Fashion as Art

Finally! The discussion I have been waiting for! Is fashion art? Or more specifically, can textiles be classified as art? If you’ve been reading this blog, I’m sure you know what my answer is to this question. I am glad that the New York Times took on this topic. I know when I was growing up, textiles, particularly those having to do with fashion, was HUGE!!! People respected their seamstresses and their beauticians.

When I was growing up, I saw women who did not make it to the covers of Vogue, but Vogue was the one missing out on seeing some truly beautiful women. They could be seen walking through a store, immediately look at something on a rack, say, “I can do better than that.” And within less than a week they had either sewed, knitted, crocheted a piece that was better than what the local department store had on display.

Sometimes they used a pattern and sometimes they didn’t. They walked with their heads held high and they did not let themselves be defined by other people’s standards of beauty and art. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be just like them.

When I was in graduate school, however, I was continually bombarded with standards of “high art versus low art” when I told people I was a textile artist. Eventually, I learned that quilts and clothing were major exhibits in art museums around the world, which made me wonder about the people I met in graduate school who sought to demean textiles.

I must admit not everyone in my graduate school experience created these lines of demarcation. I had a professor named Michael McColly who encouraged me to enter my quilts into community art exhibits. I am very grateful. One opportunity led to another. I picked up with my love of textiles right where I’d left off after graduate school. Eventually, I exhibited a quilt at Macy’s on State Street in Chicago.

I was SO EXCITED to hear that Guo Pei made Rhianna’s dress last year for the Met Gala! I related to her when she said that she had a hard time learning how to sew petticoats. She was highly influenced by the clothing she saw in American Westerns, but she had no one there with her in China when she was in design school to teach her how to make them. So, she did it by trial and error as we all do. I went through 1,200 pieces of a grandmother’s flower garden quilt before I learned how to make them correctly. I especially loved her makeup collaboration with MAC Cosmetics last year!

To the outside world, this type of attention to fashion, makeup and hairstyles may look like low self esteem. However, from the point of view of textiles and textile artists, I believe that a redefinition of both art and self esteem is in order. If nothing else, I am also grateful that most major museums across the country have a textiles section and they decide what to put on display:

An Artist Dinner

An Artist Dinner 1An Artist Dinner 2I was honored to be invited to dinner at the home of Mary McCoffey, my curator from my Macy’s art instillation earlier this year. It was a festive event and the food was wonderful: chicken, Brussels sprouts (one of my personal favorites!), mashed potatoes, gravy, bread and mango sorbet for dessert.

After my friends at Quilt Fest Oasis saw the art quilt I made for the Macy’s show, they suggested that I might want to look into children’s book publishing because there were some art quilters we knew who were making a living both writing and creating art quilts as illustrations for children’s books. I took their suggestion to heart.

People flowed in from out of state for Mary’s dinner, just like they did for the Macy’s show. As Chicagoans, we referred them to the Art Institute of Chicago and they made recommendations to me for an upcoming trip I was trying to take to New York for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators writers’ conference (SCBWI). “Make sure you get there a day early,” Mary’s out of state company told me. “There is an art quilt museum in the Fashion District you need to see.”

Conversation inevitably turned to art: what it is, what it isn’t and, because creative expression is so individualized, it is difficult to place lines of demarcation, such as “high art” and “low art” on anything.

“Just because a piece of art is not something you would put on your wall, listen to or read yourself, doesn’t mean it isn’t art,” Mary said. She also said something else: “When I curated the Macy’s art instillation earlier this year, I was gathering my artists together. One of them said, ‘I will agree to do the show only if you agree to write and make some visual art yourself. You need to know what this is like.’ So I took on the challenge. I went to Lil Street and took a painting class. And let me tell you, it was the most frustrating and rewarding experience ever. So when I hear people say, ‘Oh that’s not art,’ I now say, ‘Have you picked up a paint brush and tried this for yourself?’”

It made my day!

Start Over

Windy City Donald MaassI trashed my first manuscript of fiction after literary agent Donald Maass taught a writing workshop in March 2015. I was half way through it, but I’m not mad. Seriously! I am a member of the Windy City RWA (Romance Writers of America) professional writing organization. We had been planning to bring him here to teach one of his legendary writing workshops for nearly two years.

I have had a mixed media project of nonfiction writing and textile arts in mind for years. However, I’ve spent the better part of nearly 8 years trying to fit myself into molds that were not by, for or about me. He knew about the major fiber arts based presses and their importance, such as University of Nebraska and Yale University Press. I told him about my art instillations in graduate school. He knew about the Gees Bend quilters. He also knew the names of various quilt designs. His office is block away from the Fashion District and City Quilters of New York.

I told him City Quilters of New York was my favorite quilt shop ever. I also told him there was a local quilt shop in Chicago named Quiltology (now out of business), that was heavily influenced by City Quilters of New York. He’d been to the American Folk Art Museum in New York many times. We talked about the exhibits we saw.

“The people who drive this market are all of you, the textile artists” he said. “Textiles are a very lucrative market, especially in writing.”

“I was trying to write to market,” I told him. “For me, it seemed to me like that John Cougar song, ‘I could fight authority, but authority would always win.’”

“You shouldn’t do what other people are doing,” he said. “You should do what you believe in.”

“It’s been so long to get something off the ground,” I told him.

“But would you rather keep going in the wrong direction for even longer?” he asked.

That did it. He had a point. It was a leap. It was also another setback. Almost four years of working full time and attending graduate school part time. Five years after graduation, weeks upon weeks, years of upon years of professional writing organizations meetings and conferences to get craft instruction and learn about the business of publishing. I was trying desperately to fill in the gaps that my undergraduate and graduate education left out. And it all came down to one thing and one thing only.

Do what I knew to do.

It wasn’t like it was a radical concept, but then again, it actually it was. It has been a fishing expedition for me on what to do and how to do that. This is the challenge with art. There is no clearly presented path. And either you are willing to find your way out of no way, or you aren’t. It wasn’t like I didn’t know how to do me or be me. I had done that for years. I am a writer. I am a visual artist, textiles to be exact. I was also an activist in rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. But the question was how to best go forward as an artist?

Another issue is that I learned all about other people’s paths both in school and out. I had tried to write a book of romantic suspense. I have respect for all writing. I was even given an offer to help with a true crime novel, but something in my spirit sensed that my own artistic path was quite different. I knew this. I needed a blog site to start off. I simply didn’t want to go into my next art instillations without one. Most people have been establishing a blog following for years.

I was just starting.