Common threads: nine California art quilt pioneers.
The studio art quilt movement that began in the last decades of the twentieth century originated primarily in Ohio and California, and to a lesser degree, Massachusetts. Each state experienced a unique combination of cultural and historical circumstances that when combined with national trends led to the emergence of quilt artists in those states. (1)
But what about the quiltmakers? What aspects of their personal lives led to their becoming quilt artists? How are these artists similar? How are they different? This paper examines the lives of nine female artists who were making quilts in California between 1966 and 1986, in order to discover the circumstances and personal characteristics that led these individuals to quilt making. (2) The narratives of these pioneers provide insight into the birth of new art and quilt movements.
The significance of this research to quilt and art history is twofold. First, there is no study that considers California quilt artists as a group. Second, many of the artists who began making quilts in the 1960s and 1970s are now in their seventies and eighties and there is some urgency to capturing their oral histories and documenting their work. (3) They all have an important story to tell, not only about their lives, but also about the development of the art quilt movement in California.
The two decades covered in this paper, 1966 to 1986, mark two important events, one that signaled a shift in approach to the quilt medium and the other that established its arrival as an art form. In the introduction to her pivotal book Applique Stitchery (1966), Jean Ray Laury articulated what would eventually become the credo for quilt artists when she challenged her readers to embrace all types of needlework as appropriate creative media:
Art has less to do with the material used than with the perceptive and expressive abilities of the individual. Any difference between the "fine" and the "decorative" arts is not a matter of material, but rather what the artist brings to the material. Any media may successfully be used at any level for any purpose. Just as artists' oils can become highly decorative, stitchery too can be adapted to the artist's individual needs. (4)
Twenty years after Laury's proclamation, The Art Quilt exhibition opened at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery on October 1, 1986. The traveling exhibit, sponsored by the Art Museum Association of America, featured twenty-five quilts created specifically for the show by sixteen artists. Penny McMorris and Michael Kile curated the exhibition and wrote a catalogue that was the first fully comprehensive publication about the art quilt, a term they are credited with coining. They carefully selected artists for the show, featuring both leading innovators and emerging artists. Invitational letters sent to artists described the goals for the exhibition and book:
There have been no exhibitions or books that have documented the role played by the 'trailblazers,' those quilt artists whose work challenges, demanding that those who view it look at quilts in new ways. Yes, these trailblazers have had their quilts included in many exhibitions, including all Quilt Nationals. But no curator or publishers have focused their undivided attention upon this small group. That is, until now. (5)
The Art Quilt also illustrates California's significant role in the art quilt movement; five of the sixteen artists included in the exhibition are from California and four are included in this study. (6)
After its premiere in Los Angeles, the groundbreaking Art Quilt exhibition traveled across the country to seven other locations over the next three years, generating wide exposure and interest in art quilts, which resulted in a significant shift in public perception of quilts in general:
When the show finally closed, times had changed and the once firm boundaries between 'art quilt' and 'traditional quilts' had softened. Many more quilt artists were by then teaching classes and writing books that were reaching mainstream quilt makers. And traditional quilt makers were making increasingly innovative designs based on traditional themes. (7)
Laury's pivotal 1966 book and the opening of The Art Quilt exhibition in 1986 symbolically bracket the beginnings of the art quilt and its subsequent growth into an international movement. One event defines the early years when many artists worked in isolation, often unaware they were part of a larger phenomenon. The latter event signifies the recognition of the art quilt by the art establishment.
Interviewees for this project were selected primarily based on the high quality of their work during the years of this study (1966-1986). By 1986, all nine artists were working in a clearly identifiable, innovative style and their work had reached a certain level of maturity. Four of the nine interviewees were invited to participate in the prestigious 1986 exhibition organized by Penny McMorris and Michael Kile, The Art Quilt. In addition, most were accepted to one or all Quilt National exhibitions between 1979 (the first Quilt National exhibition) and 1986. Inevitably, hindsight was also a factor in making these critical judgments; all of the artists have continued working in the quilt medium and received repeated recognition for their work and contributions to the art quilt movement.
Following are introductions to the artists considered by this paper:
Jean Ray Laury (1928-2011) made her first quilt in 1956 for her young son Tom in order to fulfill a requirement for her master of arts degree in design at Stanford University. After finding success designing and writing for women's magazines in the 1960s, she began to focus on quiltmaking in the early 1970s. [Figure 1]
Yvonne Porcella (b. 1936) is one of two self-taught artists in the group. She received a bachelor of science degree in nursing from the University of San Francisco in 1958. As a young wife and mother she made clothing and began weaving her own cloth. During the 1970s, Porcella taught classes on clothing design and wearable art, but in 1980 turned her attention to quilts. [Figure 2]
Joan Schulze (b. 1938) received her bachelor of science in education at the University of Illinois and is the other self-taught artist. After moving to California in the mid-1960s with her husband and children, she joined the Peninsula Stitchery Guild in Los Altos. Her initial creative endeavors were in stitchery, but by the late 1970s she worked exclusively in the quilt format. [Figure 3]
Jean Hewes (1941-2011) received her master of fine arts degree in ceramics at the University of Wisconsin. Unable to continue making ceramics while tending her two young sons, she was inspired by a Chicago Herald newspaper article to try quiltmaking, using scraps from clothes she had made. One of the few exceptions to the pattern, Hewes was already making quilts when she came to California in 1977.
Miriam Nathan-Roberts (b. 1942) studied textile arts at Cornell University and received her master of arts degree in art education at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966. She designed and made many of her own clothes in high school and college, and experimented with other forms of needlework before focusing on quilts in the late 1970s. [Figure 4]
Therese May (b. 1943) studied art at the University of Wisconsin and received her bachelor of arts degree in painting in 1966. As a young bride and mother in California, she made traditional quilts for her family's beds but quickly realized she could apply two of her favorite art techniques, photo collage and painting, to fabric and quilts. [Figure 5]
Linda MacDonald (b. 1946) studied art at San Francisco State University. During her undergraduate years she also explored craft media, in this case weaving. MacDonald made her first quilt in 1974 while she was at home with young children as part of a feminist consciousness-raising group. [Figure 6]
Ellen Oppenheimer (b. 1952) grew up in a house filled with fabric; her father worked in the textile industry. She studied glass blowing while an undergraduate at Goddard College and added ceramics and wood working to her craft repertoire while a graduate student at Alfred University in New York. Amish quilts from Lancaster County inspired her to make her first quilt in 1975; she quickly realized the medium's possibility for personal artistic expression. [Figure 7]
Judith Content (b. 1957) studied art, including painting, sculpture and ceramics, at San Francisco State University, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in 1979. On a whim she took a textile class in her junior year. She found the medium so inspiring that since graduation she has worked exclusively with textiles, creating wearable art, eventually focusing on kimono-shaped wall pieces.
