Beyond Comfort Juror's and Curator's Essays
The concept of comfort has many potent and subjective meanings. Universally, it represents a state of mind in which familiar objects and actions foster feelings of well-being and control. Another interpretation brings to mind the warmth and intimacy of a cherished comforter that never fails to hold us close in dreamy slumber. From a more introspective and self-critical point of view, a comfort zone is formed by establishing personal and psychological boundaries, “sweet spots” where we can relax, avoid conflict, and play to our strengths.
The goal of the exhibition Beyond Comfort was to challenge participating artists to venture beyond the comfort zones of their established body of work into uncharted territories of creative expression. This premise provided a permission slip to experiment fearlessly with radical new conceptual and narrative agendas. Artists were encouraged to employ techniques, technologies, and materials new to them. Over two hundred daring pieces were submitted for consideration by artists from around the world working in the studio art quilt field. I was honored and delighted to have the daunting task of narrowing this selection to thirty works.
During the jurying process, I remembered an interesting fact shared by a friend who trains marine animals. When offered the choice of a large pool of water or a smaller one, dolphins will always choose the more confining space. I was surprised, certain that their strength and curiosity would drive dolphins to explore new depths. “The choice has nothing to do with freedom,” my friend explained. “It's all about safety—and comfort.”
Like a piece of driftwood, this conversation seems to resurface whenever I contemplate taking on a new project. Whether it's making a large-scale fiber art installation, curating a group exhibition, or taking on the role of editor for Fiberarts magazine, I often accomplish more than seems possible by setting high water marks before I jump in. It's in this spirit of adventure and fearlessness that I selected the contemporary art quilts in this exhibit. By definition, each chosen artist admirably meets the criteria of going beyond comfort to pursue a new vision.
The drive to both learn and share more deeply is evident throughout the entire selection. Artists worked with many techniques new to their studio practice, exploring the potential of felting, screenprinting, dyeing, resist, devoré, heat fusion, and digital printing on textiles. Many pieces challenge the traditional quilt structure with the use of unusual fiber materials such as LED lights and circuitry, found objects, repurposed fabrics, precious metals, and recycled materials. As an example, shimmering shards of broken CDs accent the picturesque bird's eye view of a bucolic summer afternoon in Blue Park by Marialuisa Sponga.
Several artists chose to shift gears conceptually after years of focusing on a specific genre. Suzanne Mouton Riggio tackles abstraction for the first time with enthusiasm and wit in On the Sunny Side of the Room, a diminutive piece that sits far afield from her usual realist interpretations. Simplicity can be a brave stand for any artist to make, especially in a field where complexity is often prized. The bold single circle motif seen in Linda McLaughlin's elegantly executed Monoprint stands apart from the group with its calm confidence and stark clarity of intention.
Embracing the studio art quilt medium as a form of political protest, Karen Tunnell's Gulf Turbulence overflows with mesmerizing surface details and swirling color interactions. The piece presents a striking comment on the man-made oil spill disaster of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico. The impact of war on the families of deployed soldiers is poignantly portrayed in Kristin La Flamme's triptych of memoir aprons, all embellished with nostalgic imagery and confessional journal entries.
My favorite “aha!” moment came upon seeing Hidden Shame by Mirjam Pet-Jacobs, a brave and radical departure from her previous works that feature idyllic colorfields and abstract figures. By repurposing an old Double Wedding Ring pattern quilt, she distorts the traditional meaning of this form with ripped surfaces, alarming text, and visceral drips of red paint—all arranged like a stop sign urging battered wives to speak out. Emotionally charged and vulnerable, this piece wholeheartedly embraces the spirit of the exhibition to fearlessly pursue new directions in artistic inquiry.
In my editorial work with Fiberarts, I search constantly for thought-provoking and exceptional works that expand the definition of fiber and push the field forward. It was a boon to be involved with a project that supports this mission so sincerely, encouraging the creation of contemporary art and actively promoting it with a color catalog and exhibitions at national and international venues. My deepest gratitude goes out to SAQA and to curator Eileen Doughty for the privilege of being the juror for Beyond Comfort. To the artists who participated and the appreciative viewers who will see this inspirational work in print and in person, I hope you will continue to go beyond comfort in all of your creative endeavors.
Marci Rae McDade
This is an exciting time to be a quilt artist. Rules are dropping away and boundaries are expanding. Materials are as likely to be found at the hardware store as the fabric shop. Computer-generated images are now mainstream in this genre that began with the humble tradition of hand-stitching. Quilt art's focus is shifting away from the technique used. The artist's primary objective is now the physical representation of an idea.
In Beyond Comfort, SAQA encouraged its members to create radical art – art that departed from their own body of work. The theme called for fresh, adventurous work; work that may have been rejected from other exhibitions because it was so radical that it could not have fit into a "cohesive" exhibition. In Beyond Comfort, radicalism provides its own cohesion.
I was delighted to curate this exhibition, working with the juror, talented artists, and dedicated staff to show the world the exciting art SAQA members are creating. Marci Rae McDade was the perfect juror for Beyond Comfort, bringing to the task her extensive knowledge of the fiber art world and her delight in seeing the risk-taking work. Her commitment to creating an outstanding exhibition is evident.
It is my hope the theme of Beyond Comfort continues to influence the choices quilt artists make, inspiring courageous art.