Size Matters, paper about the making of the Hive Project

Size Matters: A Quilt Too Big to Ignore

Presented at the inaugural symposium, "Wild by Design"

at the International Quilt Study Center

By Patricia Autenrieth

In the year 2000, New Image group became 20 years old. Two years earlier, we began considering ideas for a special, anniversary exhibit. I offered to show the group portfolio to galleries to see what I could turn up. Well, the Hive Project is what turned up. 

 

New Image is a small, informal support group of artists, founded in 1980, to expand the artistic range of the quilt, and to pursue exhibition opportunities. To that end the group has achieved much in the following years. It has formed a group portfolio, with a standardized resume for individuals, a brochure describing its members and listing group exhibitions. Members have shown in several Quilt Nationals, Visions, the Museum of American Quilters Society, the Textile Museum in Washington, DC, the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, Arrowmont School of Art and Craft, San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles and the Renwick Gallery. They have written books and articles, originated major exhibitions, and are consulted by organizations, to expand their quilt collections; and they have been awarded county, state and federal grants, and have works in major collections. These are achievements well worth commemorating.

     Viewing the New Image portfolio, however, gallery directors and curators were not as impressed. They were polite, but not enthusiastic. Curious: how have our members gotten national attention in the quilt world, but left the art world unmoved? There was a disparity between what quilt art recognized and what fine art did. Were quilt art standards too low? Or were they too alien to fine art? As a faculty member of an independent college of art and design, surrounded by artists and the art debates du jour, I understood the problem from the fine art standpoint. However, being a quilt artist, it was hard for me to be objective.

     So I sought an outside opinion from a fine artist, with extensive knowledge of contemporary art. She didn’t mince words, saying first, that there was no compelling reason, why people other than ourselves, should be interested in our being together for 20 years. Second, art quilters’ aspirations for acceptance and validation, in the fine art community was beside the point. If quilting was our chosen medium, then self validation was sufficient. Fine art purists were not worth supplicating, and fine art’s self definition has become too narrow. She suggested, instead, that we develop approaches that capitalized on aspects built into the medium, like mathematical systems, material culture and collaboration, which were hot topics in art departments and colleges.

     Which put me in mind of certain works by Sol Lewitt and Jennifer Bartlett. Sol Lewitt was the one who coined the term Conceptual Art in 1968, and, among other things, made large-scale drawings, executed by assistants, by a set of rules, to exclude personal taste and style. Jennifer Bartlett's large, quasi-conceptual installation, Rhapsody, comprising 988 baked enamel steel plates, upon which she attempted to make a painting that had everything in it, launched her career in 1976. I also thought of Sue Pierce’s Art Quilts: Playing with a Full Deck project which, if you recall, gathered some of the country’s top quilt artists and, in a standard format under the theme of playing cards, found a broader audience than just the quilt enthusiast.

     Then you could say a mental collision occurred in my head between these parallel universes, resulting in the idea of the Hive Project. And while it came to me as suddenly as many ideas do, I think it was the culmination of many considerations—my desire to break out of the confines, of what I call the quilt ghetto, while still preserving the medium's integrity and history, the urge to make a bold enough statement to capture both the quilt and art worlds' attention, and to build on Sue Pierce's achievement because it would lose its value if someone didn't. I believe it's incumbent upon quilt artists to create their own opportunities.

     But because the idea was so overwhelming, I didn’t seriously expect New Image to embrace it. But surprisingly they did, instantly and unanimously. And as you might expect, it effectively distracted us from a birthday party.

 

It would have been ludicrous to propose making this goliath to New Image, if it hadn’t already had considerable experience with collaboration, which I'll speak about in more detail, in tomorrow's thematic session, "The Synergy of Collaboration." Over a period of nine years the group produced eleven group quilts, each of which posed varying problems to solve, from binding and mounting, to copying, control issues, ownership and selling. Faced with the Hive Project, they proved to be a valuable preparation for the difficulties it raised.

     One in particular was copying. Now maybe self validation is sufficient, but it is also important to know the difference between the art quilt and fine art. The two have distinctly different histories. The art quilt evolves from the domestic, functional, bed covering, often made communally, using shared patterns. Common patterns like Wild Geese Flying, Ocean Waves and Shoo Fly, parallel for art quilters common proverbs like, “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” such that their originators may never be known. This sharing takes its form today in a blurred definition of originality. For example, a method developed in a work by New Image and reproduced in a magazine was copied by another art quilt group in a work they sold to a major collector. More recently, Sue Pierce’s Full Deck project was copied by yet another group, even down to the title, shown within a few miles of and at the very same time as the exhibition of the original, even displayed on a website without giving credit. And while they didn’t make the entire deck of cards, and most of the ones they did were unique, there was at least one that simulated the exact design, of one the original works, though in different colors and techniques. In both of these instances utterly no malice was intended, and in the latter, the artists were adamant that they were scrupulous to avoid copying. This kind of imitation would be flattering, if the imitators were 1) evolving the idea, 2) paying homage or referencing it in a larger idea of their own, or 3) using it to satirize the original idea. But in both cases it seemed to be either a matter of not having ideas of their own, or no confidence in the ones they had.

