The Q Word

The Q Word

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia OKeefe, Hands and Thimble, 1919

A discussion has come up among my fellow artists whose medium involves textiles, stitching and quilting as to what to call themselves. Art quilter. Quilt artist. Textile artist. Fiber artist. Or just artist, avoiding the word QUILT altogether. I understand why some of us don’t wish to use the word QUILT to describe their work or process, believe me, I’ve struggled with this myself. I understand but it saddens me. It saddens me that they do and it saddens me that they feel they must in order to deflect being stereotyped as dabbling in a quaint, domestic pastime or in less than esteemed ‘women’s work’ rather than being acknowledged as highly skilled and talented artists. It’s gotten to the point that some, when discussing the issue can’t even bear to use the word, instead, referring to it as “the Q word”. I have thought a lot about the issue and have arrived at my own personal views.

I see this as a greater problem, one that we all share as women. (Sorry fellas out there who use the quilt as a basis for your art but most of us doing this are women.) Historically, society’s perception of women and they work they do is not one of respect or esteem. Case in point, the secretary. Up until the early 20th century, only men held secretarial positions, a subordinate position but one that was respected and valued by the executive. It wasn’t until WWI when women needed to enter the work force that they started filling those positions. Initially, it was not a welcome change by the male executives of business and industry but, soon all secretaries were women and men would no longer consider seeking such a position as it was deemed ‘women’s work’. The work is still the same but the fact that women were doing it made it less valuable and respected. It got to the point that the word itself became a dirty word and secretaries all over began calling themselves ‘administrative assistants’ as if the moniker itself could garner more respect. I think they are fooling themselves. Our own government’s Cabinet is made up of Secretaries. How ludicrous would it have been if Hillary Clinton had insisted on being called the ‘Administrative Assistant of State’? About as ludicrous if we were to start referring to ourselves as Administrative Stitchers. For years, the word ‘nurse’ had a similar gender association but, thankfully, now there are many women doctors and many male nurses which has had a significant impact on the stereotypical image of the word, and the work, for that matter.

The word is not the problem, it’s the attitude and mindset toward women and women’s work that is the problem, not just by men but by other women as well and by society at large. Today, there are a lot of women out there that don’t sew and, frankly, wouldn’t be caught dead sewing as they see it as something archaic and a nauseatingly quaint domestic activity of a bygone era. Along with ‘wearing hats and gloves’, it falls into the category of ‘thank god we don’t have to that anymore’! As we all know, historically, women roles were relegated mostly to marriage, child-rearing and domestic work but those enforced restrictions have been pushed against and huge strides have been made in the kinds of work and careers available to today’s women. But, as women’s choices have broadened, many of them deem the past domestic duties of women, namely the domestic skills of sewing and needlework, as being uninteresting, unimportant and irrelevant.  Just as men would no longer seek secretarial positions once the role was associated with women, many of the women of today no longer seek to learn or value sewing and needlework skills because it is associated with a period of time when women’s roles were limited and the work they did wasn’t respected by men or society.

Hence, when I am talking to these women (and men) about what I do and I mention the word QUILT, it is associated with grandmas, babies and a quaint, frivolous hobby because of a perception it is only done by women of an older generation. Excuse me? An erroneous generalization on so many levels. Again, I say it’s not the word, it’s the mindset. There is nothing wrong with the word or the work. What’s wrong is an activity associated with women, older women, and with the ‘women’s work’ of a bygone era, garners no respect in our society. If the same work were associated with men and men’s work, we wouldn’t be having these discussions.

It’s interesting that some of the artists I’ve heard voice an objection or an aversion to using the Q word specialize in creating Commentary Art, art that explores politically or socially charged issues. If this isn’t an important political/social issue, and one that hits so close to home for all of us, I don’t know what is. I, for one, refuse to not use the word QUILT when referring to my work or my art. I think it is important that we push back against the stereotype of not only the word and work, but against the marginalization of the work that women do, historically or currently. Throughout history, the perception of women and the work that they do or did, in the home, the workplace and even as artists, has been marginalized and under-valued. It’s time to change that.

