Contemporary Quilt Makers Who Paint With Fabric

contemporary quilt

We do not know exactly when and where quilting originated but there is no doubt that it was used as a garment, decoration, and furnishing in many parts of the world many ages ago.  From the carved ivory figure of a Pharaoh of the Egyptian First Dynasty to a quilted floor covering in Mongolia and quilted garments of the European knights- quilt making is an art that has been passed on for many generations.

contemporary quilt
Armenian Women Quilting circa 1915

In the United States of America, the first reference to quilts goes back to the 17th century and the earliest surviving American quilt is the Saltonstall quilt that dates back to 1704. Quilt making flourished in the 1800s as European colonists came to the country finding a home in the Great Plains, where quilts were sewn for bed, door and window covers, floor mats, and sometimes used as currency. The Quilting Bee later started in the area where women gathered together to socialize and work on quilt tops. Similar activities were also happening in other parts of the world and the tradition of quilt making continued.

contemporary quilt

The Pioneering Jean Ray Laury

In the mid-1950s, a handful of pioneering artists started experimenting with modern designs for contemporary quilt making. One of the most notable is Jean Ray Laury, an academically trained artist, and designer, who created new designs based on her own experiences, environs, and thoughts. Considered as the mother of the art quilt, Laury created a full-sized quilt in 1956 for her master's of art degree project at Stanford University. It received rave reviews at the State Exposition in 1958 where it was hailed as a fresh and innovative approach to quilt making. Through the 1960s, her work was published by Women’s Day, Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle magazines, and she was commissioned to create quilts for banks and offices. She later exhibited at the M.H. DeYoung Museum, the Fresno Art Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York where her art was warmly received.

contemporary quilt

She also published a number of books which included the Appliqué Stitchery, The Art of Quilt and Her Quilts and Coverlets: A Contemporary Approach, where she challenged the public to do away with the apparent separation between fine art and functional craft and urged them to consider all types of needlework as creative media. The art quilt movement dubbed the California Art Quilt Revolution was then underway.

contemporary quilt

The California Art Quilt Revolution

In the period between 1966 and 1986 in California, more middle-class white women, with university art training, began making art quilts. They utilized the heritage of quilt and art history by blending quilt making techniques and historic cultural associations with the principles of contemporary art. By creating their original designs through the old and the new, they developed quilt making techniques in expressing their creativity. For the first time, quilts were not anymore exclusively created as functional items for home and domestic use but were also considered as aesthetic art objects.

contemporary quilt

Linda MacDonald, Yvonne Porcella, Joan Schulze, Jean Hewes, Miriam Nathan-Roberts, Therese May, Ellen Oppenheimer, Judith Content, and Jean Laury were the quiltmakers behind the California Quilt Revolution. They were inspired by Duchamp, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and others, artists who encouraged the re-assessment of what could be considered art by expanding other types of objects that could be used in creating art. Quiltmaking went through a transformation from a humble bedcover into an art form. These postmodern artists paved the way for quilts to be hung in art museums in the late 1960s and early 1970s and this practice continues until today as new artists choose quilt making to express their creativity.

contemporary quilt

Contemporary Quilt Artists

Joan Schulze, Pacita Abad, and Faith Ringgold are three contemporary quilt artists that have gained international prominence. Schulze’s experimental and ground-breaking work in the quilt medium is exhibited internationally, and are included in the collections of the Museum of Arts & Design, the National Museum of American Art’s Renwick Gallery, the John M. Walsh Collection of Contemporary Art Quilts, and other collections in the United States, Europe, and Japan.

The paintings of Filipina artist Pacita Abad combine expressive painting with trapunto which is a technique that involves quilting and sewing pieces of patterned fabrics. She is famous for her mixed media works entitled, “How Mali Lost Her Accent” and “I Thought the Streets Were Paved with Gold”.

Faith Ringgold is known for her painted story quilts. This is a kind of art that combines painting and quilted fabric with storytelling. She exhibits in various museums all over the world and has written and illustrated a number children's book where she combines the Afro-American tradition of quilt-making and European art.

From the traditional to its new form, quilt making is here to stay.  And as more artists use the modern and traditional quilting techniques to paint their experiences, imagery, and ideas- it will continue to evolve and grow as an art form.

For anyone interested in trying their hand at quilting for the first time, here's an easy contemporary quilt project with a detailed instructional video:

I always wondered how to make a rag quilt, and this is a great tutorial. Has a video and a photo step by step. Snuggly-wuggly goodness :-)
How to make a rag quilt

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7 Responses to Contemporary Quilt Makers Who Paint With Fabric

  1. Peg Sullivan says:

    Thanks for bringing Art quilting to light. Most of the names are so familiar to those of us doing Art quilting but it is more like a hidden craft/art.
    Many of my students marvel at what can be done with fabric and thread. We keep pushing the envelope and it is good to learn we are being accepted as artist and not just users of leftovers stuff.

  2. Silvana says:

    You write the best articles every time! Thank you!!
    And thanks for the patterns and all the info you put out there for us 🙂

  3. Donna Maria Herrera says:

    Thank you for this informative, delightful and inspiring artical. I have never done quilting, but I sure want to try as both my Mother and Grandmother were quilters. I remember being the mouse in the corner when my Grandmother had her church mission group over for lunch and to all sit around the frame to help finish a blanket by hand quilting. The talking and laughing and gossip that few around that quilt. Then the next month another lady would host the group to get their help finishing her project. I think I’ll start with your October Mug Rug. Thank you for jogging my memory about quilts and quilting. I feel all warm and cozy now.

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Hi Donna, you made me smile. i have joined a group on Wednesdays mostly for the talking and laughing! Cheers!

  4. Marty says:

    Thanks for the article which brought me many fond memories. I made my first quilt in the late 1960’s (a “contained crazy patch” of huge blocks with very dive3rse and colorful fabrics) and recall how most at that time wondered why anyone would want to make one as they considered quilts to be utilitarian items (not for creative nor artistic expression). After making lots of quilted and denim patchwork bags with shoulder straps in the early 1970’s, as a lifelong resident of the Midwest, I was thrilled by and obtained all of Jean Rae Laury’s books. I was interested in African and South American quilts which were unique and filled with colorful, original, abstract designs. Still, quilts were lumped with “crafts” instead of art.I also recall how much disdain there was for anything made on a sewing machine instead of hand-sewn quilting! Interest in quilting as an art form didn’t become common inthe Midwest until another decade had passed. Thankfully, there are many quilting artists doing amazingly fine work throughout the USA, Australia and Japan now.

  5. rebbba says:

    I think it’s great that your site explores several aspects of sewing in general and I have learned a great deal from your site over the last year or so. Normally I don’t leave messages but I did want to throw in another important bit of info about American Quilting, during the Civil War the American Quilt was considered to be a very important sign post on the underground railroad, designs such as the Log Cabin meant safety and the Bear Claw meant danger. Many of those designs are still used often today. Have a great day!

    • Mayra at So Sew Easy says:

      Thanks for that contribution Rebba. Much appreciated. I didn’t know that. I’m sure many readers will want to know.

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