Derivative Art Quilts

We've All Been Guilty at One Time or Another

SAQA asked gallery owners, fiber and art magazine editors, museum curators, jurors, and well-known quilt artists for their thoughts on derivative artwork: what it is, how to recognize it in your own artwork, and why it shouldn’t be entered in competitions.

How do you define derivative artwork?

Derivative artwork contains imagery or represents forms that are a direct copy of a well-known established artist. It happens in all areas of the arts. Its source can be difficult to establish. Sometimes an artist can subconsciously copy and not be aware of what they are doing. It is also possible that two artists can independently come up with similar work and not know of each other’s activity. Most concerning are those who intentionally copy because they know it will sell or think it will give them status. Unfortunately there is an increasing amount of conscious copying. It is the responsibility of qualified people, museum curators, magazine editors, and organizations including craft fairs, galleries, and publications to exclude derivative work. - Paul J. Smith, Director Emeritus, American Craft Museum

[Derivative] artwork looks similar to that of other artists that the artist is familiar with. This often happens when a maker has learned a technique from another artist in a workshop and hasn’t yet fully integrated the technique into his or her own voice. - Sunita Patterson, Editor of Fiberarts

Art strongly enough influenced by someone else’s art that it is noticeable by a viewer very familiar with the influential artist’s art. A natural part of artistic growth is consciously or unconsciously patterning one’s own artwork on that of others. After this period of ‘trying on’ the styles of other artists, a mature artist usually develops their own style. - Penny McMorris, former SAQA Board member

Let’s first throw away the philosophical arguments about the extremes: 1) That everything is derivative because there is nothing new under the sun and everyone has been influenced by everyone else since the beginning of time, and 2) That nothing is derivative because anything anyone creates is by definition original because it has been filtered through the individual and will always be slightly different than another work, even if only by three molecules. OK. What is under discussion here is the all-too-frequent occurrence of Artist A’s artwork so clearly resembling another’s that someone asks, “Is that a piece by Artist B?” Or when it is obvious that Artist A has taken a workshop with Artist B. - Sally Sellers, artist and juror

How can an artist recognize when he of she has created derivative?

It’s often hard for an artist to recognize when the artwork that they make is strongly influenced by someone else’s artwork. Perhaps they’re too close to their own artwork to see it. Perhaps it takes fresh eyes to notice it. - Penny McMorris

Ask others whose artwork they think it is without saying it is yours, to see if others DO notice the similarities. Be honest with yourself and assess what you have created one part at a time as to color, shape, line, overall appearance, etc. Is it too similar? There is a huge difference between copying, and having someone’s artwork inspire and influence you. Coming up with your own original ideas is quite different than just copying. – Carol Taylor, artist and juror

One giveaway is if you have to consciously ask yourself if your artwork is too similar to someone else’s. If this question is already in your mind, then chances are the answer is “Yes.” If you find yourself protesting that your artwork is really quite different from Artist X, then chances are the answer is “Yes.” If others consistently remark that your artwork is ‘similar to,’ ‘influenced by,’ or ‘reminds them of’ the artwork of Artist X, chances are the answer is “Yes.” - Sally Sellers

Why does it seem to be so prevalent in the art quilt world?

Most quilters have the roots in the world of sewing first, a world that is filled with patterns that need to be followed. Traditional quilts are also based on established ideas of pattern and construction and repeating these ideas means copying someone else’s artwork. Quilt making and sewing have deep roots in the world of traditional craft…not in the imperative that art is about giving expression to your own unique voice. Both the traditional and the art quilt world are filled to capacity with workshops that encourage the mastery of new techniques. Unfortunately, many of the artists who teach are victims of their own success, insofar as students frequently try to emulate their work. They go home and copy the content as well as the technique of the instructor. - Rick Gottas, former SAQA Board member and American Art Company Gallery Director

