiro Nolan July 22, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    In much of my current work the medium is a major part of the message. I choose to work with used table linens, naturally dyed materials, cloth that someone else has embroidered or hemmed, remnants of someone else’s sewing, old crocheted doilies. The nuances left by the original maker are part of the meaning of the work. And of course, I can add paint, ink, stitching of my own and throw in medals, bones, feathers, beads. It depends on what’s needed to tell the story.

  8. 9 deb of pixeladies July 22, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Wow. I love Olga’s comment to the question Is there a message and meaning that can only be revealed through this medium?

    “Choosing a medium has more to do with the language, the voice in which I ‘speak’ rather than to do with the message or the meaning. ”

    Now I don’t have to ponder this question anymore. I speak English. I can speak German. Why did I choose one over the other? I didn’t. I was raised speaking English. German is something I studied. It’s not easy for me. Same with fabric. I was raised with fabric and thread. It comes easily. Sure, I have to work at it, but it’s just part of my inner being. Drawing for me is harder. Holding a brush in my hand is akin to speaking a foreign language. It feels awkward and foreign. Sure I could learn to paint. But it would always be a second language for me.

  9. 10 Lisa Quintana July 22, 2011 at 7:40 am

    I have been pondering the comments McCain made as well as the various responses to it. I find that the question “can it only be expressed in this medium” absurd, almost as much as questioning the choice of medium…just as Ros pointed out. Consider this: many subjects and same message are produced by artists working in various mediums. Why does fiber have to be exclusionary? Why must it ONLY be able to be expressed in this medium?

    I also put up a strong cheer for the why are we considering this, shouldn’t we just be working towards making good art?

    And I also agree with Ros that it is interesting (in some ways ludicrous) that we who work in fiber are even asking and debating this. Don’t we have enough struggles with making our own art, working it into our days which are often filled with other responsibilities, working to get our art out there and accepted as art rather than something which is craft and could only end up on a bed?

    I work in fiber for a lot of reasons. I choose quilts because I love the textures I can produce and the tactile nature of working with it. I love the great variety that we can work in as well as the different perspectives. I love the fact that our art grew out of a humble craft which unites us with quilters (in my case) throughout the ages.

    In addition…if things get really bad, or my opinions change I can still use my art as a hot pad, stitch them together to keep warm, or just go on. Is that being facetious? You betcha. I would like fiber artists to be more supportive of each other regardless of whether we are making representational art or abstract art…and to move forward in making GOOD art…regardless of how difficult that might be to define.

  10. 11 June July 22, 2011 at 7:26 am


    In this age of time-based art, found art, earth art, performance art, digital art, video art, etc. etc. etc., every medium, or at least the choice of a particular medium to present a particular visual idea, has to be considered.

    As a young art student told a friend of mine who has strong training in painting and drawing and worked in design for years, “Well, you’ll have to get over that.” There’s an interesting new aesthetic that doesn’t accept (and hasn’t since the 1950s) without thought that art is oils on canvas (or pastels, watercolor, printmaking, etc).

    It isn’t that you have to justify your own joy in your medium. But for any individual piece of art, there should be a reason why the message and vision works well (preferably best) in specific and thrilling ways in the medium that you choose. That is, you choose because of specific personal reasons, but then you make other choices about what and how to present your vision in one or another medium. And the medium ought to enhance, underlie, make more forceful, important, telling, compelling, powerful or whatever, that vision.

  11. 12 Ros Dyson July 22, 2011 at 5:10 am

    Interesting that fibre artists should have to justify their use of the medium. I have never heard of anyone having to justify using paint or pastel as a medium.

  12. 13 Olga Norris July 22, 2011 at 12:16 am

    June – I love the concept of ‘pushback’. It has my brain buzzing – just what I needed this morning.
    I certainly can vouch for the pushback I get from my stitching: a calloused and peeling third fingertip on my right hand (I cannot abide to wear a thimble), and pin pricks all over my hands. I remember having a bump of a callous on that same finger, but at the side, just under the nail (indeed a mimi bump remains), usually with an accompanying stain from the ink of my fountain pen when I was at school and university.

    You are right: it is that pushback quality or engagement with the body – and doubtless pushback on the mind too – which attracts us to whichever mediums we chose to work with. Thanks for providing meat for my mind to chew while I deal with chores this morning!

  13. 14 June July 21, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    Olga, your final Hey ho will please lots and lots of people, who responded to McCain’s question by saying something like: “I make quilted art because I like to.”

    But of course, you examined all the options before you arrived there, which seems appropriate in considering a “slow art” –snort–

    More interesting to me (hmm, that doesn’t sound very nice — apologies) is your comment that you are interested in comfort/discomfort in human relationships and thus the quilt, with its historic connotations of comfort and warmth, is an exceedingly appropriate medium. It’s that connection between medium and message (today is Marshall McLuhan’s birthday) that pulls together things for me.

    The other construct that resonates with me is one you don’t mention much, but is what my painting workshop instructor calls “pushback.” The materials push back at you when you use them: Quilting presents seam lines (or quilted lines that are often seamlike); it pushes at you. It also presents soft shadows along those lines. That’s “push back.” You can’t achieve either that line nor that shadow in oils, no matter how thick you lay them. And you can’t in watercolor, either, although in watercolor you can mimic low-water dyed fabric — both materials wick the color in unexpected, serendipitous (or the reverse) ways. Oils push back in their viscosity and opaque quality; you can work with transparent oils, but they still feel viscous and somewhat heavy. That’s a pushback I love — the buttered feeling of spreading oil paint on a support. Maybe it’s my oral fixation — which comes back to your Hey-ho, I suspect.

    Other pushbacks are more mundane — working conditions (oils require more room because they tend to spread to couches and one’s face); hand-stitching requires patience and time, literally, on your hands.

    Now, having painted 6 paintings in 3 days (no slow art this week) it’s time for me to quit and watch the telly. And wonder if I made any sense at all. Thanks for tackling this question. I ‘preciate it. And if my brain is still working tomorrow, I’ll spread the word to SAQA/ Yahoo.

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