Framing art quilts: free versus fine finish

by Elizabeth Van Shaick

To frame, or not to frame -- that is the question. Art quilt makers who are ready to display and/or sell their artwork will confront the important issue of final presentation. The previous article in this series outlined specific methods for mounting small art quilts. Here the discussion moves on to the topic of whether or not art quilts should be framed, and if so, how. Developing artists in particular may feel significant anxiety about this decision; no absolute rule can tell artists whether to frame. However, reviewing certain benefits and drawbacks allows us at the very least to make that final choice a purposeful one, that is, one based on aesthetics and professional matters.

There are compelling reasons to display art quilts without frames in certain situations. Of course for larger pieces, framing a piece with glass may be cost prohibitive, and it also will be impractical if the artist will need to ship it. In the case of medium-small to very small art quilts, the artistic priorities and values behind the project and the final location the artist imagines the piece will inhabit should guide the decision. For example, small or medium size art quilts that are created in certain forms such as prayer flags, mandalas, healing talismans, or other items related to meditation or sacred practice will not seem to have as much energy if framed.

When the art pieces are intended to hang in specific locations – think of very private comfortable spaces (such as bedrooms), or relaxing areas -- leaving out the frames may be the most effective presentation. Many fiber artists feel it is more consistent with their aesthetic and with the historic legacy of fabric and thread work to display their quilts as they are. They prefer to try to advocate for the fine art world to include and respect fiber/textile craft in its own form, rather than place an art quilt into seemingly artificial boundaries or conventions.

Lenore Crawford comments, “I would never put glass or plastic over a piece. It completely takes away from the warmth and non-reflective quality of the fabric.” One cannot predict what the exact lighting and layout conditions will be in a gallery or exhibition space, and reflections and shadows that interfere with seeing the art are distracting. Glass or plexiglass in a frame does create a physical divide separating the art piece from the viewer, so if intimacy, tactile aspects or movement are important to the artist’s aims, or if there is extremely small detail in the quilt, not using a frame or not including the glass may be the better choice.
Wendy Lugg tells the story of her relationship to framing and articulates the dilemma well:

I have always quite deliberately avoided matting or framing my wall quilts, even the small ones. Being stubborn, I decided to educate people to accept these works and their method of display, rather than pretend they were something different. I have several colleagues who have for years framed their artwork under glass and avoided the use of the words ‘quilt’ or ‘textile’ (and who have sold very successfully!), in a deliberate ploy to have their artwork be seen as acceptable and purchasable ‘art’. It has worked well for them, but I’ve always avoided taking that path, because it seemed to do so would somehow be selling out, compromising my long held ideals.

However, she explains, her perspective shifted:

I was jolted out of my smug superior attitude recently by a colleague who works in a slightly different textile field. Her encouragement to consider framing several new pieces I was preparing for an upcoming show made me pause and catch my breath. It dawned on me that my intransigence on this issue was leading me astray, making me blind to what was, at least in this instance, aesthetically the best way to present the artwork. A little gnome in my head had been mouthing the same words for some time, but I had been stubbornly refusing to give it voice.

I was exhibiting the quilts alongside framed digital photographic prints. Both the quilts and prints were simple graphic images, which spoke directly to each other. The 7x10 inch prints were professionally framed, with off-white mats and simple black frames that increased their finished size to 16x20 inches. The 16-inch square quilts looked fine by themselves, and in different circumstances I might not have chosen to frame them. However, alongside the framed prints they lost some of their impact. I made the decision to try various framing methods for the quilts, and was very happy with the final result.

What did she finally settle on to accent but not overwhelm the quilt pieces? A smart compromise:

I chose black 20-inch square frames, with narrow fronts but deep sides. After some experimentation, I found the best solution was to put the off-white mat against the backing board and to float the quilt in front of it, bringing the quilt surface forward almost to the same level as the front of the frame. I tried but rejected the use of glass, because aesthetically it diminished the artwork. I was surprised how happy I was with the result….So I happily ate humble pie. Will I frame my small quilts in future? Not always, but yes, absolutely, when it is the best aesthetic choice, as it was in this instance.As Lugg’s journey shows, it is advantageous to do some experimenting with individual quilts and frames.

