Over the past year or so, I have heard from several of my students asking about whether they could exhibit quilts made during or as a result of a class taken with me. Issues of concern include whether or not to give me credit for teaching them how to make that particular quilt, whether their work would be considered original, and whether the work constitutes an art quilt.
I have posted previously about derivative work. To that article, I now wish to add a few more comments; food for thought, if you will.
Exhibition organizers describe with care the differences between traditional, innovative and art quilts as they seek to categorize the work to be displayed. Students, however, often tend to toss about quite a few terms relative to quilt design without really organizing their thoughts and ascribing to each category a proper definition.
For what it’s worth, here are my suggested definitions:
Traditional quilts: Block-based, medallion, crazy, wholecloth or other design structure that has been used for more than 100 years (by general standards, the length of time for any artifact to attain antique status) as the basis for the quilt design. Patterns must have been, or look similar to, those used by many others over a long period of time and reflect in some specific way the history of that particular kind of design. Emphasis on fabric selection, color and value use, and quality of craftsmanship.
Innovative quilts: Work based on traditional designs that moves beyond that level. New materials, sewing techniques and design modifications that change the historically recognizable work to a new form, incorporating new ways of thinking about design. Emphasis on deviation from recognizable forms and technical skill in execution.
Art quilts: Original design beyond innovation, exhibiting complete mastery of the medium and methods of quilting, with emphasis on creative self-expression as primary process.
This set of descriptions may help keep those works which fall short of art quilting in a category more appropriate to them, innovation. In my opinion, it’s not the image that appears in a work that makes it an art quilt. It is the process by which the work was conceived, developed and expressed that makes it art. The work must come from a combination of head and heart, not simply be a finite (no symmetry) image like a landscape or portrait, technically well executed but devoid of personal involvement. We’re seeing quite a lot of that kind of thing at the moment, landscapes and portraits derived from photographs in a kind of “paint-by-numbers” style. This kind of work can be very expressive, but much of it lacks the soul of the artist, making it a mere graphic representation without satisfying substance.
Please note that although one category seems to come out of the previous one and historically there may be evidence this is true, today there should be no value ascribed to any category as being superior to any other. Art quilting is not inherently more valuable or better than innovative or traditional work, nor is traditional quilting to be deemed in any way less important than any other kind of quilting. These distinctions are not value judgments about the significance or merit of design style, but merely conveniences that allow us to pool together works sharing common origins for the purpose of evaluating each individual work with its peers.
Then arise the questions of source of inspiration, derivative work and originality. For these terms, I suggest the following definitions:
Inspiration: A combination of three factors which serve as the basis for the imagery of a new quilt design: 1) observation of the visible world, natural or contrived; 2) a theory or concept, the application of which inspires new work; and 3) an experience or emotion that informs the work which serves as the basis for the imagery of a new quilt design. These three factors could, and should, serve as the basis of inspiration for all quilt design. They represent, in effect, what you see and how you respond to what you see, how you interpret what you see into quilting as medium, and how you feel about the subject as you express the imagery as a quilt.
Derivative work: Work that is exactly or obviously similar to work done by a quilt teacher or other quilter as their original efforts. This description includes all student projects completed during or as a result of a project or process class or workshop. It certainly includes any work produced as an attempt to replicate or copy another quilter’s designs or ideas for designs. Copying is not the same thing as being inspired. One may be inspired by another quilter’s work, but one should never copy that work; that is intellectual property theft!
Originality: Work that is developed through independent study and analysis without reference to another quilter’s experience. One may admire or be inspired by another quilter’s work, but then one has the responsibility to take whatever is gained from that experience to another, more personal and individually distinctive level. In other words, if what you have made is something you have seen before, it is not original.
Following these guidelines, I believe that if one of my students makes a quilt that looks anything like the one I use for teaching a class, it is derivative work. The student will doubtless change the fabric colors and/or prints, use values in different way, use different embellishments and so on, but such minor alterations do little to disguise the inherent nature of the work. That basic imagery is mine and does not belong to my students.
Also, if someone who has not studied with me, but who looks at one of my pieces and figures out how I made it, then proceeds to replicate something that is recognizably similar to my work, I would consider that to be intellectual theft, possibly subject to copyright prosecution. If I recognize the quilt as being like or even very nearly like my original work, I would question its originality.
On the other hand, if one uses a method for making a pattern learned in my workshop, combines it with a sewing technique from another teacher’s class, and blends the two methods together into a completely unique image, I will never complain. The purpose for teaching others is not to replicate oneself, but to equip and empower others to accomplish their individual goals. To the extent that my students grasp my ideas and then move forward into new arenas with them, I am delighted that my teaching has been successful!
For example, there are quilts in the Best Darned Quilts exhibition that I would definitely consider to be art quilts that utilize Darned Quilting methods. To the extent that the work looks nothing like anything I made, or might have made, I believe the quilter has applied enough deliberate and conscious thought to the interpretation of their subject that their work is their own, original art quilt.
Examples of these include:
- Cheri Norris’ Solar Power and her 2Lips
- Barb Wilke’s Untitled Work, the red swirly one
- Carole P. Kenny’s Green Piece
- Mary Rawlins’ works, several of them
I look to see that the quilter has gone beyond the mere basics presented by the class and has clearly demonstrated her personal artistic style in the work. Darned Quilts that mimic my original “Bubbles” series fall short of that expectation, even in such instances as where the quilter has changed the original circle form for some other shape; I would label them as derivative works.
Quilters in doubt about the best category for entering work in exhibitions do the right thing by inquiring of the exhibition organizers into which category any uncertain definition quilt best belongs. It is for them, not me, to say. In a small local or even regional show, there may not be enough original art quilts coming forward to make a nice display. In that case, the organizers might well expand the category definition and shift a few pieces into that category as a way of encouraging those quilters and others like them to produce more art quilting. In a large show, such as the AQS exhibitions and others I can think of, the reverse would likely be the case. Unless the work is truly outstanding, it would not be appropriate in an art quilt category. Much of that decision-making process has to do with the show and its organizers’ goals.
Much has been written about what constitutes an art quilt. If you belong to Studio Art Quilt Associates, you can find a lot of discussion on the topic in their Yahoo Group. The QuiltArt elist also has had threads running on this subject in the past. Poke around on the internet and see what other people have to say.
And remember, the qualifier “art” quilt is only to be applied to your work if you feel truly confident that you can defend that position if challenged. To do that, you must be able to justify your sources of inspiration, demonstrate that the work is not derivative, and thereby prove that it is original.
The world of art quilting is still relatively small. Those of us involved in it know who makes what kind of art quilts, so if something appears that resembles too closely the work of a well-known artist, those in the know immediately recognize it as derivative. We all know that original art quilting does not come easily. It takes many years of hard work, dedication, purpose and direction. Do not think to shortcut that process by building on another’s efforts. None of us wishes to be embarrassed, and you will be if–no, when!–someone finds out you have cheated.
Instead, direct your efforts toward defining and achieving your own goals. With determination and the will to produce art, you will bring into the world that which is original to yourself. Then, you can justifiably glow with pride when your piece wins an award in an exhibition. Your teachers will be delighted to see you achieve such success, and they will help you move forward as you walk the path of “The Artist’s Way,” which, by the way, is not a bad place to begin!