What is Art? Part 1: Background vs Composition by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles III, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles III, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

I teach a workshop for patchwork quilters called Darned Quilts. In that workshop, I show my students how to build a background cloth which they will later use for raw edge piecing to create an art quilt of their own design. The core ideas of the workshop provide a theoretical and practical basis for those who have little experience with design so they can learn as they play. I love it when any of my students takes what she learns from me and pushes it forward, makes a second or third piece along the same lines but always improving and moving beyond the basic concepts, something that is easy to do once you understand how to make a Darned Quilt.

Bubbles I, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Bubbles I, a Darned Quilt by Dena Dale Crain

The background cloth as I intend it is always meant to look like some representation of photomicrography, like some snapshot of a narrow view of a much larger world, a field of shapes possessed of greater depth, motion and texture than what would be afforded by a plain piece of fabric. To create that illusion, a gradation background is enhanced with appliqués and trims, embroidery, cording and much more, each treatment applied as a separate layer to result in a seemingly random but even distribution of elements over the surface of the piece.

Background for Bubbles I

Background for Bubbles I

Despite my best efforts to guide my students down this path, which seems the safest for a first-time effort, in almost every class there will be one or two students who immediately ignore my sage wisdom and set about composing the background.

What do I mean by “composing?” I mean that instead of rather thoughtlessly scattering elements over the surface of the cloth as instructed, these individuals deliberately place each element in a designer-ly manner, with full recognition of the importance of each one in relation to the space it occupies and its neighbors. They intend to control each shape or line of trim through a conscious manipulation. These students seem to have an innate understanding of the space and the impact of each trim they apply, and they want to do it their way.

Early in my teaching of this workshop, I fought this tendency amongst my students. I mistakenly believed the only way to make a Darned Quilt was my way–you’ll note a certain lack of humility, yes? Well, we teach, and then we learn!

What I learned was that any student who took off in her own direction despite all efforts to follow my instructions would be equally as likely, if not more so, to produce something truly unique, beautiful and far more original than I had thought her capable of making. Compare, if you will, the treatment of the backgrounds from my Bubbles I and Tara Schmidt’s Skipping Stone. Hers was thoughtfully composed, whereas mine displays a more careless and seemingly random structure.

Skipping Stone, a Darned Quilt by Tara Schmidt

Skipping Stone, a Darned Quilt by Tara Schmidt

The point of this story is to raise with you certain questions about the difference between a background and a composition, and the relevance of each to the world of art. For centuries, traditional patchwork quilters have worked with geometric repeat patterns, quilt block designs that have become classics, with primary artistic focus on selection of fabric colors and prints and the sometimes-achieved secondary designs that can result as patches cut from the same fabrics merge across the design field.

Autumn Splendor, a traditional patchwork quilt from the Northshore Quilter's Guild, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Autumn Splendor, a traditional patchwork quilt from the Northshore Quilter’s Guild, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

At what point do such repeat pattern constructions shift to become works of art? How much composition is involved in setting out a repeat pattern? How important is composition to art?

My personal thoughts on the subject are that repeat patterns belong to the world of decorative arts, any place where the addition of a single motif or multiple repeat units will give a decorative appeal to some product that is essentially functional. Traditional patchwork quilted bed covers fit this definition: functional in warmth for comfortable sleeping but beautiful in their expressions of color and pattern.

Take that same admittedly beautiful bed cover and hang it on the wall; does that make it art? I think not. I think that to be considered art, the arrangement of shapes, the composition, needs to possess certain qualities.

High on my list is a focal point, some area of the image that commands our eyes to settle there. Busy-ness is great; it keeps us searching the image to gain maximum understanding of all it contains, but eventually there should be some focus to the confusion of thoughts provoked, some resting place for the spirit.

Variety is all-important, I believe, to art. Even the simplest abstract paintings like those of Piet Mondrian and Mark Rothko possess variety. We have only to look a little closer to see the finer details without which the work would surely disappoint. Variety in the hues and values of colors, the size and nature of shapes, the widths and styles of linear elements – all these are critical to the making of art; all these contribute to the composition that makes art out of something that might otherwise rank as a background.

Balance of weight in composition is another factor I depend upon as an indicator of composition versus background. In a background, visual weight is distributed equally. In a composition, weight varies from one area of the image to another, but all “feels” right about that distribution because it is well balanced.

How important is framing? Now deceased Kenyan artist Mary Nicholas once visited me in my studio. Upon seeing a series of very small quilts I had mounted in shadowbox frames to make them more important on display, Mary remarked “Isn’t it amazing that the minute you put a frame on it, it becomes “art?!”

Diamond in the Rough, a Spirit Works framed quilt by Dena Dale Crain

Diamond in the Rough, a Spirit Works framed quilt by Dena Dale Crain

If I take three identical unframed stretched canvasses and paint one red, one blue and one yellow, and hang those three panels on a wall, is it art? Would a solid red canvas be considered as art by most people you know? I think not. I would say that it’s a block of color, it took no great thought or emotive involvement to produce it and it is not art by anyone’s standard.

Empty room with three painted panels - art?

Empty room with three painted panels – art?

However, what if I change the proportions of the three panels, making each one different? I carefully reposition and rehang the three panels. Is this art? I seem to see quite a bit of this going on in various interior decorating television programs as a kind of poor man’s art – easy, fast and inexpensive. If we expand our notion of art, it might well include the wall as canvas, and the canvasses as elements along with any furnishings in the room as well as doorways, windows or other architectural features. In this case, the entire wall, perhaps the entire room, becomes the medium. Is this art or mere design? What is the difference between design and art? Have we yet satisfactorily understood those definitions?

Furnished room with three different panels - art?

Furnished room with three different panels – art?

Now you know I am not an interior decorator! Nevertheless, are the three factors of focal point, variety and balance sufficient to qualify a creative image as art regardless of medium, more especially if it is framed?

How much of what we perceive to be art has to do with cultural conditioning? Other people tell us this is art and that is not, so we believe them, we buy into other people’s notions of what is art and what isn’t? And if it is art, is it good art? Who is to say?! Surely, the old cliché “I don’t know what art is, but I know whether I like it or not” ought to suffice, but does it?!

Please join this discussion with your opinions. I would love to hear what you think. Do you recognize a difference between a background and a composition? Do you have strong feelings that one is art more than the other? What factors do you use as indicators that what you’re viewing is art? Are you making art, and if so, how do you know that what you make is art?


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