     Compare that to fine art’s cult of originality. It is so deeply entrenched, that I can depend on my design students, straight out of high school, to abruptly drop an idea they’re working on, if they discover someone else doing work remotely similar. Even a common insider art joke is, “It’s been done.”

     This disparate understanding of uniqueness is a complex subject about which I invite research. Not enough has been said or discovered about it, as quilt artists, self validated or not, continue to seek recognition by a fine art community, that may or may not be worth supplicating.

     Thus, I asked members to keep the idea of the Hive secret, at least until we secured an exhibition. And while they were at it, to make a formal commitment to complete their parts, since it was no small undertaking.

     The second lesson, was to get it in writing. It’s too easy, in a small group like ours, to lose track of the decisions we vote on in meetings because record keeping conflicts with the relaxed, intimate and spontaneous atmosphere, that attracts us to the group. But when we act as a group, say, in exhibition agreements, or sales of group work, forgetting can potentially destroy the very thing that keeps us together. We had to learn this the hard way, and it, too, was useful for the Hive.

     Making the Hive Project was the easy part, if you can call making a 64-square-foot segment easy. It’s probably the largest single work any of us ever made, and together, it took us a full year. But working on it, endless questions and debates arose, and thanks to the emergence of email, we could discuss them at any time, eliminating the need for extra meetings. Just the same, our monthly meetings were dominated by Hive details for nearly a year. I established the format, labeling and hanging method; New Image developed edge treatments, instead of binding all those squares, an ordering system for packing, and a wrap by which to handle each section, just to mention a few of the many details concerned.

 

The Hive Project, called a "mega-quilt" by one reviewer, is an enormous, collaborative, variable quilt installation. In its entirety, it is eight feet high and stretches to a width of 98 feet. It is made up of separately hung, 12" quilted squares, that, in turn, form 12 groupings of 64 squares each, 8 across and 8 down. Each grouping’s outer columns are spread out, like checkerboards, so they can interlock with other groupings. And by removing columns from each grouping it can also be reduced, to as small as 62 running feet. The installation's separate squares, allows it to fold into or wrap around corners in a variety of spaces, and the component groupings can be rearranged in any order. 

     These are the conditions, for which participants had to design. And gambling that these would guarantee a built-in continuity, I imposed no theme whatsoever. I named it the Hive Project, to allude both to quilting's history of the bee, because that continues to be an inescapable public perception of all quilters, and to the nature of cooperation New Image nonetheless shares with traditional quilters.

     Twelve members of the New Image group participated in this undertaking: myself,  Jeanne Benson, Ardyth Davis, Michele Duell, Amanda Ford, Lesly-Claire Greenberg, Dorothy Holden, Catherine Kleeman,Dominie Nash, Sue Pierce, Linda Tilton and Michele Vernon.

 

If making the Hive was the easy part, the hard parts were getting it to exhibition. We spent days just installing eyelets on its 768 component squares. It took us four days to photograph it, for which I designed and made a vertical and  horizontal template for nail spacing. Then I spent a month masking and assembling its digitized images, for our first view of the whole thing, another month creating a website, a good month or two squeezing bios and statements out of the artists— and gauging from their shock at being limited to 175 words, it was apparent that what is familiar to any fine artist was new to them.

     Another six months were spent consulting curators. I asked a craft museum curator, a contemporary fine art curator, and a free lance craft curator to look over the various drafts of our proposal for advice. This was, for me, the most tedious, yet most critical part of administering the Hive. I needed to know if they understood, from our materials, what the project was. I included twelve film transparencies, one for each interlocking section, that could be rearranged for curatorial decisions, but none of the curators bothered to view them. And to avoid what we thought was a fine art prejudice against crafts, we called the quilted squares “discrete units”. But the fine art curator asked, what were the units, human heads? I realized then, that from a simple, practical point, we needed to identify the medium up front, and trust that the work was strong enough, according to that same curator, to jump categories from craft to fine art. So I rewrote and redesigned, a foldout brochure that displayed one complete variation of the Hive, in order for a busy curator, inundated with proposals, to grasp the project at a glance.

     After all this work, we felt it wouldn’t be worth exhibiting this monster only once. And since it took three people, six hours, merely to set up and pound the nails, for a 16-foot section to photograph, it wasn’t practical to be our own exhibition service, so I sent out the first dozen or so proposals to exhibition services with whom other quilt artists had been successful, with traveling group shows. It took them six months to respond, all negative, perhaps because of its size, or the time I expected it to take to install. Subsequently, I and other artists, sent the rest of 65 proposals to museums and galleries, biting the hard nut, of working out the myriad of multiple exhibition arrangements, ourselves. It was, I think, an effect of our desperation, to find not only a good venue, but my own determination to avoid quilt-only venues, which narrowed our options.

