My friend Daisy posted this on Facebook the other day: Have any of you given any thought to submitting anything to QuiltCon next year? I’m playing with an idea . . . Not sure I’m ready for that kind of rejection, though.
I hear you, sister. Rejection’s the worst. There’s almost no context I can think of where it feels good. The problem is that if we don’t risk getting our hearts broken now and then we stay stuck in our little corners and ruts. We remain unstretched; in fact, we may begin to grow brittle. Fearful. Curled up like dead spiders on the windowsill.
Does that mean I think Daisy should go for it?
Not necessarily. I mean, it depends.
On the one hand, if making a quilt to enter into competition seems like fun way for Daisy to push herself as a designer and improve her quilting skills, then why not? As Zina, one of the quilters that responded to Daisy’s query, said, “You can’t look at a rejection as an assault on your character or talent. Especially with a show like Quilt Con, where the emphasis is placed more on design than anything else. You should still make a quilt that speaks to your heart, because if you don’t get into the Big Show, at least you are left with a quilt that you love!”
What are reasons not to enter? Some of the respondents had specific concerns about the judging at QuiltCon. Katie, for instance, felt that QuiltCon judges privilege art quilts and “emotional” quilts over quilts that are functional and apolitical, suggesting that she doesn’t feel that the kind of quilts she makes would get serious consideration. Others found that the possibility of being rejected made the idea of submitting quilts to any juried show untenable. They admitted that it isn’t in their emotional make-up to take that risk.
But it was Tina who tapped into something that goes beyond the fear of being judged and rejected. She wrote about the fear of being shamed.
“I have no problems with quilt judges,” Tina said. “I was very sad for Melissa [Averinos, whose quilt “My Brother’s Jeans” won the 2016 QuiltCon Best of Show] because of the public remarks made about her very emotional quilt. I’m sure we all know the pain of overhearing disparaging comments about ourselves. Being a member of the quiltcon rejects [a flickr group for people whose quilts weren’t accepted for the show] sounds great, but the idea of actually getting in and hearing that I was unworthy or my art was unworthy is scary to me. Maybe I’m a little too insecure but I find such massive scrutiny terrifying.”
Yep. As far as I’m concerned, these days it’s not the idea of being rejected that’s so scary; it’s the idea of winning.
Like Tina, I don’t have a problem with judges; I have no reason to think that quilt show judges don’t take their jobs seriously or work hard to make responsible, defensible choices. That their ultimate choices might be somewhat subjective, particularly at QuiltCon, where the aesthetic and criteria are still evolving, is not a surprise nor a particular concern. This year it’s one sort of quilt that wins, next year it’s going to be another. It’s refreshing, if you think about it.
Now I think a lot of people were surprised that the judges chose “My Brother’s Jeans” for best of show. It’s an idiosyncratic quilt, sui generis, deeply personal, one that doesn’t really scream “modern quilt” (at least not to me). I actually think it’s beautiful quilt, but a lot of people I respect remain unconvinced that it was the right choice. And that’s fine–of course we’re going to have differing opinions.
But our opinions should be stated respectfully, with our compassionate understanding that a real, live human being stands on the other side of the quilt we’re discussing. I don’t think this has entirely been case with the discussion around “My Brother’s Jeans.” There’ve been great blog posts, like Katie’s over at Katie’s Quilting Corner, where I feel she tries to think seriously about the quilt and give an honest response. But there’s been a lot of snark. A lot of “I don’t get it.”
To which my response is: try to get it. Even if it’s just for five minutes, try to see what the judges saw. Try to open your mind and heart to the quilt. Because we all know how hurtful it is to be dismissed, swatted away like a fly. Could we please learn some compassion here? We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to stop shaming each other.
I propose we make a Quilter’s Code of Public Conduct. Maybe it could go something like this:
On my honor, I will try:
to not say snarky things, in person or online, about someone else’s quilt. I understand that different quilters have different goals for their quilts, different aesthetic preferences, and different skill levels. If I find a quilt unattractive or poorly made, I will keep it to myself unless it’s part of a constructive discussion in which my real identity is known to all participating. I will not hide behind an avatar or screen name when putting forth criticism.
I will look for the good in all quilts. If I can find absolutely nothing to like in a particular quilt, I will entertain the notion that maybe I should just move on and keep my mouth shut.
I will make any and all critical remarks with humility and compassion. I will ask myself what is the point of making this remark? Does it truly add to our community discussion? For every criticism I make, I will try my best to find something to praise. In fact, I will preface my critical remarks with my praise.
We all feel vulnerable when we take risks. We are vulnerable. We could get hurt. But how about we all make this promise to Daisy and everyone else who dares–who has the friggin’ amazing audacity–to put herself out there in a big way: we will stand behind you. We’ve got your back. So go out there and give ’em hell.
First, a disclaimer: I know nothing about judging quilts. Okay, I know that you’re supposed to check the binding to make sure it’s sewn on good and tight and plenty stuffed. But therein ends my knowledge. I do know something about judging in general, though, having judged several writing contests over the years, most recently the Scholastic Book Fairs’ Kids Are Authors competition. First of all, judging is hard work. Second, while it’s fairly easy to whittle entries down to the semi-finalists, it’s much more difficult to narrow the field down to the finalists, and almost impossible to pick a winner. Usually each of the finalists has hit all the marks: in writing contests this means plausible plots that move along at a good pace, well-developed characters, well-constructed sentences, and stories with heart. So how does one decide?
Well, you resist choosing the baseball story just because you like baseball, and you don’t hand over the big prize to the kid who wrote a tearjerker about a dog just because you’re a sucker for dog stories. You try to not let your own biases get in the way of making a fair choice. Oftentimes your final decision comes down to originality, personality and a certain je ne sais quoi.
