This is Part 2 of my interview with Scott Murkin. In Part 1, Scott talked about his own background as a quilter and Certified Judge by the National Quilting Association, and the judging process for shows. The rest of his interview is below, and touches on modern quilts in traditional shows: Now that the categories have been dissolved at AQS, how do modern quilts fit in? As always, I love good conversations, so please leave comments for Scott and for myself, and Scott can also be reached through email: smurkin at triad dot rrdot com.
[Mandy] Modern quilting seems to be one of those things people “get” or they don’t. Because of that, how do you think modern quilting fits into juried quilt shows?
[Scott] It’s not clear to me that modern quilting is something anyone ‘gets’ or certainly I haven’t seen that everyone ‘gets’ it in the same way, even among those closely associated with the movement. The way these modern quilts fit into juried quilt shows is to me the same way that machine quilting came to fit into those shows twenty years ago. It was a bit scandalous at first and tongues wagged. BUT for many, many people it was the eye opener that there is another way to do things, and that way is neither better nor worse, but it is different and it is doable and it appeals to many people. Modern quilting is fulfilling that exact same role today. Sewists who felt put off by strict rules and formal styles can see that there is another way, and what was ‘out there’ today feels perfectly ordinary a few short years later.
The fact that there is some ambiguity about the concept of modern quilting is both a strength and a weakness. The strength lies in the inclusiveness that the more fluid definition allows. The more people who are involved in the movement, the more growth that it will see. From the viewpoint of judged shows, it can make the prospect of categorization very challenging, particularly when there are categories specific to modern quilts. Someone is going to have to be the final arbiter of whether a given piece meets the category criteria or not, and I have been involved in circumstances where this became rather contentious.
Why should modern quilters consider submitting their work to “traditional” shows?
The first reason is the altruistic one that is hinted at in the previous answer, which is to open the eyes of the quilt show attending public to the vast breadth of ideas that is included in the simple word “quilt”. By nature, I am a “lumper”, an includer, and I sincerely believe that this quilting sandbox is big enough for everyone who wants to play. By including modern quilts in traditional quilt shows it sends out this message of inclusivity and lets people who may be toying with the idea of quiltmaking know that they are welcome.
If one is engaged in modern quiltmaking in a more professional sense or even as a full-time business, then including modern quilt works in traditional shows is the quickest and easiest way to expand the market to those who may just dabble in modern quilts as part of their other work. Some portion of those exposed are likely to become wholesale converts. People can’t be expected to buy into something that they don’t know exists, and not everyone has the strength of will to go it alone—they need to see someone else doing it to know that it’s ok.
How is it possible to judge a modern quilt against something like the amazing “Stars on Mars” that won in Albuquerque?
I’m not sure that it is. In a real sense these are different objects even though they both technically fall under the rubric of ‘quilt’.
Is it possible to judge an afternoon of fun at the ice skating rink against an Olympic figure skater? This is not a value judgment—those are both FABULOUS things. But even though they both involve skating on ice, they are simply not the same thing and no one would think to compare them as such. Quilts designed and constructed specifically to show off prowess are always going to be different than quilts made to warm and comfort our friends and family.
There are some ‘high style’ modern quilts that keep the modern aesthetic while pushing into a higher level of sophistication. It seems likely that this is a hybrid area that we will continue to see grow. These quilts will likely be able to compete at that higher level in time. I think the analogy to machine quilting holds again—many people who had only ever seen very basic straight lines were shocked at the level of sophistication that could be achieved with this technique. The analogy is not exact because part of the modern aesthetic is eschewing excessive ornamentation, yet it is possible to have very sophisticated design within these restrictions.
Competing at the highest levels is simply not going to be well suited to everyone. Only a tiny fraction of traditional quilters compete at this level and it requires a very specific emphasis and mindset that is somewhat contrary to the modern quilting ethos. Olympic figure skaters rarely partake of an afternoon of fun at the local skating rink; they are too busy training for the next event. For many people this level of focus and discipline is either not attainable or not of interest to them. It can really start to look too much like work.
What do you find interesting/exciting/curious about the modern quilt style?