Challenging Hierarchies: Art, Craft and Quilts Collide
Throughout the first three quarters of the twentieth century, artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol encouraged the reevaluation of what could be considered art, expanded what type of objects could be used in art making, and challenged the categories of "low" and "high" art. In the mid-1960s, the quilt entered that dialogue. Until then, most Americans viewed the homemade quilt as a lowly utilitarian household object, usually made by mothers, aunts, or grandmothers. The general public (and most artists) did not consider historic quilts to be objects of art, nor was the medium thought appropriate for making art. Beginning in the 1960s, the quilt went through an accelerated transformation from a humble bedcover to an art form. Duchamp's and Rauschenberg's challenge of established art historical hierarchies paved the way for quilts to be hung in art museums in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This revolutionary consideration of quilts is epitomized by the Whitney Museum's ground-breaking 1971 exhibition, Abstract Design in American Quilts. Exhibiting quilts in art museums within an art historical context represented two important components of the 1960s postmodern movement: collapsed boundaries between high culture and popular culture, and blurred distinctions between art and everyday life. (8) Seeing quilts in a prestigious art museum like the Whitney confused the definition of what art should be and challenged prevailing modernist authority. The transition of the mainstream art world in the 1960s and 1970s from modernism to postmodernism occurred at a time when most of the quilt artists interviewed for this project were studying art at university. They too were looking for new modes of expression, rejecting established art historical hierarchies, and embracing popular culture.
As the mainstream art world wrestled with postmodernism, many university art departments in the 1950s and 1960s espoused a cross-disciplinary approach, blending art principles with craft media. University art professors regarded themselves as artists and they trained their students to see themselves as artists working with craft media. (9) For most of the professors, their primary source of income came from teaching; freed from the financial need to create designs for industry or to appeal to a particular market, they could experiment with radical forms of expression.
The artists interviewed for this study consistently emphasized the accessibility of both craft and art training at the university level; over half studied both "fine" arts, such as painting or sculpture, in addition to a craft-based media like weaving or ceramics. For them, applying art principles they learned in college to fabric and quilts was a logical process. Also, like their university professors, most of the quilt artists were free of economic pressures (although for entirely different reasons), and so could adopt a form of expression for which there was not yet a market or commercial application. (10)
As the art world elevated the quilt to art status and the hierarchy of art media was challenged (evidenced by the art-craft merger at universities), three separate communities appropriated the quilt for their own social, political, or economic purposes, raising public awareness of the medium. First, historians sought to reunite the quilt with its social and cultural history, which the "quilt as art" exhibitions frequently ignored. Second, for the burgeoning feminist movement, the American quilt was a symbolic link with the past, representing an important social, political, and creative outlet for women, the power of property ownership, and the strength provided by a community of women. For all the same reasons, the quilt also represented the hopeful possibility of new paradigms for women and women's art: in 1973 City University of New York art history professor and radical feminist Patricia Mainardi declared quilts to be "The Great American Art" in the Feminist Art Journal, as well as in her book of that title. (11) Finally, for the youth counterculture, wearing patchwork clothing and adorning houses or apartments with handmade quilts symbolized their reverence for handmade objects and denounced the country's industrialization, materialism, and technological dehumanization.
These loosely related groups had the combined effect of establishing a noisy dialogue about quilt history, quilts' place in the art-craft hierarchy, and the object's role in women's history and art history. Americans became increasingly aware of quilts on an academic and popular level through widespread publications and quilt-related events; quilt fever reached a nationwide high in the years leading up to the 1976 United States Bicentennial.
At the time they began making art quilts, many of the artists in this study were aware of traditional quilts, usually because of family quilts they had while growing up. Seeing antique quilts in one of the numerous California or national exhibitions not only reinforced their childhood associations with comfort and warmth, but also opened their eyes to the creative possibilities of quilts. When quilts became a desirable object in the art world, a fashionable object in home decorating and collecting spheres, and a worthy subject for cultural historians, they also attained clear monetary value. No longer simply "something they had at home growing up," the quilt became a commodity, a significant shift in meaning that distanced it from the primarily domestic sphere. Although most artists in this study were attracted to the traditional associations a quilt embodies, extricating it from the entirely domestic realm also allowed them to approach it as a purely artistic medium.
External forces such as the art museum's legitimization of the quilt as art, the junction of art and craft at the university level, and social, political, and fashion trends that brought quilts to national prominence affected the artists' perception of quilts as an art medium and sociopolitical statement. However, equally compelling personal motivations also played significant roles in an individual's choice to combine art practice with quiltmaking.
In spite of their age differences and geographic separation (most did not meet until the early 1980s) the artists share remarkably similar stories. As children, they liked art and were good at it. Many learned to sew at home or in home economics classes at school, acquired at least fundamental dressmaking skills, and enjoyed working with fabric. Some had quilts growing up; others saw their first quilts as young adults. Most of the artists began making quilts as bed coverings, learned basic quiltmaking skills, and quickly moved beyond reproducing traditional patterns. These women also recognized that quiltmaking was compatible with childrearing and frequently gave up working in a less adaptable art medium, such as painting, ceramics or weaving. Lastly, each individual had a personal approach to the economics of being an artist; some pursued art full time, while for others, quiltmaking was an avocation.
