TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Images of Labor and Rest in Art Quilts

When work becomes play and play becomes work...

September 1st was Labor Day here in the United States. The day is meant to honor all who labor by taking a day of rest. Many go on picnics, have barbecues, or just sit and watch TV. I thought I would take a look at some labor and rest images in art quilts. Art quilts are often abstract, but pictorial ones, if well executed, can depict powerful stories and evoke feelings of empathy or longing. Click on the image to go to the original site where I found it.

Just the Two of Us, Courtesy Sherry Shine

Sherry Shine specializes in the use of acrylics or thread work in her quilts. This one is part of a market series. The caption reads, "This quilt features two women at the market communicating about the fruits of their labor."

"The Farrier" by Paula Batterman-O'Dowd
Excellent use of applique gives movement, depth and adds a 3-d perspective to this quilt.

Portrait of a Textile Worker
This project is so fascinating, I have to quote from Terese Agnew's (the artist) explanation of her work:

"Portrait of a Textile Worker
makes one person among millions of unseen workers, visible. Her image was constructed with thirty thousand clothing labels stitched together over two years. The idea came from a simple observation. One day while shopping in a department store I noticed huge signs everywhere -- Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, Kathy Lee and so on. They were all proper names. I'd recently met two garment workers and realized that by contrast, their identity was rarely thought of and often deliberately hidden. That anonymity could be undone by assembling a view of one worker using the well-known names on apparel she produced. The portrait is based on a photograph of a young textile worker in Bangladesh by Charles Kernaghan*

The project began with a massive campaign to get the labels. Thousands of people responded, painstakingly cutting out garment tags one by one. I used the labels in numerous ways to create the image. For example, text on a contrasting background was used as a gradation, text borders were ironed back leaving a unified block of tiny words to form specific tones, names were used as segments in a line and combined with others like lines in a drawing. From twenty feet away, the composition is a representational image of a remote place. As you move closer, the illusionistic devices dissolve into labels as intimately familiar as your own clothes.

I have always been fascinated with how the work of art becomes an artwork. Twenty years ago I started out as a public sculptor. My early work included large-scale installations that engaged hundreds of people in the art making process. Their involvement demonstrated the potential for people's labor to become a form of public communication. Iron Workers and Engineers that participated in various art projects for example, contributed to the visual message in significant ways. In 1991 I started making art quilts in addition to sculpture. It is often solitary, repetitious work. In Portrait of a Textile Worker however, the repetition of thousands of other people cutting their labels is retained in the piece. It amplifies the presence of the woman we finally see."

Terese Agnew © 2005

The piece is a protest against sweat shop labor. Please visit her website to learn more.

Angeles Segura made this quilt where she is dreaming that she could dance and wear folkloric dresses. The Center for the Quilt Online has a moving interview with her where Angeles talks about how making (and selling) quilts help her combat poverty and depression in her home.

I found it much easier to locate images of rest and celebration. Remember, making a quilt is a serious time commitment! I'm sure that most people prefer to spend those hours contemplating and recording something pleasant in life, rather than all of its daily drudgery and toil.

Gone Fishin', photo courtesy of Kathy McNeil

This quilt won a couple of awards and is a tribute to the "great rivers of the United States and the young men whose dreams created a nation."

Church Picnic
Faith Ringgold must easily hold the reputation of the most famous folk art quilter. Her quilts, exhibited in major collections all over the world, record the African-American experience with a style that is all her own. Faith paints with acrylic and then embellishes the piece with quilting and other elements. Visit her website and her blog for more quilts, stories and song.

Sunday Morning, by Esterita Austin

Esterita uses paint and her own fusing techniques to achieve wonderful layers of depth and color. Her website gives more information on her workshops and other resources she offers.

Elle and Louise by Ang Meister

Running through the sand, this quilt was based on a photo of her two daughters. Meisterang's flickr photos show several of her other quilts, all using applique extensively.

Americans either work too hard or not enough. While some put in 60-80 hours a week in dedicated enterprises, others slack off and do the minimum to get their check. I have often longed for a more European system where three or four weeks of vacation allow for time off to experience new things, to step back, re-evaluate, come back to the task with new energy. Everybody is so busy! For many, work is just the means to pay life's way, but for the lucky ones, work is play and play is work.

How is it for you? Is your labor an act of love or are you caught in something you don't want to do? And, what about your creative outlets? They are a lot of work, too, but hopefully they bring a sense of accomplishment and joy in your work and play.


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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