Finally, I refer to myself as an artist and I don’t wait to be asked about the medium. I say “my medium is textiles using a quilt construct. Technically, they are built the same as a quilt but with many broken rules to the traditional construction techniques and materials. I am trained as a quilt maker but now use my skills to create fine art.” Notice the words I use. Construct. Technically…built. Construction. Training. Skills. Sturdy words, rather masculine words to counterbalance any unduly, and unwarranted, delicate feminine or elderly image. It’s work. Just work. Work has no age or gender.

Then, I whip out my business card which is minimal. On one side is a picture (worth a thousand words) of my work, currently of Tranquil Marsh – Wild Iris, and the other side has my website. That’s it. Here’s what I do and here’s where you can find out more and contact me. Bada bing, bada boom.

This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. I love your “elevator speech” and do agree strongly with what you say….though I personally don’t use the word quilt much any more. I think it’s just so laden with stereotypical meaning and can’t help but engender the devaluing of womwnn’s art, work and lives. Your solution to co-opt the words of “masculine” activity is certainly thought provoking

  2. Thanks, Clairan and Suzie. Again, I repeat, it is the MIND-SET about women that stereotypes, devalues and marginalizes, not the word or the work. If we don’t push back against the mind-sets, it will never change. Stand strong. I’m glad you found it thought provoking.

  3. I totally agree about the mindset. But maybe not using the Q word and using the strong “masculine” language and gender neutral terms like artist will help bring about the effect we’re looking for.

  4. Oh, Clairan, you can’t even type the word here! But by not doing so, by avoiding the word QUILT, we ourselves buy into and perpetuate that mind-set. We need to transform it. A long time ago I stopped worrying about what other people think about me, on whatever topic. I do my work and if it is good, it will be recognized, no matter what it’s called. A rose, is a rose, is a rose…

  5. Elena, you say: “I do my work and if it is good, it will be recognized, no matter what it’s called.”

    I sorta have to differ with you.

    When you walk into gallery after getting an appointment and start to show them your portfolio, it doesn’t take too long before they say: “Oh, you make quilts. We only deal with art.” – or something along those lines. (my past experience)

    It seems to me that the venue you choose to show your work will decide what you’re going to call yourself and your work. If it’s a quilt show, yes, you can call your work “art quilt” the quilters will know what you mean. On the other hand, if it’s a gallery, you might have to pick another name to describe your work.

    Let’s face it, if you happen to be Nancy Crow or Michael James, you don’t have to deal with this dichotomy. VBG

  6. VBG or Dean Robinson, I’m not sure what your name is, I am an artist working in a quilt construct. Sometimes I say I am a quilt artist. I make art. The medium cannot determine what art is and only small minds or bad work can determine what it is not. Art is determined by the intention of the work, mastery of the discipline and achievement of transcendence over the medium, whatever it is.

    I am sorry for your experience in that gallery, an example of small minds at work. I say good riddance. There is a long history of small minds in the art world. Just ask Van Gogh. And, Nancy Crow and Michael James didn’t get where they are by shying away from the QUILT word.

  7. It’s an interesting discussion, thanks for the post. In the case of the gallery owner who looked at the work, saw it was quilt-like and wasn’t what they showed, I’m not sure how the terminology matters. BTW, I think VBG means “very big grin.”

    My take on it is that the word quilt means something very specific to most people and they find it confusing to apply it to something that looks like art as opposed to a bedspread. A friend of ours was admiring some of my pieces in our house and in searching for a term came up with tapestries. While it’s not technically correct it made sense to him. It did not mean he devalued women’s work, he just couldn’t relate my quilted art with bedspreads. So, should I have “educated” him? Guess it depends on the battles one wants to fight and what is the most positive way to present one’s work. I think it depends on the context…the venue, the audience, etc.

