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Planet Patchwork Essay

Distributed Creativity: Speculations on Quilting, Computers, and Art

By Catherine Jones

Back in the early eighties I held a series of short-term secretarial jobs. On slow days I'd sit at the memory typewriter -- desktop computers were still uncommon then -- and try by ingenious use of the search-and-replace function to program the machine to make pictures of patchwork quilts. (A dark patch would print out as a cluster of capital X's, a light patch as a cluster of commas, etc.) Other times I'd put the idle machine to work by typing papers for an art class I was taking at the local community college. Most of these papers dealt with welded metal sculpture, much of it designed and fabricated by men in the heroic abstract expressionist tradition. I thought about quilts but didn't write papers on them; I knew some quilts qualified as art, but I wasn't sure which ones.

Those days at the memory typewriter bring to mind some elements that fascinate me about quilts: their association with traditionally feminine skills, their unresolved place in the world of fine art, and their generally geometric structure, which lends itself to computer-aided design. Patchwork quilts embody a paradox. They arose from a feminine tradition of patient needlework, making do with little, and honoring ancestors by recycling their old clothes. Yet these products of women's diligence and frugality look opulent, bold, and even masculine (insofar as geometry gets typed as a masculine field of study).

Old quilts in traditional patterns go well on white gallery walls, and the art world has found an honorable niche for them. Despite their modern appearance they are true folk art, with all the sense of community and artistic anonymity (or at least modesty and collaboration) that the term "folk" implies. Contemporary patchwork is another affair altogether; its place in art history is still being defined.

What does it mean to make a quilt today, now that old quilts have been shown at the Whitney museum and new ones at galleries listed in Art in America? What does it mean to make a quilt, with so many books and designs available, so few restrictive rules, and so little time for quilting bees? And doesn't it make a difference that we now design on computers and transmit our work around the world in seconds using software devised by male technical geniuses, some of whom were not yet born while many of us were learning how to sew?

I'm not implying, of course, that men don't sew, that women don't write brilliant and innovative software, or that people of all ages don't undertake all different kinds of work. I'm just trying to suggest that the community of programmers and Internet technical wizards, like the quilting guilds, the New York art dealers, and every other social grouping, has a certain history, a certain demographic composition, and certain set of aesthetic priorities. No craft or art exists in isolation, impervious to influence from the rest of society. As quilters come to use more software and as more quilt images migrate to the Internet, quilts themselves will surely change.

I can't predict how quilts will change. That's like trying to buy a dress that won't go out of style. But I can speculate on possible developments as those of us with what I call the "textile sensibility" engage in various ways with the people who have developed 3-D animation, monitors that display sixteen million colors, and a new programming language called "Java" destined make web pages even flashier. There's a web browser now called "HotJava," a tool for writing web pages called "HoTMetaL," and a new Unix-related language (Perl -- it underlies those fill- out forms on web pages) whose commands include words of great brevity and power: "pipe," "splice," "chop," "kill," and "die." What happens when a textile art form with folk origins meets a subculture known for its 3-D imagery and metaphors involving machinery, death, heat, and caffeine?

Maybe we'll see more quilts with 3-D imagery -- not just the shallow optical illusions present in some baby-block and shaded log-cabin quilts, but complex scenes of geometric shapes rendered in perspective. Maybe we'll start to see animated quilts, quilts that change in front of our eyes. I'm exaggerating here, of course. A quilt is a physical object displayed a bed or a wall, a physical object with a tactile and sensual presence derived from the labor of the quilt-maker's hands. An image of a quilt, however, can live purely in cyberspace and do all the animated tricks that web-page designers can dream up. To take an example -- a rather dreary and commercial one -- someone may open an Internet-based fabric business with a web page displaying a calico crib quilt whose yellow ducks flap their wings and then turn into pink rabbits at the click of a mouse. Fine artists may experiment with subtler and less predictable uses of animation. Whatever we do with quilt images in cyberspace, echoes of our efforts will probably show up in the design of real, physical quilts.

I don't count on liking the early effects that computer culture will have on quilts. Art forms take a long time to mature, and a limited range of motifs and stylistic conventions often produces more elegant results than a flood of new choices and possibilities. Native American pottery of Zuni or Pueblo design looks more sophisticated to me than some eighteenth-century Sevres porcelain. High-temperature kilns, a large palette of colors, world-power status, and a rich tradition of painting did not always produce dishes or figurines of any lasting appeal. Artists need time to assimilate new techniques and new influences. Quilters have barely come to terms with polyester batting, let alone with the effects of the computer revolution. We may produce some funny-looking and graceless objects while trying to figure out where we want to go.

