We make a lot of assumptions about quilts — that they're not art, that only women make them. The Craft & Folk Art Museum's answer to these outdated ideas is an exhibition featuring the work of male quilters. It’s called “Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters” and it’s a far cry from your grandma’s sewing circle.
“We wanted men who really make quilts as part of their main practice,” says Suzanne Isken, the exhibition’s curator and the executive director of the Craft & Folk Art Museum. “They identify as quilters. Not all of them only quilt, but quilting is something that they come by because they’re serious quilters."
The eight men featured in the exhibition quilt not just professionally, but as artists. Isken says they have a long history of female quilters — who turned a domestic chore into art — to thank for this.
“If it was such a chore, then why did women spend so much time making it harder and harder to do? The patterns become more and more intricate, and more and more challenging,” says Isken. “So, in fact, men can take it on now because women really elevated it into an art form.”
And this history comes across in most of the quilters’ work. Most of them learned to quilt from a woman — either a family member or a mentor — and say that gender plays a role in their work.
“We asked the quilters themselves, ‘Does being a male quilter really affect your work?’ and most of them said, ‘Yes, definitely,’” says Isken.
Some of the artists address their gender by quilting typically masculine imagery. Ben Venom’s quilts evoke motorcycle gangs and heavy metal. Jimmy McBride quilts sci-fi scenes based on Hubble telescope images.
(Jimmy McBride, Phobos V2, 2010, handmade and hand-and-machine quilted, hand-embroidered, 48” x 48”. Courtesy of the artist.)
Others use the materials and techniques they quilt with as an expression of their gender. Joel Otterson says he asked himself, “How would a man make a quilt?” And his answer was a cement “quilt.”
(Joel Otterson, The Garden Floor (Concrete Crazy Quilt), 2002 - 2012, glazed ceramic, stone, marble, and concrete, 87 !” x 87” overall (20 "” each panel). Courtesy of the artist and Maloney Fine Art, Los Angeles.)
Isken says many of these quilters struggle with skepticism that their quilts are in fact art.
“Joe Cunningham tells a story of going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and seeing Rauschenberg’s ‘Bed’ on the wall. And apparently when he went, there was a label at the time that said something about Rauschenberg elevating the ‘humble quilt’ into an artwork through the painting, and that was always offensive to him,” says Isken. “A quilt is a work of art.”
(Joe Cunningham, Some Dumb Old Painting, 2013, machine pieced, appliquéd, and quilted cotton fabric and batting, 71” x 69”. Courtesy of the artist.)
An opening reception for "Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters" will be held on Jan. 24 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and the exhibition will run until May 3rd. Visit the Craft & Folk Art Museum’s website for more information.