An Artist is Born
Of all the personal information shared by the artists, perhaps the most poignant is their fierce urge to make art and how they negotiated their lives in order to do so. According to Linda MacDonald,
The need to do art, which I think is universal, is one of the main reasons for being alive--for me. When I do drawings or work on drawings that are going to be the quilt, or work on the quilt, I'm working toward that feeling--that aesthetic experience, that excitement. (12)
As young children, their artistic talent was readily apparent and their desire to pursue art was strong. Jean Ray Laury and Judith Content always knew they wanted to be artists. Although no one in Laury's family was an artist, her mother encouraged her to "do what you want to do, and don't do what everybody else does, and not ... feel [that] you need to." (13) As a child, Content always had a mini studio filled with colored pencils and paints next to her professional artist mother's studio. (14)
For most of the interviewees, being a skilled artist often formed their family or school identity. Therese May established her self-identity as an artist early when both parents praised a drawing she had made in kindergarten. After this incident, "I was the artist. That was the role I played in school and at home, and everywhere." (15)
Some of Linda MacDonald's early successes in life were art-related. In elementary school, she competed with a fellow fifth grader for the most stars on the classroom chart, one awarded for each drawing they completed. The two produced fifty or sixty drawings each before they were both declared the class winners. Throughout her school years classmates considered MacDonald the "class artist" and teachers called on her when they needed drawings for their classroom. (16)
At the age of seven, Joan Schulze entered a drawing competition sponsored by Red Goose Shoes and won $5 for drawing the Red Goose. In addition, she always included colorful maps and drawings on school reports to be sure she got a good grade. Art also provided an escape for Schulze, as she rode her bike to the Art Institute of Chicago for relief from her duties caring for five younger siblings. Her limited freedom became especially important to her after her brother contracted polio and family attention focused on his recovery.
Art-related failures remain as vivid as the successes in these artists' childhood memories. Joan Schulze applied twice to win a coveted place in the children's Saturday program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and twice she came in second. Schulze attributes her fierce determination to be an artist to this denied opportunity. She went once with the classmate who had been chosen to attend. "I just wandered up and down the halls and smelled all the chemicals and paint ... It was a huge disappointment not to be chosen, always to be second. But that made me hungry. Because to be an artist, one thing you have to be is hungry ... not getting to go to the Art Institute just made me want it more." (17)
Five of the artists had family quilts at home or learned something about traditional quilts while growing up. (The four other artists, Jean Hewes, Judith Content, Ellen Oppenheimer, and Miriam Nathan-Roberts did not have quilts at home while growing up and were not aware of the American tradition until the mid 1970s or later.) One of Jean Ray Laury's earliest memories of quilts was lying under the quilting frame while her mother and friends were quilting. Looking up, the light filtered through the hexagons and the outline of the double seams contrasted with the lighter centers. (18) Yvonne Porcella and her sister had matching Sunbonnet Sue quilts that her mother made, but quiltmaking was not a regular household activity. (19)
For the other three artists, quilts were associated with grandmothers rather than mothers. Linda MacDonald lived with her maternal grandmother's quilts, an Ohio Star and Rose of Sharon. She took their presence for granted and considered them just a part of her family's needlework tradition, which also included knitting, crochet and dressmaking. (20) Therese May grew up with quilts her grandmother made but the artist never saw her making them. "We always had quilts on the beds. I mean, we used them. I don't think anybody ever thought of them and said, 'Oh, isn't this cool! I love this quilt. Look at all the colors.' They were just to keep warm." When they became ragged, they were thrown away. (21) Joan Schulze first learned about quilts from a children's book called The Patchwork Quilt. The book's attraction for Schulze was not the patchwork quilt--she wasn't even sure what one was--but with the main character. The book featured a sick grandmother who each day told stories about the various blocks in her quilt to her grandchild. Schulze didn't have a grandmother so the one in the book became her "make believe grandmother." (22)
Typical of the experience of young women born before 1960, most of these artists acquired competent sewing skills either at home, from a relative or neighbor, or in a home economics class at school. Because clothing was expensive, they frequently sewed their own clothes, but surprisingly, none of them made quilts growing up, even though others in their homes made them. However, most already had the necessary sewing skills and equipment when they decided to stitch their first quilt.
Linda MacDonald created her first quilt as part of a feminist consciousness-raising group she joined in 1974, while living with her husband in a northern California cabin with no electricity. Someone in the group had already made a crazy quilt, so they decided to make another one. When it was finished, the women drew lots to see who would get it; MacDonald won. The quilt sparked her interest in sewing another one, but since she knew only the crazy quilt techniques she learned from the feminist group project, she checked out a library book by Michael James and taught herself the basics of quilt making. (23)
A 1974 article in the Chicago Herald about a woman who used fabric store remnants to make a quilt piqued Jean Hewes' interest in quilts. She didn't know anything about traditional quiltmaking and had no preconceived idea of what a quilt should look like. However, since she had always sewn most of her own clothes and was well supplied with scraps, Hewes decided to make a quilt, too.
Joan Schulze was already teaching embroidery classes when someone told her the local Adult Education Department was looking for a quilting teacher. Although she didn't think she had time to teach more classes and knew nothing about quilts, when Schulze learned the classes were in the evening and paid well, she quickly taught herself basic quiltmaking techniques.
Whether they had quilts growing up or discovered the medium as adults, most of the women profiled in this essay initially did not consider quilts an appropriate medium for art. (The exceptions are Jean Ray Laury, whose first quilt was an innovative and original design for her master's degree in 1956, and Judith Content, who did not refer to her kimono-shaped wall pieces as quilts until the mid-1990s.) MacDonald "never thought anything about them" and Schulze "had a very poor opinion of quilts." (24) Hewes did not know anything about traditional quilts: "I thought of quilts as fabric puzzles to be used as bedcovers." (25)
Most of these women made a traditional-style quilt before attempting original designs, usually as an exercise to gain technical skill. In her interview, Therese May called herself "just a housewife who started making quilts." She began making them in 1965 while still living in Wisconsin, explaining, "It was kind of part of being a housewife, putting quilts on beds." After moving to California, "... I decided that I was going to go back to school ... [to] get my master's degree. But in the meantime I kept on sewing. Pretty soon I was making pictures with cloth." (26) MacDonald made a few traditional quilts after her initial crazy quilt, but she designed her own repeat blocks rather than copying old ones. (27)
Some of these artists turned to quiltmaking after first creating wearable art, or they created work in both formats. Yvonne Porcella's first four books were devoted to clothing, and even her 1986 entry to The Art Quilt exhibition was a gigantic kimono. (28) Content ran a successful wearable art business that employed several seamstresses and enjoyed extensive gallery representation. (29) Jean Ray Laury was already making quilts when she published Quilted Clothing, a book that showed readers how to make vests, jackets and dresses using a variety of quiltmaking techniques. (30)
However, once these women each made a few traditional quilts, they quickly realized the form's potential for artistic expression. Several elements may have contributed to the quick transition. First, as artists they were receptive to new art media, and the quilt was relatively uncharted territory for artists. Second, several of them were already applying art principles to other craft media (MacDonald to weaving, Hewes to ceramics, and Oppenheimer to ceramics and glass), so it was a small step to incorporate quilts into their art practice. Third, since these artists were not steeped in traditional quilt designs, it was easier for them to see new and innovative possibilities for quilts.