Nevertheless, I welcome the growing connection between computers and quilts. Partly because I tend to rebel against the tedious, purely routine aspects of patchwork design. I'm happy to let computers speed through the flips and rotations of blocks, the changes of color and layout that demand so much time and uncreative effort when sketched on paper by hand. Too much preliminary drudgery cramps the spirit; a person gives up and settles for a mediocre design just to get on with handling the actual fabric. Computers can lead to better, as well as faster, design. Besides, much as I love the mark of the human hand -- a brush stroke on a painting, a bit of hand stitching on fabric -- I've done too much clerical work in my life to romanticize filling in squares with colored pencils.

I also believe that as more quilters begin designing with computers and communicating via the Internet, quilting software may become more diverse, more imaginative, and more responsive to the varied needs of end users. Right now there are just a few major programs, each with its own proprietary file formats and its own particular advantages and drawbacks. Quilters who want to access the features of more than one program -- and maybe use some general-purpose drawing software as well -- find they can't transfer designs done in one program over to another for further development. Few of us have the time, inclination, or programming skill to write a whole new full-featured quilt-design program. Thus we are stuck with waiting and hoping and asking representatives of the quilting software companies to lobby for the features we want. I believe that as more quilters turn to computers, pressure will build for a standard file format. Once a standard file format exists, part-time and amateur programmers will be able to provide tools not included in the big commercial programs.

There's a political point here, as well as a practical one. Talent and creativity are widely distributed, not concentrated in any one group or company. Quilting began as a folk art, a collaborative effort of women, with participants swapping block designs and often working together -- on the quilting, if not the piecing. Software, despite being now a big business, has some similar cooperative traditions. A glance through any of the Internet shareware archives reveals that many programmers not only give their work away but also reveal the source code behind it. In other words, they invite other programmers to borrow, customize, and improve upon their ideas. Both quilts and computer programs have benefitted greatly from voluntary effort by scattered talented people. Yet software for quilting gets distributed today in a top-down fashion that doesn't provide adequately for creative feedback from users.

I don't mean that companies like The Electric Quilt don't solicit and publish quilters' designs and urge quilters to develop their skills and teach the program to others. (I'm singling out this particular company because I happen to have bought their program, read their newsletters, and followed their online mailing list. Other people reading this might be able to talk about QuiltPro, etc.) I don't mean that online representatives haven't stayed busy writing down suggestions from end users. But I look forward to a time when standard file formats (and changing expectations for women) will encourage quilters to write software as well as buy and use it. We need professional programmers and solid commercial products. But I also see a place for creative software experiments that don't necessarily generate any profit. As a woman and quilt designer I'd rather write amateur software and give my work away, than beg online representatives to pester some overworked programmer to add some feature that possibly only a few quilters want anyway. Solving problems beats nagging any day.

As more quilters come to the Internet and learn more about computers I expect to see changes in quilts, changes in quilting software, and maybe also changes in the way software develops and gets passed around and modified. Along with machinery- and caffeine-based metaphors, the Internet programming community has some fine traditions of information sharing and cooperative effort. Traditions that seem to me appropriate for an art form with folk roots. I hope that as this art form evolves and makes greater use of computers, those of us who work with quilts will remain connected and generous with our tools and discoveries.

At the same time, I'm glad to see some quilts that break away from tradition and try to express highly individual feelings and thoughts. Why shouldn't some quilt makers claim the status of artist, with all the philosophical quandaries, outlaw romanticism, and crazy excesses of individualism that the artist's role tends to entail? Much has changed in just the few years since I tried to design quilts on a memory typewriter. I'm anxious to see what happens as the modest, friendly community of quilters continues interacting with the high-energy world of fine art and the equally high-energy world of computer technology.

About the Author: Catherine Jones grew up in a family of women who painted and sewed. She studied math at U.C., Berkeley, but left the Ph.D. program there in 1971 to work in the women's movement. It wasn't until the late seventies, after her twin daughters were born, that she got seriously interested in art. She paints, embroiders, designs patchwork quilts, and has recently been programming computers to apply some mathematical ideas to patchwork design. The quilt designs displayed on this page were made by Catherine using software of her own design. Catherine has published other thoughtful essays in Planet Patchwork's The Virtual Quilt newsletter




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