When any field hits a critical mass of participants, new possibilities open up. For quilters, more people making quilts means more lines of fabric, more books, more retreats, more workshops, more magazines and on and on. Modern quilting brings so many new people to the playground, that reaching this critical mass is much easier and then the growth has the potential to be self-sustaining.
It’s exciting to see new pathways to get to the same final product of a quilt. I love that modern quilting tends to focus on usable items, yet at the same time, the overall aesthetic is very design oriented. Moving design off the wall and back onto the bed, sofa and lap again feels like we are coming full circle. Sometimes items that are meant for utility can become too “precious” and we become fearful of using them for the risk of using them up. When we know that we have the skills to make a replacement item, we can lose some of that preciousness and live with that functional beauty around us every day.
I think one of the things modern quilters love, both new quilters and old quilters who have “come over”, is the feeling of freedom and fun associated with modern quilting. Pointing out that the rules don’t have to apply is very appealing because the pressure is off. How does this reconcile with getting modern quilting visible in a show?
Modern quilters have to be careful that ‘breaking the rules’ doesn’t become an easy excuse for sloppy workmanship. Workmanship criteria that are no longer valid, i.e. no longer have an effect on the durability or longevity of our work can and should be abandoned when they no longer serve us and just become arbitrary rules. But many of those workmanship criteria have real, demonstrable effects on the presentation and life of our quilted creations and it makes sense to invest ourselves in making our work better. Machine quilters didn’t gain acceptance by getting the standards lowered, but by raising their own work to such a high level that it could no longer be ignored. Part of the joy that comes from our work as modern quilters is developing confidence in our technical skills that permits us to take more chances with our designs.
Likewise, while design principles can and should be stretched to their limits, sometimes even to the breaking point, just putting things together improvisationally in no way guarantees a good design outcome at the end. Modern quilters have to be willing to assess what they are working on and fix design problems as they arise, learn from those experiences and be willing to abandon ideas that aren’t working out and go where the work organically leads them.
The judging criteria are not going to change to accommodate inferior design or workmanship. The competitive figure skater may decide that the wobbly landing on her triple axel is endearing and shows a certain charming vulnerability in her technique, but good luck getting the judges to buy that!
Are modern quilts more traditional or art?
This question is probably not answerable as it is written. Substitute any other medium for the word quilt and you will see why more clearly. “Are modern paintings more traditional or art?” “Are modern photographs more traditional or art?” These are simply not useful categories for most of us, and as our medium matures I think we will naturally move away from such facile and basically false divisions. Modern quilting has a very strong connection with traditional quiltmaking in that it focuses on objects made for use. The modern aesthetic as it is most commonly accepted existed for centuries before we attached that label to it. I find it easier to consider all quilts to be art and then focus the discussion on which ones are particularly fine examples of that art.
Why should modern quilters care about this? There is QuiltCon after all. To that end, is “modern” the right word for this style? I feel it may not be.
I have no idea whether this is the right word or not. As long as this label works to unite quilters and inspire them to keep moving forward in this never ending stream of quiltmaking, then it will serve. As soon as it is used as a fence to keep some people in and others out, then it is the wrong word (or the right word being used wrong?). Modern quilters would be well served to learn as much of the history of their medium as they can. It can be very stimulating to see how some of these same ideas arose at different times through history and where one’s own work might fit into that bigger scheme. It also prevents some reinventing of the wheel and can be just as inspiring to feel that you are adding to a long and honorable tradition as it is to feel like you broke down that box and took it in a new direction. QuiltCon is a great place to rally the forces and share your excitement with your own clan. There is also a real risk of this becoming overly insular and you end up ‘preaching to the choir’. Taking the modern quilt message to the larger quilting community is an equally important mission, and entering judged shows is one prong toward this goal.
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Scott Murkin, and find it as thought provoking as I did, and hope you, like I, see the jurying in juried quilt shows a little better. I hope we can keep this conversation going! Has this changed your thoughts on entering a quilt show, no matter what type of quilting you do? Many, many thanks to Scott for his care and thought answering my questions. Make sure you go check out his work!