The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
The Quilter as ‘Idiot-Genius’
Some months ago, I found myself engaged in hot debate with a friend of mine who happens to be a prominent quilt collector. My respect for him knows no limits and I love talking (and/or debating) with him. Our lively conversation took place after dinner and heroic amounts of wine. For the record.
My friend wanted to show me a particular quilt new to his collection; he went and fetched it while I put the wine away. The quilt he brought down was like none I’d ever seen. It was a 20th-century pictorial work by an as-yet-unidentified artist. The quilt was enormous, at least 100 x 100”, and was constructed in a block style. I believe there was sashing, but I can’t recall for sure; see: Wine.
The quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and many other quilts made in similar styles and in similar communities get the Idiot-Genius treatment a lot. Detail. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
What I will never forget is the content of the blocks themselves. Each was a sovereign scene taken from the maker’s life and the life of her mind. These fascinating pictures were made from fabric, countless pieces carefully cut out and sewn together. Many blocks featured embellishments of beads, trim, and the like. Some blocks needed less analysis than others; here was a church, there a boat on the water, etc. But other blocks were far more symbolic or abstract. One block featured a figure floating over a building; another showed Satan fighting an angel. I believe there was batting in the quilt, but it was most certainly backed.
We marveled. We gaped. We loved.
But then my friend said something that stuck in my craw. It was something I had heard before, many times—I have probably been guilty of saying it, myself:
“This woman had no idea how good she was. This quilt is a masterpiece. She had no idea what she was making was great art. I found this quilt in a pile at an estate sale!”
I had been nodding along with my friend’s interpretations and insights, but at this, I sat up (I had been lounging on the couch.)
“What do you mean ‘she had no idea how good she was?’” I asked, brow furrowed. “I mean, look at this quilt. It’s incredibly detailed. And it’s huge. And she finished it. This quilt was not made by accident. This is a quilt made by a person with a serious art practice.”
My friend thought that was rich—and so the debate began.
And as we went back and forth as to whether this woman either knew what she was making was brilliant or was totally clueless of this fact, I began to put words to this phenomenon. The phenomenon is essentially a position taken by some people—mostly, but not exclusively, those in the art world—that many quilters, whether making original quilts today or in the past, have little to no understanding of how good their quilts are, how prescient they may be, or have any feeling whatsoever of the important role their work plays in the grand history of art in America.
Surely this quilt, which is symmetrical and finely quilted was made by a quilter more in the “Genius” camp. Or did she not know how talented she was, either? Image: Wikipedia Commons.
I call this the quilter as Idiot-Genius position. The Idiot-Genius quilter is a person who is just messing around, flinging this and that together and seeing what sticks. Creator of magnificent art, the Idiot-Genius is deaf, dumb, and blind, if you will, to her talent and her exquisite quilts are made mostly by accident. Later, people with refined taste and discernment “discover” the Idiot-Genius’s quilts and give them their due.
It’s important to note that I doubt anyone who holds this Idiot-Genius position is aware of it—and I am certain the word “idiot” has never passed the lips of any quilt lover, ever: I chose the term “idiot” because I feel it’s the best antonym for “genius.” And no one could argue that it’s a beautiful thing when a remarkable and as-yet-unknown quilt is found and shared with the world. I’m glad people like my friend see the geniuses. Quilt history would suffer if they didn’t.
But are they the only people who see that genius? Is it really true that many of the remarkable quiltmakers out there, alive or dead, “had no idea” what they were doing was art—even really, really good art? That night, looking at a truly miraculous quilt, I had a vision of the maker working on it. No, she did not likely have a studio. No, she did not study painting in Paris. It seemed fair to assume from the many depictions of children and a wedding that she was a wife and a mother. The maker definitely did not fit the standard “artist” description, i.e., a formally trained man in a dedicated studio, working night and day, quite focused, sometimes frustrated, working toward a masterpiece.
Ah, Turner’s The Sun of Venice Going to Sea. He just threw it together, really. What a pity he didn’t know how good he was. Image: Wikipedia Commons.
The quilt I was looking at was only part of the maker’s story. I knew, as a quiltmaker myself, this woman had false starts. She did drawings before she cut out her pieces. She sketched. She messed up various parts. She tore things out. She abandoned blocks. Maybe the quilt was made over the course of several months; maybe it took her years. She made a mess. She cleaned up her scraps. She spent at least some money to get it done. People in her community and in her family obviously saw her working on this quilt and allowed at least a little time for her to chip away at it. This was absolutely not her only artwork. The lines and the depth of the story were too sophisticated to be a one-off.
She was no idiot. She was a genius, full-stop, and the quilt was proof that the maker had a significant, and likely enduring art practice.
There’s much more to say about this “quilter as Idiot-Genius” idea; I can only hope what I’ve put down here is cogent enough that you might consider the idea for yourself. Just make sure you don’t get too rowdy when you debate. There’s nothing genius about a wine stain on a masterpiece.