Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Quilts: Joan Schulze


“Quilts: Joan Schulze”
Festival of Quilts, National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, England
August 18-21, 2005

“I’ve always thought in layers,” explains Joan Schulze. “I want to honor that we are getting older, but while the underlying construct is about decay, structure is still there.” For many viewers attending the Festival of Quilts, Schulze’s work came as quite a shock. On one level, at least, this is understandable. Joan Schulze is not a conventional quilter. Traditionally, quilting is about relationships between pieces of fabric and their patterns, textures and colors. For Schulze, fabric acts as a surface upon which a collage of photo-transfers, washes and painterly mark making are suspended. “If I use purchased fabric, I change it” she confirms. But underpinning an incredible looseness of imagery and freedom of mark making in this work is considerable precision and skill. In total, thirty-four quilts were on display, the earliest, a giant diptych “The Marriage: Man and Woman” was completed in 1985 while the most recent, “Rain”, bears the dates 2003-2005.

A quilt completed over the span of several years is not uncommon in this body of work. In the artist’s eyes everything is a work-in-progress or what Polly Leonard in her catalogue essay refers to as artistry borne out of a “philosophy of improvisation”. As long as she still owns them, none are too precious to escape reworking. For example, displayed side by side in this exhibition are “Beijing: The Summer Palace” (2000) and “The Cloisters” (2001). The pairing is a test of viewers’ powers of observation. The original edge of “The Cloisters” now belongs to “Beijing”, a change that gives the former a sharply cropped focus, which draws attention to the more subtle rhythms of the interior. The latter gains containment and contrast with its new border.

Schulze notes that the inclusion of text in textiles is “au courant” but explains that the relationship she has built between the two extends back far before the popularity it is experiencing today. “I want to annoy people,” she explains of her use of text “and force them to look again.” Reading quilts in this way offers a similar complexity to that embraced by the postmodern novel: nonlinear, open-ended; challenging rather than coddling the reader to come to terms with the content. Schulze acknowledges that “saying something simply” has long captured her poetic imagination. It is interesting to note that in more recent work her textile palette seems to be experiencing a similar shift in vocabulary. In particular the contemplative restrain found in works such as “Coast Ranch” (2003), “Figures in a Dream” (2003) and “Late Rain”(2003-2005) depart from the urgent cacophony of well-known earlier works such as “Step Lightly” (2001).

While some viewers at this event seemed to find the absence of traditional quilting materials and structures disconcerting, I suspect that others may have struggled with Schulze choice of media-derived images. But Schulze undoubtedly has a lesson to teach every aspiring quilt maker. In an event that displayed too many examples of poorly crafted work claiming conceptual intent, Schulze voice is audible precisely because of her skillful command of her materials. Even when material such as paper, which inevitably discolors and becomes brittle with time, is included it is secured within a structure that contains – without ever concealing – its fragility.

Schulze presented two lectures at the event, the first revisited a lecture penned over a decade earlier on the future of quilts and the second, “The Accidental Quilt”, documented the twists and turns of the creative process. The two lectures captured just a portion of the breadth with which Schulze engages with the world of quilting, from a historical and cultural analysis of the object to the minutia of an entirely unexpected creative journey triggered by unseasonably wet weather in California in early 2005. In response to a question from the audience about how we continue to make quilts relevant in a society that, on the whole, finds them increasingly irrelevant, Schulze placed responsibility squarely with quilt makers themselves. “It is not enough to only enter quilt shows, we must also exhibit in other galleries.” She admitted that the journey would not be a smooth one, the chance of rejection high. But, for Joan Schulze at least, one senses that obstacles have never been seen as deterrents.

Surface Design Journal (spring 2006: 54-55)