For the makers of quilts, material is synonymous with fabric, the physical substance of all that they create and that is material, or essential, to the nature of the form. Fabric defines the medium, the communicative and expressive vehicle that the maker uses to platform the concepts with which she or he works. Its specific qualities – pliability, drape, texture, hand, weight, and the degree to which it absorbs or reflects light – provoke the impulse to touch, stroke and otherwise handle that most textile enthusiasts recognize as instinctive and highly pleasurable.
The different media designations in the world of the studio crafts – clay, wood, glass, metal, fiber – derive from the physical nature of the materials themselves, and connect very closely to the ways in which these materials need to be worked in the artist’s hands. With much practice the artist acquires facility and confidence in handling materials. Ultimately she acquires degrees of control and any number of responsive and flexible skill sets that can be used to give physical form to whatever concept or idea is intended.
Materiality locates meaning and signification in the physical essence of the object, and in craft-derived objects specifically, this is intrinsic to the act of touch. The sensual exchange between the hand and the substances being manipulated and transformed feeds both maker and object, and resonates in subtle yet palpable ways. In the case of quilts, the responsive “hand” of the textile and its unique qualities – the weight, flexibility, drape, texture, etc. mentioned above – satisfied the traditional covering and wrapping function that human bodies needed for warmth and protection.
Without these functional requirements, the notion of materiality takes on a symbolic or metaphorical role. In the domestic sphere textiles are second skins that absorb familial energy and industry and transform them into memory. Artists working with the quilt form, now more likely to alter and modify their fabrics in the studio rather than in the household sphere, still recognize and celebrate the close connection to human and particularly female enterprise that these materials represent. “As I cut up discarded garments, I give them new life not only by reusing them individually, but by conflating them into an object…” writes Mary Catherine Lamb. “And from the tablecloths and dresses and curtains, an indecipherable murmur is emitted for the attentive listener/viewer that hints at the range of emotional experience that was once played out in the presence of the reconfigured pieces of damask, cotton, satin and corduroy. These castoffs shimmer with the touch of unknown lives, and so the ordinary is infused with the numinous.”
Click images below to view larger and read more information about some of the quilts included in the exhibit.