     But the most unexpected barriers to overcome, were from among ourselves. In 2001, three years after beginning the Hive Project, the artists became restive. It didn’t look like we were ever going to show this thing. And the lack of progress also seemed to raise some artists’ anxieties. Some wanted permission to show their sections, even sell them. Others took the non progress personally, and felt I was slighting them. I needed to reassure them, even when I myself despaired of finding a place to show Hive. This, I think, is the madness that comes of collaboration— a band of artists may know how to cooperate, but never thinks as a single mind. So we voted on what end date to which we were willing to remain committed to the project as a whole. And again, I asked for them to put it in writing—as well as setting a price for the whole work, and because none of us were getting any younger—three former New Image members had died in the last ten years, I asked them to name beneficiaries. Within three months we began to get calls of interest, and the artists’ fears seemed to evaporate. 

     Photographing the Hive suggested how long it would take to install. I estimated that it would take a team of three, roughly 144 man hours. Happily, I overestimated by half; we have averaged a little less than 72 hours. Less happily, they have been the hardest hours I've ever spent, climbing and descending ladders about 15 times for each of the 96 columns, to measure, mark, nail, wash walls, touch up and hang this vast work.

     The first exhibition opened in June 2002, almost exactly four years after we began making the Hive Project. 

     After completing this giant, New Image meetings largely returned to normal. Making the Hive was an ordeal members seemed happy to move on from. They pushed on, as they always have, to produce new work and explore new territory—as well as possible given the insularity of the field, and the limited opportunities outside of it. But not until the Hive was actually installed did they see it in its entirety for the first time. I knew they would be excited and pleased, but I was surprised that they were so awe struck. After all, we had seen 16-to-20 foot sections of it, temporarily installed for a museum curator, and again when it was photographed. I didn't grasp that they couldn't imagine from this, how it would appear as a whole. But one thing was different—it wasn't in a second-rate gallery or a quilt museum, venues where quilt artists usually had to settle, to show their work at all. It was at the Maryland Art Place in Baltimore, MD, an alternative artist's space with a long history of showing vanguard work. The Hive Project had indeed broken a fine art barrier. 

     There were other hints. The director there and, later, the one at the McLean Project for the Arts, in McLean, VA, both told me, that they get many proposals to show art quilts, but until the Hive Project, they hadn't seen anything new. More, the Hive received generous coverage in local and national publications, as well as television coverage. In an art savvy area like Washington, DC, it seems significant. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised—its sheer magnitude demands attention. It dwarfs and envelops the viewer and becomes an environment, and this environment becomes the Hive's dominating content.

     More impressive, however, is the impact on the group's thinking since then. Exhibiting the Hive seems to have opened up new avenues of thought, or maybe it's that, to return to what we were doing before would seem like back-tracking. For whatever reason, New Image artists are considering, in my experience, far more adventurous ideas, than they ever have. This excites me more than the idea of the Hive Project itself did. I've long bristled at the insularity of the field—the workshop culture, where quilters teach quilters; its preoccupation with technique; its critical exercise limited to rudimentary formal issues; its relative innocence of the current, content-driven fine art, and what Stacey Hollander, curator of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York calls, the "busy fairlike atmosphere, complete with themed contests, quilt challenges, juries, and prizes, that diminishes the perceived seriousness of the art in the outside world." And to risk sounding especially churlish, I've bristled at the near tyranny of nice behavior—an avoidance of the uneven conduct, that could be what people mean, by artistic temperament, that is often typical of those taking large risks. I don't mean for art quilters to give up simple courtesy, but that they quit fearing giving offense when they explore the unknown, because it's impossible to please everyone, and to try, I believe, contaminates authenticity, and impedes the power of art to show new truths.

     So I hope that, if the Hive artists themselves are so moved, to reach beyond their usual grasp, the Hive Project may have enough impact, to stir other quilt artists, not only to contribute to the evolution of the medium, but also to bring themselves up to speed with c urrent fine art issues, if they expect serious consideration from the fine art world. I also hope that, having built this tenuous bridge to the fine art community, it, too, is moved to learn more about quilting's unique history. A fortunate juncture exists that makes this seem possible: collaboration and material culture studies have become far more widespread in fine art than when New Image began; more fine artists are attracted to the art quilt as I was; museums are mounting painting exhibitions, reviving interest in a medium thought obsolete, and questioning the relevance of conceptual, performance and video art, that dominated the art scene for the last several decades;

and because so much of fine art work is multimedia, and perhaps because of feminism and such movements as Arte Povera, which advocated the use of absolutely any material for legitimate fine art investigation, more fiber is given more serious attention. The fine art community, also seems ready for the art quilt.

               

Variations 2 and 3 of the Hive Project have shown at the Maryland Art Place in Baltimore, MD, and at the McLean Project for the Arts in McLean, VA. You can see other variations of it next at the Southwest School of Art and Craft this September, and in the summer of 2004 at the Oregon College of Art and Craft.

 

Assorted Hive facts:

We handset over 1,500 eyelets, possibly making us world experts on the subject.

It is probably impossible to be completely precise in quilts.

Two artists made their Hive groupings twice.

Walls are not flat, making their measurements different from top to bottom.