Saturday, August 18, 2007

Feminists and Quilts: Note to Ms. Greer

I owe a great deal to the feminist movement which, forty years ago, pushed the boundaries of defining what it is to be a woman. Still, I've never called myself a feminist in large part because I had no wish to identify myself with the women icons of that movement who struck me as strident, angry and bitter and, in many ways, appeared not to have a clue about what it meant to be a woman.

Freedom is far more than being able to work, or being independent and having a life (or a room) of one's own. It's about having a choice about how to live one's life and having that choice, whatever it may be, honored and respected. Sadly, those who chose to be housewives and mothers were viewed as refusing to join the Great Cause and as being cowardly, oppressed or in need of re-education, or, if it was done as a real choice as it was for me, a university educated woman in her 20's who could be or do anything she wished, as being a traitor.

Now comes an article in the UK Guardian by Germaine Greer,author of The Female Eunuch , considered one of the classic feminist manifestos.

Writing about quilts in a commentary entitled "Making pictures from strips of cloth isn't art at all - but it mocks art's pretentions to the core", she writes

What could be the point of such an exercise in futility? The work of art is supposed to defy time but fabric is bound to fade and rot, even when it is kept in between layers of tissue paper and shut away from sight. There's nothing new in this kind of heroic pointlessness; women have frittered their lives away stitching things for which there is no demand ever since vicarious leisure was invented.

Sigh. Where do I start? If it's true that "the work of art is supposed to defy time" then what do you call art that has defied time but was never designed with that in mind and did so only by chance, such as the prehistoric paintings on cave walls in France and Poland or the graffiti and murals on the walls of Pompeii? Do you realize that canvas is made of fabric and fades and rots too? Do you truly believe that time spent creating something beautiful and unique is just time frittered away? Ah, my dear, dear Ms. Greer, after all these years you still do not understand.

The quilts you are writing about, those which are pictures made of bits of fabric and which you describe as having pretensions of being art, really are art. They are just not "Art". You know, Art with a capital "A". Art as defined by men. You ask: "Why didn't she just paint them?" Did you ever think that perhaps women didn't have access to paints and canvas, but did have access to fabrics? You might have inferred that when you wrote about the artist, yes! the artist, Edrica Huws :

Five children later, and living in rural Anglesey with neither electricity nor running water, she turned her hand to poetry and began collecting fabrics for her patchwork. She was 51 when she began her first patchwork picture of a greenhouse. It took her a year.

Edrica Huws was trained at the Chelsea School of Art and at The Royal College of Art where she worked under a professor who was a specialist in murals and after graduation her works were shown in several London Galleries. But marriage, a war, children, and a move to North Wales changed the circumstances of her life and she never painted with paints again but instead used fabrics. Did the change in mediums make her any less an artist?

Do you understand, Ms. Greer, the intense need to create something, and doing the best you can with the materials at hand? Edrica Huws was a trained artist but not all quilters who make fabric pictures are. (See my comment on outsider art.)

Can you see the difference between paint, which is stiff, hard, cold and monotone and fabric, which is soft, warm, with prints that can represent so much more with variations of color, scale, and design?

And then there is the fabric itself. Fabric is tactile, it connects us to generations of women before us (especially for those of us fortunate enough to inherit the rag bags of great aunts or grandmothers so that just seeing the fabric remnants bring back memories), and it brings comfort, both physical and emotional.

I did note, Ms. Greer, that you differentiated between "art quilts" and patchwork quilts, writing

There was a time when women made patchworks together, in quilting bees, and chatted as they worked. The materials were worn-out clothing and aprons; the pattern was a variant on a stock pattern, learned from the older women and modified to fit the circumstances. Such quilts are dignified, dense and often very beautiful objects. They have no pretensions to being works of art....

Oh really? Please take a look at these quilts , then, made by the women in Gee's Bend in just the way you describe in your quote,and tell me they are not Art!

You may be surprised to learn that many of us still make patchwork quilts, although most of us use new fabric and work by ourselves. You may also be interested to learn that patterns were and still being constantly modified, have different names in different parts of the country and the world, and that women often add their own touches by using unusual fabrics, modifying the pattern, changing the size, or choosing a different setting .

Some of us have worked on quilts to help us through grieving and through hard times. A quilter from the 1800's who homesteaded in the prairies and made quilts to help her family survive the brutal winters in a soddy house wrote in her diary:

I made quilts as fast as I could to keep my family from freezing and as beautiful as I could to keep my heart from breaking.

Baltimore Album quilts, African-American quilts, Hmong quilts, Hawaiian quilts, Seminole pieced quilts, Molas, and the simplest, most homely nine-patch pieced quilts are just as much Art and, perhaps more so, then are canvases splattered with paint.

Ms. Greer writes:

You could end up profoundly depressed by yet more evidence that, for centuries, women have been kept busy wasting their time.

I am profoundly depressed that after all these decades,Ms. Greer, you still have an oh so very limited understanding of what is valuable and important to women.

P.S. And I'm not the only woman who believes Ms. Greer hasn't got a clue. See here and here .

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