Right now in the quilty world, there are those who are questioning the 2016 QuiltCon judges for selecting My Brother’s Jeans by Melissa Averinos for Best of Show. That there would be naysayers is a given. There are always naysayers. But in this case, what are the naysayers naying about and do they have a point?
From what I’ve heard, those who question the bestness of My Brother’s Jeans feel that it’s not a technically proficient quilt. Phrases like poor construction and indifferent workmanship have been bandied about. Many who criticize the choice feel the quilt got its BOS nod because of the story behind it—the jeans in question belonged to Averinos’ brother, who committed suicide in 2009. The quilt is a mourning quilt and it’s difficult not to be moved by it once you know the story.
Since I’ve only seen pictures of My Brother’s Jeans, I’m truly in no position to judge. I should say I do like it, very much so, but to really know a quilt you need to see it live and in person; photographs rarely tell the whole story. I will also say that I’m more than willing to give Averinos the benefit of the doubt–I assume any roughness in construction or design was intentional and for the purpose of evoking a particular emotional response. But as I said, I’m really not in a position to judge.
On the other hand, BOS judges Scott Murkin, Cheryl Arkison, and Lisa Congdon were in a position to judge, and clearly they liked what they saw when they examined My Brother’s Jeans. So just what were they looking for? What are the criteria for an excellent modern quilt? How do they differ from the criteria for an excellent traditional quilt?
There are those who feel that the criteria for excellence in a quilt should be the same across genres. Whether a quilt is modern or traditional or some mix thereof, workmanship and design should be the primary measures of a quilt’s superiority. In a 2015 interview Murkin, a NAQ certified judge, did a marvelous job of outlining what excellent workmanship consists of. Workmanship, he told Mandy Lein of Mandalei.com, “focuses primarily on the structural integrity of the quilt. Secure seams, straight lines (where intended), smooth curves (where intended), well-secured quilting stitches that hold the layers together securely without any excess fullness, straight edges (where intended), square corners and secure edge finishes are all part of this equation. While textiles are subject to the wear and tear of everyday use and cleaning, a well-made quilt should last a long time under general usage conditions. Workmanship that undermines the longevity of a quilt will be noted during the judging process.”
The parenthetical refrain of “where intended” is key to considering how one judges the modern quilt, in my opinion. Modern quilters don’t always have the same intentions as their traditional sisters and brothers. The problem of uneven stitching might recede in the face of an original design or a powerful message. A perfect point might matter, but not as much as the quilt’s emotional impact. Moreover, a less than perfect point might just be intentional, a way of causing friction in the viewer’s experience. In short, intangibles will be considered when considering a modern quilt.
It should be noted that of the three judges on this year’s panel, only Murkin is a certified quilt judge. One of the judges, Lisa Congdon, is not a quilter at all, but a painter and illustrator. Last year’s line-up was similar, sporting only one NAQ certified judge, Stevii Graves. 2015 judge Janine Vangool quilts but is better known as a graphic designer and UPPERCASEmagazine editor. In a post-QuiltCon blogpost, Vangool wrote that her favorite entries “had interesting and personal descriptions of how the quilt’s inspiration came into play … Quilts in which the personality of the maker shone through were the most pleasurable to look at—and the most memorable weeks later.”
I believe that by selecting judges who are not actually certified to judge, the Modern Quilt Guild is signaling that while having a securely attached binding may be important, it may not be paramount when judging the overall excellence of a quilt. Not that MQG is uninterested in workmanship. The entry rules state that, “QuiltCon reserves the right to reject any quilts that are in poor condition when received and seen in person. Examples include, but are not limited to, torn fabric, stained fabric, poor craftsmanship or an unfinished quilt.”
So it’s not that MQG doesn’t have standards. It’s not that workmanship isn’t important. But by using judges who either aren’t quilters or aren’t certified quilting judges, there is the suggestion that many factors will be considered when choosing the best of show quilts, not only workmanship and design. What these factors are may vary from quilt to quilt, show to show. The fact is, judging the modern quilt may be a more subjective process than many of us are comfortable with.
Let me end by saying this: I believe all honor and respect are due to the quilter who places a high value on technical excellence. Too often we dismiss her as a member of the quilt police, a little old anal lady caught up in enforcing rules and making the rest of us miserable. Why not think of her instead as the Olympic athlete of quilters, the fabric world’s Michael Phelps? We admire exceptional skill in athletes; why not in quilters?
Moreover, I think workmanship matters, and I think it should and does matter to modern quilters. In the same interview quoted above, Murkin goes onto say, “Modern quilters have to be careful that ‘breaking the rules’ doesn’t become an easy excuse for sloppy workmanship. Workmanship criteria that are no longer valid, i.e. no longer have an effect on the durability or longevity of our work can and should be abandoned when they no longer serve us and just become arbitrary rules. But many of those workmanship criteria have real, demonstrable effects on the presentation and life of our quilted creations and it makes sense to invest ourselves in making our work better.”
I believe that as Modern Quilting evolves we’ll see more and more quilts that are remarkable for their workmanship as well as their design and originality. I think we’re seeing them already. But I’m glad that modern quilters aren’t afraid to give big love to a quilt with a good story and a beating heart.
P.S. I haven’t yet listened to Annie Smith and Christa Watson’s discussion about this year’s QuiltCon, in which they talk about My Brother’s Jeans, but I plan to this afternoon. You can find it on Annie’s website, http://simplearts.com/blogs/ and on iTunes.