In addition to the creative possibilities quilts offered, artists were also drawn to the aesthetic aspects of the medium and format. (31) They expressed a love of fabric--its tactile qualities, color, and pattern. It was often their attraction to textiles that led them to begin working in other fiber media before focusing on quilts. The artists readily acknowledged the complex historical connotations inherent in quilts and appreciated the nonverbal messages they conveyed. For Laury, the quilt offered "an opportunity to produce an article of personal value, practical in nature and aesthetic in design." Quilts were the perfect antidote to mass-produced, impersonal objects common in everyday lives. (32) MacDonald appreciated the immediacy of fabric and quilts, both for the artist and the viewer. "There is no distance between a person and fabric, especially when it has all these romantic and nostalgic feelings. Already, you have an incredible attraction." (33)
Most of these women were married and at home with young children when they began making quilts; their husbands provided the main family economic support. Freed from a pressing need to earn a living, they were able to pursue quiltmaking as a creative outlet or as a means of producing a modest additional income.
Perhaps one of the most striking reasons these women began and continued making quilts was the strictly pragmatic nature of quilt production. Unable to paint, make ceramics, or warp a loom with young children underfoot, they found needlework--especially quiltmaking--to be portable, interruptible, and easily resumed. The design, cutting, and sewing elements could be compartmentalized and construction completed in small, portable sections. Equipment was not dangerous (for the most part) or toxic. They could begin a project in the corner of a room, fold it up and store it in a drawer, or transport quilt pieces in a small bag. (34) As the artists transitioned into quiltmaking, they often gave up working in another less accommodating media.
For Jean Ray Laury, quiltmaking "was the kind of work I could do at home with small children; it didn't take a lot of space and it was kind of immediate." (35) Although Yvonne Porcella was trained as a nurse and worked in the operating room, she too appreciated the nature of sewing and quiltmaking: "What I learned was that I could do sewing piecemeal. I could do little bits at a time." (36) Jean Hewes recounts, "I used to work in the living room and I would sew my quilts in the bedroom. I had the cloth pinned up in the living room and they [the children] would be running in and out with their friends and I would just be working. I could stop and give them a sandwich or whatever. But I actually was right there practically where they were." (37) Unlike the oil painting she currently focuses on, Linda MacDonald now realizes that the nature of quiltmaking may have also been part of its early attraction for her. "It was something I could do with children around. I didn't consciously realize that until now when I've been oil painting. It was a lot easier to have so many things around that you could put down and pick up and work on." (38)
Joan Schulze and Judith Content, both working as full-time artists in their home studios, accommodated their young children by setting boundaries or including them in the creative process. Content, the mother of one daughter, felt having a home studio gave her a lot of flexibility. "I could be home and she could be with me and she really enjoyed playing in the studio ... I had a great babysitter. And she [her daughter] was a good napper. I got very efficient with my time ... I got very good at doing a lot in short, small periods of time." Also, her preferred technique of shibori dyeing meant she could compartmentalize wrapping, dyeing, unwrapping and washing the fabric, designing, sewing and quilting, and plan a particular activity for the time available. Content included her daughter in her work, inside and outside the studio. "I love [gallery] openings, so we went to a lot. My daughter's first sentence was, "Go something else." (39)
Schulze realized in the late 1960s that she was doing stitchery full time, carrying a project with her wherever she went. Stitchery work was not only portable, but "it's something you could do when you've got four kids--" She was prepared to return to teaching elementary school when her children were older, but instead chose to pursue art full-time. One day in the spring of 1970, after the children left for school,
I decided that I was going to announce to everybody that I was now a full-time artist ... I told them I'd still be their mother, that I'd work at night, and that things were going to change. I needed to take the laundry room as my studio. I set up ground rules that when the door was closed, that meant I was working. I announced that now I am a professional artist and this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. (40)
Miriam Nathan-Roberts was reluctant to have children, fearing that one couldn't make art and have children. She was forty years old and had already begun making quilts when her son was born. "Of course, the best thing I ever did was to have a child." (41) Similar to Nathan-Roberts, Ellen Oppenheimer was well-established as a quilt artist before her son was born in the mid-1990s. When he was an infant she found it hard to concentrate, and now that he is a teenager, she feels a similar distraction, but feels being a mother has enriched her art. (42)
The Economics of Being an Artist
Most of the artists in this study grew up in college-educated families. Even if both parents had not gone to university, the parents usually expected or encouraged their daughters to seek higher education. However, the encouragement was often with the admonition, "Learn something useful. Study something so you can get a job and support yourself if you have to." Most artists studied to be teachers or nurses, two of the main professions open to women in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and often combined teaching with degrees in art-related fields. Although Laury's mother encouraged her to study art, her father asked her "What do you think you are going to do with an art degree?" Laury balanced both parents' advice and got a teaching degree so she could teach art. "It was a way of staying in art and being able to support myself." (43)
Because MacDonald had a bachelor's degree in art, she was asked to teach art at the local Continuation High School; she eventually obtained a teaching certificate and taught high school for the next twenty years. Nathan-Roberts earned her master's in Educational Psychology and teaching credentials in arts education at the University of California, Berkeley; she also taught in the public school system. Schulze received a bachelor of science in education (BSE) and taught elementary school for several years. Porcella (who became a nurse rather than a teacher) and Schulze are the only interviewees who received no formal art training at the university.
These women were largely freed from the necessity of earning a living by selling their work. They did not begin making quilts with the intention of supporting themselves through sales, as most had other income or husbands who provided the primary means of support. Much like their university art professors who didn't need to support themselves through art sales, a similar economic freedom gave quilt artists license to pursue radical forms of expression.
