In a recent critique session of quilted art, conducted by two “fine” artists, I found myself having a “eureka” moment. Then, a few days ago, Jay and Melanie’s discussion of Jay’s intaglio technique on board and foamcore (published prior to this post) pushed some of my insights a bit further. All this was added into a melange of thinking I’ve been doing about where I am in relation to quilted art and painted art.

The eureka moment came through the phrase used by one of the fine art critics: the phrase was “working the surface.” “Working the surface” in the traditional fine arts means adding, deleting, scraping, underpainting and overpainting, sanding, gouging — all the kinds of things one can do that either uncover and/or add to a planar surface. It seems clear to me that Jay’s process of working his boards and foamcore are fine examples of “working the surface.”

With quilted art, “working the surface” seems to show up in two ways. One is what is called “surface design,” which basically alters the flat plane, by dyeing it, laying rust on it, discharging (bleaching) it, monoprinting on it, and even digging into it, tearing and unraveling the threadwork. This work sometimes adds texture (especially with elements applied to the surface (applique) or taken away from it (“cutwork” or just plain gouging holes). These kinds of working of the plane are singular, patterned for the effect in a particular work, not meant to be turned into a commercial design for fabric (the original use of “surface design” had a strong commercial element.) The other part of working the surface with textiles is the work of embroidery and quilted lines that make for a frieze effect; when stitches are pushed through the two layers of fabric and the in-between batting or wadding, the stitched line makes an indentation, beside which the surface becomes raised by the pushed-aside materials.

I have never heard the phrase, “working the surface” applied to quilted art before, but when I heard that and then saw the intricacies of Jay’s working of his surfaces, I realized that the language may give me new insights into what can be done with quilted art.

At the critique, the guest “critics” (very kind observant folks) looked at two pieces I had brought, comparing them.

The first was one you’ve seen before: Mrs. Willard Waltzes with the Wisteria, 76 x 61″, 2003, hand dyed and painted cotton, embroiderie perse with computer-generated prints, and dyed overlays.


mrswwaltzesdetw.jpg detail

This quilted piece has a strongly worked surface. The relief work of the quilted areas is combined with the hand-dyed mottled fabric and the graphically strong embroiderie perse of the appliqued/layered flowers to make a complex surface. My question for the critics was whether this was too complex an image, but they said it was very successful. What they also thought, though, was that the other piece that I showed, Mrs. Willard Dices with the Devil, lacked the very complexity of surface design that made the first successful.

mrswrecentw.jpg Mrs. Willard Dices with the Devil, 64″ x 80″, hand-dyed and painted and quilted on cotton.

Mrs. Willard Dicing isn’t completely quilted. This incompleteness was not entirely because I didn’t have time (although that figures into the problem). The real reason that it’s incomplete is that I couldn’t figure out what I was doing with the background, except stitching it because that’s what stitchers do.

I found the foreground tombstone relatively easy to stitch:


The flat front of the stone needed a bit of surface texture against which to place the letters, and the top of the stone provides some sense of perspective, useful in this semi-flat composition.

Mrs. W. wasn’t too hard to quilt because she had to be the most solid element of the surface. Therefore I had to leave larger areas of her body unquilted to make the surface stand up between the stitches.


I even know how I will stitch Mr. Bones when I get a minute to do so — he’ll be heavily stitched in a shiny thread, silver or even clear polyester, which shimmers a bit when the light hits it. But the background –meaning the actual earth as well as the picture’s ground plane, stumped me.

However the concept of “working the surface” makes me realize that I need to add more variety in that ground; I needed to work the surface. I will probably do so in the form of added color as well as added stitching. And I might well do the stitching first and then pour on the color. Stitching before adding color means that the stiffening of the fabric won’t be such a pain when I am stitching it; and adding the color after the stitching could provide addition interest to the surface that a less complex set of values might lack. It was Jay’s gouging and then putting layers and layers of paint on his intaglio pieces that made me realize that I might be able to save the piece by doing this kind of work. With that idea, I think I can now bear to go back in and quilt more of the background, knowing that it will be further furbished with (I hope) subtle but interesting color. I also need to tone down the sky considerably, which I can do now that it’s stitched.

Which brings me to a last thought. One of the commentators on the piece said that I seem to have fallen between two modes of making art — the art which uses quilted surfaces and the art which uses painted surfaces. Actually he said it more bluntly: “June, you may have to make a choice between painting and quilting.”

This is the problem I’ve been wrestling with most of this year. Painting has a magical draw for me at the moment, but my contacts and communities are within the quilting arts. I hesitate to completely withdraw from the area that welcomed me and in which I am somewhat known. But I struggled so much with the quilting on Mrs. W. Dices that I was resigned to throwing aside the quilting art and completely immersing myself in painting. However, with the insights from various places that I’ve gained, I realize I was stuck not because I’ve been painting but because I simply didn’t know what I could do to save Mrs. Willard Dices with the Devil. Now I have an inkling of what might work.

So here’s a set of questions: do you work in a variety of media, and, if so, how do you justify the diffusion of focus that going back and forth between them can encourage? Have you made a difficult choice between media, abandoning one altogether? Is the brief essay above accurate in its views of the nature of “working the surface” as well as “surface design?” Are there other distinctions/comparisons between two different media that seem to illuminate as well as differentiate one another?

These are questions that I am mulling around as I am glaring at Mrs. W., still hanging on my design wall, waiting for me to move along. And I haven’t entirely abandoned the quilted art, although I find myself mightily reluctant to turn on the sewing machine.