Loss:  An exhibition of quilts

Penny Gold

August 20, 2016 at The Box, Galesburg, Illinois

This afternoon I'd like to talk to you about the character of the work I've done, and about the nature of the work as a series.  The story of each individual work, with consideration of meaning and methods, can be found in the exhibit booklet and will also be up on the web. [If you prefer to watch a video of this talk, you can view it here.]

Many of you know that I came to quilting from a background in craftwork: knitting, crocheting, and sewing.  Most of the quilts that I make are part of that tradition, based on a pattern by someone else.  But in 2005, in a design workshop taught by Bill Kerr and Weeks Ringle, the possibility opened for me that I would make art, abstract art, and that the making of art would be a means for me to endure life in the wake of the death a year before of my son Jeremy.

As an appreciative viewer of art, I had long been drawn to abstract art, to artists like Paul Klee, Mark Rothko, Sol Lewitt, Franz Kline, Sonia Delaunay, and Joan Mitchell.  The play of line, shape, and color, removed from explicit subject matter, appealed deeply to me, though I didn't reflect on the nature of the appeal.  Now, through the making of abstract art myself, and through reading writings by abstract practitioners, I have come to understand its appeal, and why it has served me well in the making of this series of quilts. 

Through much of the history of art, art has been in a direct relationship to the natural, material world, representing that world in all manner of ways.  Art has come from seeing, sometimes from direct observation, or often from the recollection or response to something seen.  Most works of art had a subject matter that could be identified. Abstract art broke from this tradition, excluding explicit, recognizable subject matter.  But for many abstract artists, this does not mean that the art comes from a purely intellectual exercise of figuring out relationships between shapes and colors.  Even while works of abstract art have no identifiable content, and even though many artists leave work untitled, the work still originates in a subject.  In a 1943 manifesto, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb wrote:  "There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.  We assert that the subject matter is crucial and that only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless" [John Golding, Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still (Washington, DC: The National Gallery of Art, 2000), 157].

What is the subject, if it's not visible?  Agnes Martin, who did canvas after abstract canvas of lines and grids, identifies the subject of art as emotion:  "Art is about emotion and emotions are abstract."  Art, she said, "is not what is seen, it is what is known forever in the mind" [emphasis mine].  Barnett Newman, another great abstract artist, wrote that an abstract shape could be "a living thing, a vehicle for an abstract thought-complex, a carrier of awesome feelings."

The absence of material subject matter allows for the expression of something internal to the artist, rather than external--it opens up the space for the expression of emotion.  This is not to say that emotion is absent from figural art, but the emotion is intertwined with the viewer's recognition of and relationship to the material world represented.  In abstract art, emotion has center stage.

The focus on emotion means that the work is also deeply personal, an expression of oneself.  Clyfford Still said, "I paint only myself, not nature" (Clyfford Still quoted in Golding, 174). And Agnes Martin:  "Work is self-expression.  We must not think of self-expression as something we may do or something we may not do.  Self-expression is inevitable."  Inevitable, perhaps, but it also takes awareness.  Martin again: "While working and in the work I must be on the alert to see myself.  When I see myself in the work I will know that that is the work I am supposed to do."

* * * *

In the year after Jeremy died, I wrote in a journal every morning, trying to exorcise my grief, fury, regret through the written word.  Writing was what I knew, what I had long done.  But it didn't help.  Again, Agnes Martin: "It is commonly thought that everything that is, can be put into words.  But there is a wide range of emotional response . . . that cannot be put into words."  Once I began to work on quilts about loss, I never went back to the journal writing.  Working with shape and color gave me a channel through which to express what I was feeling.  And the resulting work made the feeling physically visible--very different from pages of written words.  I didn't have to go searching through pages of a journal to find something I'd written that may have captured my feelings.  Once a quilt was done, I could simply recall the quilt, whole.  And the making of the quilts, each of which took a year or more, gave me an extended experience of living and re-living the emotional content, all the while building a readily available archive of the self.

As I worked on "Loss," the first quilt of this kind that I made, I had no idea whether there would be other quilts of its kind.  But before I finished "Loss," the idea for "Shelter" came to me, a kind of companion piece to "Loss."  And from there, one idea after another began to accumulate, a clamor of ideas.  It has taken me eleven years to complete the eleven quilts in the series.  The actual putting together of a quilt might take as little as a couple of weeks, but thinking about the design, and working out final details of design and execution through extended trials took place over years, for each of them. 

About the layout of the quilts in the exhibition:  The quilts are not in the order they were made, except for the first and last quilts in the main room.  The first "Accident" quilt, though not made until 2015, is placed at the entry-way to the exhibit, to put the other work in the context of the event that generated the series.  The rest of the quilts were placed to enhance the visual relationships between them.  The booklet provides details about the story of each quilt--its making and meaning--in relationship to others.  The wall of small quilts in the reception area gives you a glimpse at the making process of some quilts, as well as ideas that didn't find their way into a larger work.

When most artists work in a series, the series is united by a cohesive style and method of production, so the works all look closely related.  My series is united not by style but by the subject matter, which is the multiple facets of my response to loss.  Each idea demanded its own design process, with a fresh start each time about how I could best express the particular idea.  Different as they are, I think you can see the same hand at work, at the underlying mission: to make visible the chasm of death as well as the possibility of solace.

Now the series is complete.  There are no more ideas lined up in my head. When I began the first quilt in 2005, I didn't know if more ideas would come. Then, in the middle of things, I didn't know if ideas would stop.  But for over a year now, no new ideas have come forward.  This feeling of a major project being done is recognizable to me from my life as a scholar, from the two major books I wrote.  Each of those books took a dozen years from conception to completed manuscript.  They were each the result of a complex, multi-faceted research program, each generated from a question that I felt compelled to answer.  Each book was done when I had answered that question to my own satisfaction.  And each time a book was done, I went on to a totally different project--that is, rather than continuing with a related question, I embarked on something else.  With this series of quilts, I have put out into the world, as best I can, what there has been in me to say.  There are no more angles to cover.  This doesn't mean that my deep sense of loss is over, just that I have said what I can about it.