Although none of the artists sought to become the major family wage earner, it was a point of pride to have their own income, or to offer a higher standard of living for the family. Porcella explains, "I never had to work; I worked as a nurse out of pride so I could have an income. That sense of pride has driven me, but also I am grateful that everybody in my family has accepted [my personal desire to work]." (44) Judith Content takes her earnings very seriously; her income is a large part of the household budget. (45)
Although each artist approached the economics of being an artist differently--sometimes trailblazing in uncharted territory of the burgeoning art, craft, and quilt worlds--two main approaches to income generation emerge. Five women (Content, Laury, May, Porcella and Schulze) worked as full-time professional artists and generated the bulk of their individual income from sales of work, or quilt-related teaching, lecturing or writing. The second group (MacDonald, Oppenheimer, and Nathan-Roberts) continued to make quilts (though perhaps fewer in number than those in the first group), only occasionally lectured or taught, and derived their main income from other employment, often in an art-related profession like teaching art. Jean Hewes is the one exception and falls outside even these broad categories. She neither taught nor lectured, nor was she employed outside the home.
Teaching, lecturing, writing
Just as these artists charted new territory with their work, they created a new occupation--professional quiltmaker. Each artist's job description varied, but usually included teaching, lecturing, and writing for traditional and art quiltmakers, in addition to marketing and selling their work. Eight out of the nine artists taught classes, mostly to traditional quiltmakers who wanted to explore alternative techniques, or lectured to various women's and quilt groups. Why did some artists choose to teach and lecture regularly and others only infrequently? The level of participation in these activities depended on three factors: the artist's technique and working style, their inclination for self-promotion, and whether or not they were employed outside the home.
Yvonne Porcella and Jean Ray Laury, the two most active teachers and prolific writers, exemplify the technique-dependent and self-promotional nature of teaching. As Porcella learned early in her career, "I always thought [self] promotion was important ... I was selling a technique as well as myself." She printed her first book in 1977, a garment-making book, to accompany the class she taught. After it was published, she realized that her name was in very small print, and when the book was stacked on bookracks in stores, no one could see it. From then on, her name and book title were at the top of the book in large letters. Throughout her career, Porcella maintained a busy teaching schedule, published nine books, successfully "selling herself and a technique." (46)
Jean Ray Laury wrote prolifically, authoring or co-authoring twenty-two books. During the 1960s and 1970s she regularly contributed articles illustrated with her designs to several women's magazines, and, in the 1980s and 1990s, she wrote a column for Quilter's Newsletter Magazine. Over her long teaching career, she taught a wide variety of techniques ranging from basic quiltmaking skills to quilted clothing and image transfer methods. She also taught design principles, imparting the creative philosophy so eloquently stated in her writings: "At its best, a quilt is a personal expression--not a mimic of the ideas or designs or color preferences set down by someone else. Original design is not beyond the capacity of any homemaker or student or quiltmaker." (47) Her sense of humor made her not only a popular teacher, but also in demand as a motivational speaker. She especially enjoyed teaching a group of educated women who were often uncertain of their talents. Laury said, "Working with them was great because I felt it was so worthwhile. They spent all their time and energy supporting everybody else, and they were rarely getting support themselves." (48)
Therese May also frequently taught workshops for quiltmakers and encouraged students to paint and embellish their quilts. Similarly, Judith Content's and Joan Schulze's teaching focused primarily on techniques--shibori dyeing and photo transfer techniques respectively. Schulze also wrote and published; however, her books focus on her own artwork and poetry rather than technical instruction.
The three artists employed outside the home--Linda MacDonald, Miriam Nathan-Roberts and Ellen Oppenheimer--all occasionally taught or lectured in addition to making art. Their light teaching schedules reflect the technique-dependent nature of teaching. MacDonald felt the only "new" technique she had to offer was her method of air brushing on fabric. The process required expensive equipment, specialized facilities, and hours of practice to master the skill, and MacDonald didn't feel it was a marketable class. Also, taking time from her job at the Continuation High School posed an impediment. "There were many people who were teaching at quilt symposiums all over the country for a week or two at a time. With my high school teaching job, I didn't really think that was fair of me to do. So I would teach a few places in the summer and then teach full-time at the school here." (49)
Oppenheimer, who has held various jobs outside the home, did not promote herself. "I have done lectures but I don't sell myself. I am not out there on the circuit trying to do workshops and lectures." (50) In addition, Oppenheimer developed an extremely technical method of machine inlay piecing to realize her designs, one that she admits is not highly marketable. (51) "I always felt like I didn't have that much to teach. I felt like I had this bizarre way of working and didn't feel like it was anything valuable to people because they weren't going to work like that. Well, maybe one or two people!" (52)
Nathan-Roberts attributed her light teaching schedule more to temperament than technique: "I like teaching quiltmaking a lot, [but] I haven't been very active in pursuing quilting jobs." (53)
Exhibitions and Sales
All the artists exhibited their work in art, craft, and textile-only museums and galleries, and participated in mixed media, craft, fiber art and art-quilt-only exhibitions. (54) As with teaching and lecturing, exhibition and sales primarily depended on self-promotion. In addition, each artist's production and particular working style affected how frequently they exhibited and how many quilts they sold. It may be coincidental, but the three artists who also had other jobs (MacDonald, Oppenheimer and Nathan-Roberts), made large, technically complex quilts that were hand-quilted. (55) Their working methods dictated that their annual production would be low and employment further limited the time they had to devote to quiltmaking.
Schulze and May were prolific exhibitors in the 1970s and 1980s and a look at some representative venues illustrates the range. Schulze claims to be her own best marketing tool, early on asking for and getting museum and commercial gallery one-woman shows. In the 1970s and 1980s she had solo or featured exhibitions at the Triton Museum of Art, Santa Clara (1975), Montalvo Center for the Arts, Saratoga (1977), Palo Alto Art Center, (1978), and Center for Visual Arts, Oakland (1984). She exhibited with the Bay Area Arts and Crafts Guild (1972-1975, 1981) and enjoyed the Bay Area Arts and Crafts Guild Invitational exhibits that combined textile, clay, glass and wood works by both male and female artists. "You were bouncing against some very high-powered men. Your work had to stand up to their work." (56) Schulze exhibited her quilts in art galleries that previously had never shown or represented fiber artists, and participated in art-quilt-only shows, like The New California Quilt at the California Crafts Museum, San Francisco (1984) and Five Artists:Quilts at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery (1986). (57) The artist first participated in Quilt National in 1989. (58) Over the years Schulze has enjoyed representation by a variety of galleries.
