Beauty in Modern Quilting

Made Modern: On Beauty

I don’t believe in beauty. At least that’s what I tell myself. The truth is that I have struggled with body-image issues for most of my life, and that I am consumed by the impossible quest for beauty. Yet that has also made me all the more skeptical when it comes to understanding beauty, and I am pretty sure that this skepticism makes me fundamentally suspicious of the decorative in my quilts.

To me this complicated relationship to beauty is at the center of modern art, and is one of the hallmarks of modern quilting. What is often mistaken as the simplicity of a beginner is in many cases the pursuit of a more essential beauty. In the place of intricacy, an uncomplicated formal vocabulary emerges, one that offers an unexpected beauty found in the subtle details rather than in decorative splendor.

"Spicy Sticks" a modern quilt by Latifah Saafir

“Spicy Sticks” by Latifah Saafir

For example, many of Latifah Saafir’s quilts offer a striking kind of beauty, one that is simultaneously stark and sublime. Latifah pares away any excess decoration and offers a formal vocabulary of harmony and dissonance, a beauty born of nuanced relationships. I do not see these quilts as simply aesthetic exercises; rather they tap into to a zeitgeist of inclusion and exclusion, an exploration of belonging in a time when our social fabric feels ever more worn and tenuous.

Pursuing Essential Beauty in Quilting

I do not think the emergence of this kind of beauty in quilting today is accidental; I see its allure as a direct response to the increasingly complicated lives we live, as a manifestation of calm within the whirlwind of activity that makes up our days. Just as Amish quilters turned to simplicity as a reflection of piety, I believe this turn to essential, purist beauty speaks volumes about the world around us.

As such, it is easy to see modern quilting as a logical progression within the quilting tradition, one grounded in a material response to the world. While the wave of quilting that followed the Great American Quilt Revival gave a certain priority to masterful patchwork, the current wave of quilters seems more interested in immediacy, which brings with it an aesthetic directness, rather than in difficulty. Where many traditional quilt blocks translated the world into intricate patchwork (Flying Geese, Log Cabin, Sawtooth), many modern quilters are searching for more straightforward self expression.

"The One for Eric G" a modern quilt by Chawne Kimber

“The One for Eric G” by Chawne Kimber (2015)

Perhaps no one’s work exemplifies this immediacy more than Chawne Kimber’s. She strips away the unnecessary, the superfluous, and cuts straight to the point. Chawne’s quilts lay bare the hard truths of the self and the world; they confront us rather than soothe us. Not only do Chawne’s quilts, with their direct commentary, ask us to examine just what the purpose of a quilt is, they ask us to reevaluate our preconceived notions of the beautiful.

Exchanging Commodity for Meaning

It seems to me that we are in the midst of a swing of the pendulum in how we understand beautiful quilts. Though complexity still dominates the quilt shows, what we—especially modern quilters— are making is producing another paradigm. I believe we are in a moment where new quilters are looking to replace the store-bought with the handmade, and exchange commodity for meaning. In this light, the urgency, the immediacy, and the simplicity of modern quilting begin to make sense as not only an aesthetic, but as a cultural response. This turning away from the readymade reflects both an ethos and a set of personal aspirations.

In the end I don’t see modern quilting as turning away from beauty, but as searching for a more essential kind of beauty, one that gives primacy to an aesthetic of the everyday. It is a putting aside of the heirloom tradition and to make quilts that nevertheless resonate with the extraordinary power of the ordinary. And it is here that we may need to relearn how to see, how to look, in order to move beyond a superficially simple appearance and find the deeper implications of a non-decorative aesthetic. In finding beauty in a single, tenuous line or the simple, elegant gesture, we are doing more than just coming to understand modern quilting; we just may find ourselves getting to the heart of the quilting tradition.

Thomas Knauer

This article was originally published in the July/August 2017 issue of Modern Patchwork Magazine.  Learn more about making and designing modern quilts with Thomas when you check out his video series called Design Studio.

Top image features a detail of “The Big Log” by Latifah Saafir.

Explore more modern quilting inspiration with Thomas Knauer!

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