The art quilt world is insular and needs to look beyond itself. Because there are not enough collectors yet, necessity has been the mother of invention and many artists have been forced to support their studio time by offering workshops, patterns, how-to books, and lines of fabric. As Michael James said years ago, “I think we have created a monster.” When I gave the keynote at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum symposium in June, I ended by repeating Penny McMorris’ advice, “Stop looking at quilts.” In other words stop looking at each other’s artwork and do things that expand your horizons and/or sharpen your skills—go to a museum, look at paintings and other types of art, take an art history class, a drawing class, a ceramics class. I also take the long view that there have always been quilts that are works of art and that quilt artists should educate themselves about the history of quilt making and look hard at great antiques, which are the real competition they should measure their artwork against. And finally, remember that art is much more about dedication and hard work than it is about inspiration. Great artwork comes out of the totality of one’s life, skills, and experiences, which prepare one to use the experiences and memories that are sometimes called inspiration in an original way. - Bob Shaw, juror

Art quilters seem to take classes taught by other art quilters. Why? I can only think that they have come to art quilting through the guilds or quilting groups which many times are valuable social groups or service groups first. People become inspired by what is going on in the art quilt world, want to do more, and so take classes. Beware of classes that use patterns or have a planned fool-proof end result; the teachers’ voice will be apparent. A good teacher should steer one’s students to their own sources of creativity and show them the way to find their own voice. I wholeheartedly suggest that students take courses in creativity, textiles, design and composition, color, drawing, painting, and art history. - Linda MacDonald, former SAQA Board member, artist, and juror

This happens in the art quilt world because of the tradition of sharing quilt patterns, and many quilt artists come from a sewing background where it is considered OK to copy. Those with an art school background have been taught that originality is something to cultivate. Another tradition we quilters have begun is that of challenge quilts, where groups of artists all start with the same idea or same fabric and see what they all create out of it. The quilts that result are often similar. I think that fabric, fabric stores, quilt classes, ideas and patterns, and all of the wonderful tools we have all contribute to the ‘derivative’ quilt. Quilters and quilt artists are very community and fun oriented—this adds to it. All of these things are wonderful, but original artists need lots of alone time to devote to a deeper individual creativity. - Therese May, artist

Why is it not appropriate to submit quilts that are similar to other artists’ styles to juried art quilt exhibitions?

It is OK to explore another artists’ style in your studio as a development process or as a lark, but to submit work as if it were ‘original’ or as your own is unfair to the original artist and highly unethical. I have also seen quilters in major exhibits that appear to have expropriated complete visual styles from other living artists. The question becomes whether or not they have done so consciously. I have known artists whose paintings have looked nearly identical to those of established masters – a complete turn off to me as a dealer. When I asked them if they were familiar with the artist in question, they insisted they had never seen artwork by these artists. I sent them to the library to understand what I was saying, and they were genuinely stunned by what they found. These are the rare exceptions. In most cases, artists simply lift the ideas, composition, or style from another artist (established or not) and take credit as if it were their own original artwork with no reference to their source. In the art world there are thousands of talented painters and sculptors etc. who have complete mastery of their technique, but there are very few of this group that are artists in the true sense of the word. Very few are able to infuse their artwork with a magical expression that separates them from craftsman. - Rick Gottas

It’s not productive. The jury will recognize the familiarity –they’ve seen that style before, but it does not have the power they would expect to see if it were the artwork of the style originator. I know that what thrills me when I am jurying a show is seeing something with a fresh newness that I have never seen before. These are works that you know have been done by someone who has really developed their own voice. I was completely struck with Susan Shie’s artwork the first time she submitted to Quilt National. Obviously the raw creativity of Shie’s artwork hit the other two jurors the same way, for she got into the show with her first entry and won Best of Show. I am also thrilled when I see really solid work by an artist I’m familiar with, but who continues to grow, such as Joan Schulze and Michael James, to use only two examples. Many of the fresh artwork I see comes from new entrants who have not been taking classes from other quilt makers, but have been making their quilts more or less in isolation from the quilt world. - Penny McMorris

In the end, this is not YOUR artwork. - Sally Sellers

It is not fair to the other artist who has spent many years developing an idea. - Therese May

What about recreating artwork by non-quilters?

