Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gwen Marston Unleashed

A few Fridays ago I took a fun class on Liberated Stars with Gwen Marston, a quilt historian and renowned quilter in her own right. She has to be one of the most prolific authors on the subject of quilts with both popular and scholarly publications.

The workshop was put on by the Flying Geese Quilters Guild. Gwen's name on their schedule of presenters (along with Katie Pasquini Masopust's) was one of the reasons I joined this particular guild. As always the guild members were friendly and interesting and just so darned fun to spend a day with. Also as always, the workshop took place in the lovely large classroom at Material Possessions Quilt Shop. Think global, sew local: support your local quilt shop!

Unlike Katie Pasquini Masopust's workshop, in which every moment was accounted for and there were exercises and group critique sessions, Gwen Marston's class was almost entirely unstructured. Recounting the instructions given would make the class seem much less interesting than it was. Really it was about spending the day picking Gwen Marston's brain.If you want to make a Liberated Star quilt, get thee to the library and pick up Gwen Marston's out of print masterpiece Liberated Quiltmaking. It is also part of The Parts Department section of Collaborative Quilting. She mentioned that a forthcoming book, possibly Freddy & Gwen Collaborate Again: Freewheeling Twists on Traditional Quilt Designs, would have updated instructions for many of her previously published design/methods including Liberated Stars. My friend R.J. recently wrote that she found the previous book's precursor Collaborative Quilting inspiring.I must admit, I checked Liberated String Quilts out of the well-stocked Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana, last year and found myself vaguely dissatisfied. I didn't understand Gwen Marston's approach. I wasn't open to the idea of looking at a series of historic quilts and developing axioms about their creation. I guess I struggle with the idea of reducing these historic quilts to "patterns" for the modern quilter. This is not a reflection on Gwen, but a reflection on the quilting-industrial complex's obsession with kit-able units. Her current book Ideas and Inspirations: Abstract Quilts in Solids, which she published outside the traditional quilt book publishing establishment, seems to be the truest to her sensibility - no "patterns," no "lessons," no "projects." Just images of beautiful quilts intended to inspire. The product description on Amazon (which I believe is in Gwen's own words) sums it up nicely:
This is a book for grownup quilters. It's a book for the many accomplished quilters who are not looking for yet another project book with pages of detailed elementary instructions on how to make someone else's quilt.
Seeing Gwen Marston in action and hearing her stories addressed my concerns and converted me to her fan club.While piecing our liberated stars we talked about Gwen's favorite quilters. Of course she discussed Mary Schafer, about whom Gwen has authored two books Mary Schafer, American Quilt Maker and the currently out of print Mary Schafer and Her Quilts. Additionally she mentioned Susan McCord and Emily Adams (I might have written down the latter incorrectly - but The Quilt Index does have a number of quilts under the name Emily Adams Hubbell). She talked a lot about Susan McCord's work, noting that it is housed in the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. She was especially taken by McCord's use of four unique applique borders on one quilt as well as her use of three, two, or even one border. She specifically mentioned a turkey tracks quilt by McCord with one applique border with sensational, exquisite, detailed applique that probably could not be sustained for four borders. She liked the idea of exerting the same amount of effort your might put into all four borders, but concentrating it all on one amazing border.Her favorite style of American quilts are folk art quilts. She started making pieced traditional quilts. She said, "As most young quilters do, I thought I knew a lot about making quilts." [As a young quilter I don't take offense, particularly as I don't think I know much at all about making quilts -- not to mention my whole Buddhist beginner's mind approach, but this isn't about my issues.] Through extensive research into actual early quilts she discovered that quilts didn't conform to the 1970s ideal of the traditional quilt. Real early quilts (as opposed to idealized traditional quilts) had borders chopped off, borders that were not the same, points that didn't match, fewer than four borders, and all sorts of characteristics that "traditional quilters" would categorize as flaws.In studying folk art traditions including but also beyond early American quilts, Marston noticed some universal folk art characteristics including lack of set patterns, frequent color substitution, and the free placement of elements. She specifically focused on the transmission of design elements among craftspeople, the appearance of design elements across cultures and media, and the transmission of wisdom through folk art. For example, the traditional design elements in kilims from Anatolia were passed down from weaver to weaver the same way traditional quilt block designs like churn dash were passed down from quilter to quilter. People then interpreted these design elements as they saw fit. Some design elements appear across cultures and media. For example, she found flying geese designs in a kilim as well as an Uzbek ceremonial horse blanket. Folk art tends to convey wisdom from one generation to the next. For example she has an example of Ghanaian applique which conveys parenting advice, "Don't tell a child not to eat hot peppers. He will find that out soon enough." Another Ghanaian applique depicts a man on the ground lying on top of a gun with a leopard on his chest. The moral of that story, "If you shoot the leopard and do not kill the leopard, it would have been better not to shoot the leopard."

She admonished the collected quilters that Picasso wasn't worried about coloring within the lines. In other words, precision does not equal artistic success. A good lesson for quilters, young and old.

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Thalia said...

I love all the pieces in the photos you posted, and can't wait to see what you do with them. Amazing.

Lazy Gal Tonya said...

I love this post. I am a fellow Gwen Marston fan and love her liberated quiltmaking. It was great to "hear" Gwen's lecture secondhand. Wonderful stars.

Cher said...

I followed Tonya's link to your post and so enjoyed it..thank you so much

belinda said...

Lazy Gal Tonya sent me over...loved your thoughts in this posting about Gwen/quilts. Your stars look great!