At the encouragement of artist David Gilhooly, Therese May showed her first quilt in a mixed craft media exhibition at the Walnut Creek Civic Art Center in 1969: Animals, Quilts and Blunt Instruments. This was to be a pivotal experience in May's professional life; Jean Ray Laury saw the Therese quilt and included it in her second book, Quilts and Coverlets. May commented, "With things like this happening, my identity as an artist gradually came into consciousness again." (59) May also held solo exhibitions at De Saisset Museum, Santa Clara (1981), Fiberworks, Oakland (1984), and the San Jose Museum of Art (1985). The artist participated regularly at Quilt National from 1983 onward, as well as showing her work in The New California Quilt (1984), and in other national fiber and art quilt group exhibitions. During the 1970s and 1980s, May did not have gallery representation, but sold her quilts fairly regularly. (60)
Two large and lucrative commissions for the San Jose Convention Center in 1986 convinced May that she could support herself as an artist; the event also empowered her to get a divorce. For the next several years she augmented her income by teaching more and through "production work"--making and selling t-shirts, sweatshirts and small quilts adorned with her imaginary animals and fish.
Like Schulze, Yvonne Porcella excelled at self-promotion. However, Porcella exhibited far more frequently in community, state and national quilt shows and in two decades participated in only a few group fiber shows. During the 1970s, when she was making and teaching wearable art, she exhibited primarily in wearable art exhibitions. In the 1980s she increased her production of quilts in addition to the kimonos (which were designed more for the wall than for the body anyway), and exhibited in art quilt exhibitions, including The New California Quilt (1984) and Five Artists: Quilts (1986). While her gallery representation has been off and on, she enjoyed a steady relationship in the 1980s with the Connell Gallery in Atlanta. "I've sold a fair amount but I still have a lot of inventory." (61) Porcella began exhibiting at Quilt National in 1983 and was a juror in 1989. (62) May, Porcella, and Schulze were also included in McMorris and Kile's The Art Quilt exhibition.
Jean Ray Laury never had a dealer or gallery representation. "I never sold a lot of work ... I would have an exhibit and sell pieces. Mostly I worked on commission with architects. That was the best paying, and it was also the most enjoyable ... interior designers were less willing to let you do what you wanted, but architects were wonderful to work with in that way." (63) Laury is the only quilt artist to participate regularly in the prestigious triennial California Design exhibitions during the 1960s and early 1970s.
Linda MacDonald prefers multimedia exhibitions, especially ones that combine craft media with painting, drawing and printmaking. "I find that ... the multimedia approach makes it very rich ... and I usually sell something whenever I am in a show, which is nice." (64) MacDonald did have gallery representation off and on and explains, "I think it is difficult to find a gallery that really knows the breadth of your work and believes in you ..." (65) During the 1980s, MacDonald exhibited her works far less than May and Schulze, a schedule that may reflect both her slow production, high school teaching job, and return to school for a master's degree. The artist struggles with the subjective process of pricing: "I am not giving it [my work] away, but I also don't want to have real high prices. I think you just have to look at the market and see what other people are selling for and come up with a price you feel comfortable with. It's very subjective and the economy goes up and down." (66)
Ellen Oppenheimer, who is not interested in marketing or selling her work, suggested that its abstract geometric style may have limited appeal: "... my work isn't all that easy to sell ... it is so geometric that it's not going to go in a hospital [or facility like that]." Also, she works slowly, usually producing only one large quilt a year. (67)
Miriam Nathan-Roberts claims to be the "most un-business-like person and disorganized thinker that I know." She does not enter shows because the entry forms usually linger in a big pile until the entry deadlines pass. Troubled by how to price her quilts, she does not seek out sales. Her experience shows that people do not expect to pay what she feels they are worth. (68)
Jean Hewes entered and was accepted regularly to Quilt National. Other national exhibitions of art quilts, such as The Art Quilt in 1986, included Hewes' work. She does not pursue sales and says, "I still have most of my work." (69)
Many elements of Judith Content's professional life fall outside the norms of the other artists. Except for a brief sales job with her silk fabric supplier, Content worked full-time as an artist as soon as she graduated from college in 1979. She had already established a successful wearable art company by the time her daughter was born several years later. In the mid-1980s, there was a strong economy and a commercial market more receptive to fiber art. Content received regular corporate commissions that kept her busy until the early 1990s, when the economy faltered and commissions dwindled. She has almost always had gallery representation and regularly augmented her income though production work, making and selling scarves and jewelry. "When I started, the way to promote your work was magazines, essentially, or exhibitions or exhibition catalogues. I'm very fortunate to have a really wonderful portfolio of that kind of exposure. Now, I have brick and mortar galleries and virtual galleries, too ... I just don't have any trouble with sales." (70) The apparent ease with which Content found the balance between making art and economic success may depend largely on Content's age; she is the youngest artist in the group. However, Content also operated outside the art quilt world, exhibiting primarily in wearable art and craft media exhibitions. Not until the early 1990s, when another quilt artist called Content's kimono-shaped wall pieces "art quilts," did Content hear the term. Since the mid-1990s, she has exhibited primarily in art-quilt-only exhibitions and is a regular participant in both Quilt National and San Diego's Quilt Visions.
Could you have supported yourself?