  8. I could not agree more! It is the mindset, not the word that needs to change. But maybe here’s a light of hope: During the last Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) conference I talked to several college students who are working in fiber/textile arts. They were surprised at the number of our members who object to the word quilt. They didn’t understand why we don’t say it loudly and proudly… that’s what the “Q” in SAQA stand for, after all. To them, quilting is a wonderful, history-rich and useful skill that can be used to create art and push for social change. They sincerely want to learn skills like hand quilting and knitting, and they appreciate the artists (mostly women) who have kept the traditions alive. Quilting and fabric collage are a perfect fit for the DIY, hands-on, recycle/reuse/re-purpose culture.
    It seems like the next generation is pushing the world toward greater equality in many ways. And maybe young artists are not so hung up on the word “quilt”. They are forming a different image in their minds, including and expanding out from the traditional definitions.
    Anyway, thank you for your excellent article. Definitely gave me a lot to think about!

  9. Loreen, when referring to my work I always call it artwork and not a quilt. First, my work doesn’t look anything like bed quilts, they look like paintings. When I give people my business card and they see Tranquil Marsh, they think it’s a painting and I have to explain that it is made entirely with textiles, collaged and stitched into a quilt construct, that technically it is a quilt but created for an entirely different purpose. I use the word quilt to describe the construction technique not the object because those unfamiliar with the medium will get confused. I always welcome the opportunity to open someone’s eyes to an undiscovered art form and help them expand their understanding on what is art. Some will get it, some won’t but I never let that deter me and it’s always a friendly conversation.

    I once had an artist friend of mine (wonderful painter and sculptor) comment on two of my pieces hanging on my gallery wall. One was a small, unimportant abstract piece that was wrapped on stretcher bars and the other was a large, intricate landscape made of velvets and upholstery fabrics, traditionally bound and hanging loose. She referred to the landscape as a tapestry (I think she said ‘just a tapestry’) and the other as artwork. In her mind, the stretcher bars made it art. This was many years ago and I think I was so shocked I didn’t say anything. Now I just have to laugh.

    As I was falling asleep last night, I realized who VBG is, or I have a good guess. No, not Very Big Grin, though that’s a good one. If she is who I think she is, I am a great admirer of her work.

  10. Thank you so much for your perseptive blog on the terminologies we use! I am a long time artist…taught 7-8 grade art for 32 years, but relatively new to the fiber arts field. Since I retired 12 years ago and now doing my own thing, I now consider myself a fiber artist. It has been a gradual transition from painting, graphics, etc through traditional quilting to where I am now. I now feel very grounded and assured of what I am doing and am just now at 74 becoming the Grandma Moses of the Fiber Art World just waiting to be discovered!!!

  11. Kate, yes! It will be the next generations who will break the barriers of limited perception and prejudice, in all aspects of society There will always be small-minded people but if we don’t push back and break the silence, things will never change. Change happens slowly and is built on the accomplishments and breakthroughs of the previous generation.

  12. Jay Dodds, good for you!

  13. Hmmm. I’m ready to go back to the airplane seat and tell the person sitting next to me, that my career is being a woman artist. After I talk with them about the subjects I focus on: healing, family, earth, social justice, women, current events and history, the kitchen as center of the family, etc, then I can tell that person about how I used to make stretched canvas paintings when I was young, and then got into feminism and became a Woman Artist. And I’ve been making art quilts since 1981, and they are paintings that I stitch. They are soft and nurturing. I’ll tell them about Radka Donnell’s book “Quilts As Women’s Art: A Quilt Poetics.” And I’ll tell them that there are many artists, mostly women, who work in this traditionally women’s art mode, who are trained visual artists, but that to me, what matters is what we’re saying with our art. A bunch of women who call ourselves Women Artists probably have in common more what we’re making art about, from a woman’s sensibility, more than what processes we use. So if that person on the plane is still listening, I’d like to be able to invite them to an art quilt show, maybe show them one online or in a magazine I might have handy, and talk about the aesthetics and intentions of women and women artists. I hope that person thinks deeper than telling me about about their grandmother’s quilts then, but if that’s what comes to their mind, I think now that I find that ok. Grandmothers making trad quilts are a foundation we grew up with. My mother taught me to sew, and her mother taught her. I’m teaching my granddaughter, after having taught my daughter some sewing. We carry it on. If tha’s all my seat buddy gets, that we carry it on, that’s ok. It’s about the foundation of women nurturing women and nurturing the world. That’s enough. You can call it all anything you like. I don’t care. Just be proud of doing it, enjoy doing it. And teach someone else you love to do it. That’s the best!

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