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False Dichotomies

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One of the things I love about being a professional quilter is that I get to travel around the country and meet and talk with other quilters. I enjoy doing lectures and workshops, but the best part is always sitting over lunch or dinner (or a drink) and talking about quilts. Doing this has afforded me many chances to spend time with some truly wonderful and extraordinary quilters and listen to what brought them to quilting.

Far too many people, though, start their stories with the phrase, “I just...” I dread hearing that phrase because it often seems to be weighted with doubt, with an ingrained sense that one’s practice needs to be qualified or justified in some way. It is a phrase that defends against anticipated attacks. Say these two sentences aloud: “I just like making quilts for my kids,” and “It is important to me that my children have quilts I have made for them.” The difference, to me, is extraordinary, and gets to the heart of quilting.

Our approach to quilting these days seems to be rife with false dichotomies: art vs. practical, simple vs. complicated, pretty vs. serious, creative vs. ordinary and endless others. While such terms can be useful in certain circumstances, they too often lead us to select a single category for understanding our quilts, which are reduced to one side or the other of a divide. This, in turn, often leads quilters to limit their own practices, and even worse, to narrow their aspirations.

What draws me to quilts the most is the way they can so easily defy categories, or at least can fit into so many categories at the same time. I love simple quilts with subtle complexities, practical quilts that draw on art world concerns, serious quilts that are utterly beautiful. The best quilts are those that are never just one thing, the ones that tell more than one story. But when we qualify our practices with the phrase, “I just...,” we not only accept the logic of the false dichotomy, we inadvertently inhibit genuinely creative practices.

Too many quilters do not think of themselves as creative. I think there is a dangerous myth about creativity that is far too pervasive, one that we begin to learn at an early age. We too often believe that creativity is something certain people are born with, that inspiration simply comes to those few. So, if grand ideas don’t simply pop into our heads, we tell ourselves that we are not creative. I spent the entirety of my childhood afraid of art because I didn’t already magically know how to make it. So we narrow in on something that we can manage, something that fits relatively easily. I grew up thinking I was a logical mathematician because numbers made sense, but it turns out that the numbers were irrelevant. What I loved were the patterns, the relationships. Even though I grew up being told I couldn’t make art, it now feels almost like I was destined to end up right here.

Here is the thing about creativity: it takes work. It doesn’t just appear out of thin air. That said, it isn’t actually that difficult. I can boil down everything I know about being creative to this: take five minutes every day to think about your life, your world. Really consider it. Look for recurring thoughts, things you keep seeing, places you return to, or phrases that simply stick in your head. Therein lies inspiration and creativity. All the rest – the training, the techniques, the aesthetics – are window dressing. Creativity is about seeing the world and finding some small way to talk about it. It is that easy. It doesn’t have to be big, although it can be. It is just a matter of talking about what matters to you, and everyone has something that matters: be it happy or sad, personal or political, there is always something.

While I make quilts that deal with serious issues like domestic violence, marriage equality and economic inequality, my favorite quilts are invariably the ones I make for my children. These quilts tell the simple yet beautiful stories of watching them grow up and the ways our relationships change. They represent moments we have shared, the things they love, and the ways they have changed my life. But more than that, those quilts have transformed my practice and taught me to weave moments of my life into my quilts.

When our quilts resonate with the details of our lives, with our preoccupations and passions, all of those false dichotomies slip away: the pretty becomes personal, the practical is profoundly artful. Then we genuinely take possession of the quilts we make, and those quilts then truly become a part of our lives. Generations of quilters designed extraordinary quilts that told the stories of their lives without art school and design training, but the history of quilts is replete with those stories made manifest in fabric and thread.

Ultimately I think this is the lesson that we can learn from quilts: the mindfulness of the practice does not occur just in our sewing spaces, during the moments and hours we spend working on a quilt. It extends across our lives, asking usto pay attention to the details, to notice the nuances of our lives and find the stories we want to write into our quilts. Creativity is little more than finding a way to bypass those false dichotomies that beckon us to determine the form before the story has been found.

What Is White? by Thomas Knauer, 36˝ x 36˝, 2014

One Thing Leads to Another by Thomas Knauer, 36˝ x 36˝, 2014

Both of these quilts tell little stories to my children, stories that I hope they will always keep with them. "What Is White?" (top) is a reminder of two trips my daughter, Matilda, and I took, one to Amsterdam where we saw an exhibition of Kazimir Malevich’s extraordinary Suprematist paintings, and the other to Oslo where we found beautiful manhole covers across the city (the quilting design is based on our favorite one).

One Thing Leads to Another (bottom) tells the story of how a single simple choice (the single 1” square at the heart of the quilt) can change all of the decisions we make and lead to something beautiful. That single square is Simon, our second child, who has transformed our lives and made the world infinitely more wonderful.

Thomas Knauer holds Masters of Fine Art from both Ohio University and the Cranbrook Academy of art. Before he started designing fabric and quilts he was a professor of art and design at Drake University and the State University of New York. He began quilting in 2011 after leaving academia due to health concerns. He has designed fabric collections for Andover and Kokka. His most recent book, The Quilt Design Coloring Workbook, was published by Storey in 2016, and he is currently working with EverSewn and HandiQuilter to expand the quilting tradition. This essay was originally published in Quilters Newsletter in 2015.