Only a very small percentage of trained artists manage to make a living through selling their artwork; the experience of this study's quilt artists is similar to that of their counterparts working in other media. None of the artists supported themselves solely through their art and related activities between 1966 and 1986, nor did they expect to. Linda MacDonald never expected to make a living from selling her work and realized that unless she worked as a commercial artist, she was unlikely to earn a livable income. (71)
Oppenheimer has always had a clear vision of the economic realities of being an artist. "I always knew that I would never make the amount of money I wanted to as an artist. I would always have to somehow or other supplement it, which has been exactly my experience and my partner's experience." While they both have had reasonably successful careers, they always felt that what they earned from making art was not enough to live on. (72)
When asked if they could have supported themselves through their art and related activities, even those with long and successful careers making art, teaching, writing, and lecturing felt it would have been a considerable challenge. Schulze answered the question, "If I weren't married and had no children, I could possibly have done it." (73) Laury responded, "I have wondered that so often. I don't know if I would have had a very good health plan! If I had my children to support, I probably couldn't have supported us all. I feel grateful I didn't have to do that." (74) And Content felt fortunate that "I never had to ... I think I probably would have stepped up the teaching a great deal and been a teacher 'on the circuit,' but I don't really enjoy traveling that much. But if I had to, to keep being an artist, I would have taken some kind of supplemental job." (75)
The striking similarities in these artists' lives highlight the relative homogeneity of the group. They are white, mostly middle class, educated women, with similar family backgrounds. When they began making quilts, eight of the women were in what was considered a traditional marriage during the 1950s and 1960s, where the wife stayed home to raise children and the husband was the primary wage earner. After "discovering" quilts, they quickly realized the medium's artistic potential and turned to creating original designs. Because most learned to sew as children, they possessed the technical skills to make their first and subsequent quilts. They found making quilts compatible with child rearing but continued working in the medium even after their children were grown.
Uniformly, these artists didn't expect to make a living as an artist and had a back-up plan--teaching, nursing, or a supportive spouse or partner. Their income was directly related to energy spent promoting themselves, making art, and teaching or writing. Resumes and interviews reflect that those who exhibited in the 1970s did so more in art and craft venues and less in quilt or art quilt exhibitions. By the 1980s, this ratio reversed, perhaps a reflection of the growing number of quilt stores, nationwide conferences and festivals, and the interest in art quilts.
Despite these parallels, there are clear distinctions among these nine women. Each artist developed a clear and distinctive voice and no artist's work resembles another's. There is a wide age range--almost thirty years. Jean Ray Laury, the oldest of the group, was born in 1928; Judith Content is the youngest, born in 1957. By the time Content graduated from college in 1979, Laury had already authored or co-authored six books and Joan Schulze had held solo or featured exhibitions in several arts venues. Pioneers like Laury, May and Schulze certainly helped pave the way for Content and later artists, by elevating the importance of the quilt medium and fiber art in general. However, as the number of quilt artists has grown since the mid 1980s, many of today's emerging young artists view Content as the "older generation!"
Along with other early quilt artists in the U. S., these nine women represent the emergence, development, and maturation of the studio art quilt and form a base upon which the next decades of artists and quiltmakers built. Cumulatively, they paved the way for what today is an important world-wide quiltmaking trend. The number of national and international organizations that promote art quilts continues to increase. Quilt National (1979) just held its 17th biennial exhibition; San Diego's Quilt Visions (1986) has been joined by other competitive juried exhibitions such as ArtQuilt Elements (1999), Quilts=Art=Quilts at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn, New York, and European Art Quilts (1997). Porcella founded Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA) in 1989; today the organization boasts almost 3,000 national and international members and supports an ambitious juried traveling exhibition program for its members. The influence of art quilts in the first decade of the twenty-first century is evident at many of the large national quilt festivals; an increasing number of quilts exhibited relate more to the art quilt than the traditional functional counterpart.
The phenomenal growth of the Modern Quilt Guild (MQG) since its inception in October 2009, both its virtual and bricks-and-mortar presence, owes a debt to the pioneering quilt artists. Artist Denyse Schmidt describes the modern aesthetic: "For me, that means combining my modern color and design sensibilities with the time-honored traditions of the craft, making something unexpected by juxtaposing new and old." (76) The comment echoes Jean Ray Laury's sentiments expressed more than forty years ago: "If we can retain the structural integrity of the traditional quilt, and add to it a contemporary approach in color and design, we will achieve a quilt which merges past and present." (77)
While quilt artists have had significant impact on the quiltmaking arena, their influence in the mainstream art world has been less evident. Despite the promotion of "quilt as art," the blending of art and craft media, the feminist proclamation that quilts are "The Great American Art," and the nationwide quilt revival, art quilts have continued to hover on the fringes of the art world. Lively debate about the status of art quilts is likely to continue for some time.
The decades surrounding the emergence of art quilts in California experienced a complex intersection of art, craft, quilts, and American culture. This exploration of both the broader cultural background and each artist's biography reveal that no single individual, local, state, or national element overwhelmingly influenced these women to apply their art school training to quilts. Rather, a unique combination of circumstances emerged in the late 1960s that exerted their collective influence on a particular set of artists. What about the decades following the period of this study? What cultural and personal influences compelled artists in the decades following 1986 to embrace the quilt as their chosen medium? What about today's quilt artists? How have the artists and the medium developed in the intervening years? How will the art quilt fit into the broader continuum of quilt and art history? Further research on the next generation of quilt artists, their work, and contemporary culture will help illuminate the significant impact of the early pioneers and their continuing legacy.
The author gratefully acknowledges the nine artists who generously shared their time, artwork and files, and whose interviews formed the basis of this study. This article is based in part on research for a master's thesis at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. I especially want to thank my thesis advisor, Professor Michael James, and my other committee members, Dr. Patricia Cox Crews and Professor Wendy Katz, who all provided valuable insights and guidance.
Notes and references
(1) For a more complete assessment of the social and cultural forces that contributed to the emergence of art quilts, see Gayle Pritchard, Uncommon Threads: Ohio's Art Quilt Revolution (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006); Sandra Sider, Pioneering Quilt Artists, 1960-1980: A New Direction in American Art (CreateSpace, 2010); Jane Przybysz, "Bay Area Beginnings: The American Quilt Study Group and the Twentieth-Century California Fiber Art Movement," Uncoverings 2010, ed. Laurel Horton (Lincoln, NE: American Quilt Study Group, 2010), 203-220; and Nancy Bavor, "The California Art Quilt Revolution" (master's thesis, University of Nebraska, 2011.) http:// digitalcommons.unl.edu/cehsdiss/98.
(2) In order to create a more complete picture, some events before and after these dates are discussed.
(3) Two interviewees, Jean Ray Laury and Jean Hewes have died since these interviews were conducted in late 2009.
(4) Jean Ray Laury, Applique Stitchery (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1966), 12.
