Balancing Act - Juror's Essay 

I am a costume and textile historian who studies women’s history to provide context for the clothes that women wore and the quilts and other needlework that they made. I feel a particular connection to this year’s SAQA exhibition, Balancing Act. Women’s letters and diaries of generations past speak to the sometimes overwhelming number of responsibilities that they managed, and of society’s expectations. Like women today who have been told that they can “have it all,” women in the past found that the reality of having it all (as determined by the period’s values) required compromise, balancing priorities, and self-determination.

The art quilts submitted for this exhibition communicate the work and skills of women—today and in the past, in America and elsewhere in the world—that are required to balance all of the conflicting priorities in life. The artists speak of family members and national and historical figures, of women as wives, mothers, workers, friends, community members, athletes, and artists. They address issues of age and health, and of balancing society’s expectations versus their own.
As the issues and challenges today’s women face in balancing their lives are both shared and different from those of our foremothers, the materials and techniques used by today’s art quilters are also both the same and different from quilts in the past. Batik and other resist methods of patterning fabric have been used commercially for centuries, but today’s quilt artists create their own fabrics using these ancient techniques rather than relying on whatever is available in the marketplace.

Taking another example, women have incorporated photographs on fabric into their quilts since at least the late nineteenth century. Enlarging and printing a photograph onto fabric and machine-embroidering over the image with hundreds of thread colors to recreate the image, however, is more akin to the technique of photo-realism, in which an artist will paint over a projected image, than to the Victorian practice of piecing a cyanotype into a silk crazy quilt. Computer-aided design is a technique that quilters of earlier periods never could have imagined. Indeed, the range of materials and techniques employed by the artists in this competition demonstrate how the craft of quilting has developed into the most versatile and expressive fiber art.

The art and design of the submitted quilts ranged from representational to abstract expressionist, from monochromatic to wildly colorful, and from serious to humorous. In jurying this exhibition, I also kept balance in mind, both in creating a fair overall representation of artistic styles and respective messages, and in weighing the pertinence of the artists’ written statements against the eloquence of their quilted art. Of course, the success of the design and mastery of the artistic technique were the ultimate factors in determining those quilts that would tour and be published. While women of the past would recognize many of the issues represented by these quilts, surely they would be amazed—and, we can hope, pleased—by the progress many women have made in the modern world and the progress quilts have made in the world of contemporary art.

—Lynne Zacek Bassett

Lynne Zacek Bassett is an independent scholar specializing in New England’s historic costume and textiles. She is the author of Homefront & Battlefield: Civil War Quilts in Context and Massachusetts Quilts: Our Common Wealth. Lynne is also the editor of Uncoverings, the annual journal of the American Quilt Study Group.