by Warwick University - Helen Cobby review of Through Our Hands.
The relationship between art and crafts is constantly debated and revised
within the creative world. Leamington’s latest art exhibition at the Pump Rooms
engages with this by presenting a great variety of quilts in terms of shape,
size, subject matter, medium and stitching techniques in order to focus on
the aesthetic, but also the political, nature of quilting and craftsmanship. This
directs the viewer to approach the quilts as pieces of art, rather than functional
items coming from an archaic crafting history. However, the craftsmanship and
obvious crafting skill that goes into making one of these beautiful quilts is not
ignored, as the exhibition includes a film on how quilts and patchwork pieces are
made alongside displays of quilting fabric samples that visitors are encouraged
This exhibition, entitled Through Our Hands, includes work from ten top
international quilt artists and teachers, which makes for a vibrant collection of
techniques and modern subjects, and undermines traditional prejudices about
quilting being a fussy, old fashioned, and predominantly functional craft. Though
I feel they still play around with the ‘woman question’ attached to the creation
and use of crafts – for a start, all the artists are female, and their work depicts
mostly domestic or ‘familiar’ scenes. This however is not a criticism, because
although the exhibition can be seen to (re)define quilting as a form of female
expression, this focus on the domestic and the feminine ultimately serves to
present everyday details as beautiful, something poets and artists alike have
been doing for centuries. In addition, these familiar scenes are often pushed into
an almost supernatural sphere, and ‘unpicked’ so as to focus on the potential of
quilting for conveying, and experimenting with, shape, colour, form and feeling.
Through Our Hands is definitely a successful stand for modernising quilting as an
artistic form and process.
You don’t have to be a quilting expert to be able to appreciate the variety of
different practices this exhibition brings together. This is partly due to the way
the exhibition has been curated and hung, as quilts made up of contrasting
techniques are juxtaposed within the same hanging space. So an exciting mixture
of hand painted quilting, hand appliqué, embellishment, embroidery, and
machine or free motion continuous stitching is displayed, giving a great feast for
the eyes and senses.
One piece by quilting artist Bethan Ash called I Want To Stitch, 144 x 80cm, is
made up of appliqué and text, which I feel is reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s wall
hangings – but is a lot neater. With the use of text, Ash’s quilt literally explores
what quilting means in a colourful collection of enjambed lines, which state ideas
about quilts being a “reflection of our past”, a source of warmth and comfort,
defined by shape and colour, and able to impart political ideas and values. This
implication of the fluidity of quilts in terms of their function, form and meaning
is mirrored in the way each quilt is hung because due to the intense stitching
on each piece, the work hangs away from the walls defying any fixed frame and
instead suggesting movement and freedom within the stitching lines.
Text is also a feature in Eszter Bornemisza’s pieces that greet the visitor at
the beginning of the exhibition. Her work experiments with ideas of evolution
within cities and urban life, which she communicates through using rusty brown
colours and found materials such as recycled paper and reprinted newspapers.
Especially in the piece, City in the Aire’, 300 x 100cm, Bornedmisza incorporates
birds eye view maps, calligraphy and newspaper text to layer up different
methods of communication constructive of city life.
Text is also a fundamental theme in Annabel Rainbow’s three quilts (each
roughly 150 x 110cm), through which she explores what it means to be a modern
woman pulled in different directions by pressures of motherhood, domesticity
and academic success. Her triptych sequence is broken into three poignant
but satiric titles, Be the Change You Want, Switching Off, and “Hello Dear. What
Did You Do Today?”, which maps the roles available to the modern woman.
The feelings that the artist believes these options evoke within a woman are
then ‘blistered’ and ingrained onto the skin of the female figures central within
each panel’s composition. This dramatic and thought provoking reaction to some
of the pressures women face is heightened by the highly detailed domesticity
depicted within each scene and the thick dark frames that simultaneously
close off and link each section of the triptych together. Due to this, the feeling
of claustrophobia and containment is lucidly conveyed beneath what initially
appears to be a comfortable domestic interior.
After looking at Rainbow’s work, the quilt Traveller’s Blanket with Circles, 140
x 85cm, by Dijanne Cevall, appears particularly uplifting. It is one of the most
abstract quilts on display, and celebrates pattern and embroidery techniques
through a collection of cheerful and vibrant ‘microorganisms’. This definitely
captures the energy and movement of travel and memory from which it is
This exhibition is on until 13 January, which hopefully means no one will miss
out on seeing it. Although it is small, I am sure I will be going back several
times to savour the diversity, skill and passion that this exhibition exudes. It is
a completely refreshing take on quilting that provides a creative platform for
exploring this art form and its relationship with craft and modern life.