(5) Penny McMorris and Michael Kile, The Art Quilt (San Francisco: Quilt Digest Press, 1966), 14.
(6) Deborah J. Felix was the fifth California participant.
(7) McMorris and Kile, 15.
(8) Simon Wilson and Jessica Lack, The Tate Guide to Modern Art Terms (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), 270.
(9) Suzanne Baizerman, Jo Lauria, and Toni Greenbaum, California Design: The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005), 94.
(10) McMorris and Kile, 62.
(11) Patricia Mainardi, Quilts: The Great American Art (San Pedro, CA: Miles & Weir, Ltd., 1978). Patricia Mainardi, "Quilts: The Great American Art," Feminist Art Journal (1973), 1, 18-23; Patricia Mainardi, "Quilts: A Great American Art," Ms. (December 1973), 58-62; Patricia Mainardi, "Great American Cover Ups," Art/News (Summer 1974), 30-31.
(12) Sandra J. Metzler, ed., Behind the Stitches: Portrait of Four Mendocino Quiltmakers (Willits, CA: Mendocino County Museum, 1984), 39.
(13) Jean Ray Laury, unpublished interview by author, Clovis, CA, November 30, 2009.
(14) Judith Content, unpublished interview by author, Palo Alto, CA, December 16, 2009.
(15) Therese May, unpublished interview by author, San Jose, CA, October 15, 2009.
(16) Linda MacDonald, unpublished interview by author, Willits. CA, October 29, 2009; Metzler, 34-35.
(17) Joan Schulze, unpublished interview by author, San Francisco, CA, December 17, 2009.
(18) Laury interview.
(19) Yvonne Porcella, unpublished interview by author, Arnold, California, October 24, 2009.
(20) MacDonald interview.
(21) May interview.
(22) Schulze interview.
(23) Linda MacDonald, "Interview with Cover Artist," Sojourn Magazine (Fall 1997), 11.
(24) MacDonald and Schulze interviews.
(25) Joanne Mattera, The Quiltmaker's Art: Contemporary Quilts and Their Makers (Ashville, NC: Lark Books, 1982), 40.
(26) May interview.
(27) MacDonald, interview; Metzler, 38
(28) Yvonne Porcella, Five Ethnic Patterns, 1977; Plus Five, 1978; Pieced Clothing, 1980; Pieced Clothing Variations, 1981 (Modesto, CA: Porcella Studio).
(29) Judith Content, conversation with the author, Palo Alto, CA, January 19, 2011.
(30) Jean Ray Laury, Quilted Clothing (Birmingham, AL: Oxmoor House, 1981).
(31) Michael James, "Beyond Tradition: The Art of the Studio Quilt," American Craft (February/March 1985), 16-22.
(32) Laury, Quilts and Coverlets, 15.
(33) Metzler, 38.
(34) Judith K. Brown, "A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex," American Anthropologist 72, no. 5 (October 1970), 1073-1078 and Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (W. W. Norton & Company, 1995). About the same time these artists were turning to quiltmaking, anthropologist Judith Brown published her observations of some reasons why women historically had been assigned to domestic textile production. Brown theorized that women's work was inextricably linked to the biology of reproduction, not simply that women have babies, but that they have the physiological capability to feed and nourish the child (i.e., breast feeding.), something men cannot do. So that a woman's productive labor is not lost to society while she is raising children, jobs culturally and historically assigned to women were compatible with childrearing. To maximize a mother's time, the jobs were located in places that were safe for young children, usually close to or in the home. The tasks required little concentration, were usually dull and repetitive, and easily interrupted and resumed. Textile production fit all these requirements. The majority of the artists represented illustrate that Brown's theories held true even in late twentieth-century Western culture. Elizabeth Barber expanded significantly on Brown's theories in her later publication.
(35) Laury interview.
(36) Porcella interview.
(37) Hewes, telephone interview by author, November 9, 2009.
(38) MacDonald interview.
(39) Content interview.
(40) Schulze interview.
(41) Miriam Nathan-Roberts, interview by author, Berkeley, CA, December 2, 2009.
(42) Ellen Oppenheimer, interview by author, Oakland, CA, December 3, 2009.
(43) Laury interview.
(44) Porcella interview.
(45) Content interview.
(46) Porcella interview.
(47) Laury, Quilts & Coverlets, 12.
(48) Laury interview.
(49) MacDonald interview.
(50) Oppenheimer interview.
(51) Ellen Oppenheimer, "Fabric Puzzles: Inlay your pieces for a freewheeling quilt," Threads (October/ November 1990), 39-41.
(52) Oppenheimer interview.
(53) Nathan-Roberts interview.
(54) For purposes of this paper, a museum refers to a non-profit institution that exhibits objects that may or may not be for sale. A gallery refers to a commercial establishment whose primary goal is to sell the objects they exhibit. Gallery representation refers to a long-term partnership between a gallery and artist, longer than a single exhibition of the artist's work.
(55) Both Nathan-Roberts and Sarah Hershberger hand quilted Nathan-Robert's quilts.
(56) Schulze interview.
(57) Schulze had a solo exhibition at the Smith Anderson Gallery in Palo Alto,1993.
(58) Schulze interview and Joan Schulze, et al., The Art of Joan Schulze (San Francisco: Custom & Limited Editions, 1999), 150-153.
(59) May, unpublished interview with Katherine Huffacker conducted for Artists and Archives Exhibition, Euphrate Gallery, De Anza College, Cupertino, CA, July 12, 1981.
(60) May interview; May resume undated.
(61) Porcella interview.
(62) Porcella interview; Porcella resume dated 2008.
(63) Laury interview.
(64) MacDonald interview.
(65) MacDonald interview.
(66) MacDonald interview and online resume http://www.lindamacdonald.com/; accessed 19 February 2011.
(67) Oppenheimer interview.
(68) Nathan-Roberts interview.
(69) Hewes interview.
(70) Content interview.
(71) MacDonald interview.
(72) Oppenheimer interview.
(73) Schulze interview.
(74) Laury interview.
(75) Content interview.
(76) Ellen Rushman, "Modern Quilting: DIY Discourse" (master's thesis, University of Nebraska, 2012.)
(77) Laury, Quilts & Coverlets, 17