Contemporary art quilts by Robert Shaw

Contemporary Art Quilts: The John M. Walsh III Collection

From the catalog essay by Robert Shaw

What has come to be called "the art quilt " is a new artistic medium that has developed over the past thirty years. Unlike the traditional bed quilts from which they have grown, art quilts are intended primarily as works of visual art, to be hung on gallery walls rather than to cover beds. Most have the same basic structure as a traditional quilt-two pieces of fabric surrounding a central layer of batting, and the three layers held together by quilt stitching-but the great majority are intentionally non-functional, made not to decorate a bed or provide warmth to a sleeper but instead to express and communicate their creator's artistic vision.

With the exception of the elderly Louisiana folk artist Anna Williams, all the artists represented in this exhibition are academically trained, and many hold advanced degrees in fine art. Most of the artists combine elements of studio crafts and fine art-especially painting, printmaking, and advanced dye techniques-with traditional quiltmaking techniques such as piecework, applique, and hand or machine quilt stitching. They choose to work with quilts because they find expressive possibilities within the medium that paint, clay, or other more conventional (and accepted) media alone simply do not offer. Many, including Pauline Burbidge, Joan Lintault, Therese May, Gayle Fraas, and Duncan Slade, are full-time studio artists, while others such as Lou Cabeen, Michael James, Kyoung Ae Cho, and Arturo Alonzo Sandoval combine teaching in university art or textile departments with studio work to earn their livings.

John M. Walsh III has been an important force in the world of the art quilt since he began collecting contemporary work almost a decade ago. Like many Americans, Walsh's relationship with quilts began in childhood-his grandmother was a quilter, and he has fond memories of sleeping under family quilts as a boy. Quilts were familiar, comforting, filled with pleasant familial associations, pleasing to look at, but they were not something he ever considered as art. Then, while traveling in England in 1990, Walsh happened to see the well known studio quilter and teacher Michael James on a British television show, and as he recalls, "His work had such an emotional impact on me, I thought, 'I've got to get involved in this.'"

Walsh surrounds himself with his collection, which he rotates through his home and offices. Like most serious collectors, he loves to share his passion with others and has generously loaned works to many museums and quilt exhibitions over the years. No one appreciates his generosity more than the artists whose work he has championed. Joan Lintault comments:

Jack's collection focuses attention on the fact that quilt making and specifically fibers in general deserve serious critical and artistic attention. Fibers and quilt making are considered generally as female art. This is another aspect of the discrimination [against textile art]. In a deeper consciousness, fabric and cloth, so essential to human history, never really developed into the main stream in the West until the 20th century. Jack's passion for his collection is the reason that art quilts will receive respect by the artistic community.

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© 2011 Robert Shaw