Copyright issues can come into play here--unless the artwork is in the public domain, the quilter needs to obtain permission from the copyright holder in order to use the image. For the artwork to be exhibited in an art context, it seems to me that there should be a conceptual or novel aspect to the recreated artwork. – Sunita Patterson

A few years ago there was a self-conscious trend in painting toward the appropriation of other artists’ artwork. This was a conceptual ploy with which artists were raising questions about the economics of originality. This may have arguable merit, but here the originality lay in the idea, not in the visual appearance of the artwork. - Patricia Malarcher, Surface Design Journal Editor, artist, and juror

I don’t think there is anything wrong with this as a subject. It’s what you do with it that counts. Two quilters could recreate Van Gogh’s Sunflowers: one could show great technical skill and make a beautiful work that was a pleasing illustration. Another quilt artist could create a unique work that went way beyond mere replication. For example, I could see Sue Benner doing something amazing based on the Van Gogh painting. I would imagine that Sue would start with the image of the painting in her head, and then take off from there creating a work that was an homage, but not a copy - using colors, patterns, and shapes that were merely suggested to her by the painting, but creating a strikingly new design.- Penny McMorris

Generally, I don’t think it’s a great idea, I would encourage people to be aware they are taking enormous risks by recreating or paying homage because their work will be compared, almost always unfavorably, with its source. T. S, Eliot said, “Good poets borrow and great poets steal,” which is absolutely true. Shakespeare was a world-class thief of plots, characters, common expressions, etc. BUT there is a reason we remember Shakespeare and not the people he stole from and that is because he, like any great artist, transformed the material he got from outside sources and made it his own. His touch is unmistakable and while his sources can often be traced, he is very hard to imitate successfully. That’s the mark of a true artist and what I think Eliot meant, that a great artist overwhelms and obliterates his sources through the power of his art. – Bob Shaw

I have looked to Matisse for color combination ideas, to Van Gogh and his brush strokes as quilting lines, and in fact have used images by Picasso’s “The Dreamer” in my quilt “Poppies for Pablo.” That art is part of the public domain. It is impossible not to be influenced by it, and I see a clear distinction between that source of inspiration and copying with little to no variation a quilt artist’s technique like Libby Lehman or Jane Sassaman. Pat Kroth creates quilts that clearly are inspired by Jackson Pollock but she has made it her own with her technique and medium. - Deborah Schwartzman, artist and AQATS director

Is there anything else you’d like to add on the subject?

Developing your own voice is a very hard thing to do and can take years of hard work. Quilt artists should believe in themselves, shut out the outside world, and go into their studios and create art. With all of the quilt books, magazines, guilds, shows, web sites, and mail lists, this makes the process of shutting out the outside voices all but impossible for most who value the society of other quilt makers. Make something, and then ask yourself, “What do I think?” Then, based on what you think, make something else, and ask again. Put old artwork away, get it out later, and look at it again. What do you think now? Perhaps your voice will tell you that your drawing is not very good, and you should take a drawing class from a drawing teacher. Perhaps it will suggest, “What if I do this?” By continually questioning what you actually think, you will eventually develop your own voice. - Penny McMorris

The quilt world needs to worry less about the followers and concentrate on the leaders. Cream will always rise to the top. - Rebecca Stevens, Consulting Curator

Honesty will lead one to create original work. What truly interests you as an artist? What is your inspiration? If you know the answers to these questions and they don’t lead you to other artists but to original experience then you can be sure you are making your own artwork. The delivery of the artwork, the medium, and the style are other matters. - Linda MacDonald

Why rob the world of your unique vision? Why waste your creative energy trying to look like someone else? Take the time to make the piece yours. There is no law that says you have to kick out a piece every two weeks or every two months. What is important is that it is YOUR piece, important to the world, and important to you. - Sally Sellers

SAQA Journal Fall 2005