When does an artist need to frame an art quilt, or what are the best reasons to frame? Of course if one is planning to hang work in a particular gallery or quilt exhibition, it is crucial to check the stated specifications or rules for the space or event. If the requirements are not explicit, it is wise to inquire, because knowing the format that is being asked for may affect the construction of the quilt itself and its final presentation, or the decision to enter at all. Gallerists who usually present traditional two-dimensional work may require art quilt makers to conform. This is not necessarily a bad thing. As British artist Margaret Cooter puts it, “Having the textile artwork ‘framed’ means that people used to paintings immediately know what to do about hanging it...Also the framing makes the show organizers less wary of a ‘strange’ art form.”

On an aesthetic level, it might be easy for small art quilts, for example, trading card size up to journal size, or ten inches square, to get lost in a display venue if they are unframed; when framed, they take on a more noticeable physical presence, and may tap into a greater sense of respect from viewers, potential buyers and curators. Dena Crain lives and creates art in Kenya, Africa, and she mentions, “The little ones do need that extra punch given by a frame, unless you have a setting where you can hang half a dozen of them together as a collection…People here do relate to anything in a frame as being a work of art…The standard idea of ART is landscape, big game, or tribal portraits. Anything else is simply passed over as inconsequential and largely irrelevant.” On a practical level, frames do offer significant protection – from dirt, dust, damage and theft. Where Dena Crain lives – Kenya -- plastic wrap or frames keep her pieces clean. Framing is often indispensable in situations where the artwork will be marketed in an open area or where a piece will hang in a public area or an office where a lot of people circulate close to it.

One excellent tangible benefit of framing is that the same piece in a frame can command a significantly higher price, well beyond the value of the frame itself. This is mostly because of the projection of the artist’s own respect and care for the piece, and the buyer’s perception of it as finished, hangable art worthy of notice. For example, a loose trading card or postcard size art quilt might sell in the range of thirty to one hundred dollars, depending on the reputation of the artist. The same size works, framed, could bring two or three times that amount. (The third article in this series will address the pricing question.) The proper framing job can boost the beginner artist’s presence.

Creating the frame itself offers additional possibilities for juxtaposing colors, textures and motifs. Artists can look at a frame with or without glass as an additional opportunity to realize the creative life of the quilt. Depending on the type and shape, the frame could be treated with paint, fabric and/or objects or embellishments to enhance the image. Some artists who work with vintage images or materials have extended their theme by framing their pieces on or inside vintage frames or antique or salvaged objects such as shutters.

Making very small versions of larger quilts or motifs and framing them may give an artist a whole new way to look at their visual language and work out concepts. When choosing to frame an art quilt, it is best not to simply fall back on the most neutral frame or the one that matches your own decorating taste. We don’t have to get seduced into expensive professional frames, either. Rather, first consider carefully whether a standard, shadowbox or customized frame best supports the message of the piece. High end frames can certainly add elegance as well as importance to the presentation, but think about being open to the ‘least expensive ready-made frame that still makes the quilt look better than it would otherwise,’ as Dena Crain puts it, as this will limit expenses. If a standard style flat frame is your choice, note that the close contact of the layers of glass, matting and backing may be a problem for an art quilt, which could be between one eighth and three quarters of an inch in thickness. Choose a frame that allows for the thickness or insert tiny spacers into the very corners of the frame to separate the glass from the surface of the quilt. Creating this space, doing the work in dry conditions and sealing the back of the frame well will prevent moisture problems that might damage the front of the quilt. The quilt can be placed behind the opening of a mat, or mounted to the front of a mat. As described in the previous article, the quilt can be mounted by stitching or Velcro, and can be floated off the back surface by placing a cutout of felt or foam core behind it.

Shadowbox frames provide some flexibility that flat ones don’t. A shallow frame that is two to three inches larger than the art piece on each side will allow room for an attractive mounting, and a signature on the mat. But a deeper box may allow for more unusual suspending techniques and viewing perspectives. The more unconventional frames with hinged fronts, small cabinets and nichos are another option. I made a set of four small quilts based on photographs of scenes in Philadelphia and New York City, and I mounted them directly on plywood, cork and textured metal backgrounds and framed them in simple square black frames. To get the benefit of the frame but avoid difficulties with glass, backing and securing hardware, one can simply omit those layers and fasten the finished quilt to the inside or back of the frame edges with thread, yarn, or monofilament. The size of the frame or the space between the frame and the quilt edge will determine how “suspended” the quilt appears.

For more instructions on specific framing techniques, see “Picture It Framed” by Lyric Kinard in the February/March 2008 issue of Quilting Arts Magazine.

Many standard and unusual frames are available from:
Michaels art and craft
Joann’s Fabric and Crafts
A.C. Moore

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