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Editorial blog

Examining spirituality, dreams, memories and emotions

15 May 2019

Michael James is an artist and educator from the US. He was a prominent figure in the art quilt movement of the 1970s and his textiles have been recognised and exhibited internationally. Michael has a gallery at the Festival of Quilts for the first time since 2006.

You were last at The Festival of Quilts in 2006 when you introduced your work exploring digital textile printing. What will you be sharing with Festival goers this year?

In the ensuing 13 years I’ve continued my studio practice and have remained focused on creating imagery on fabric using digital textile printing, a technological opportunity that offers nearly limitless visual range. I mostly work from photographic images but have also scanned and then manipulated painted imagery, and I’ve created drawings directly into Adobe Creative Suite applications that I can then play with in the software and render onto fabric in different configurations. The Wasatch software that is linked to our printer offers lots of flexibility in creating repeat patterns of all kinds, so that’s another tool that we’re fortunate to have at our fingertips. Viewers will see the results of all of the explorations that the technology has scaffolded.

Your work often explores the inner world of dreams, memories and emotions. To what extent do you feel that quilting as a medium lends itself to this?

I think that fabric has the capacity to hold memory, or maybe to stimulate it, but since I’m creating my fabric stock from scratch, more or less, it’s perhaps a little different than, for example, using someone’s worn clothing, or other domestic textiles, as elements in a work. I rely on the imagery that’s applied to the fabric to evoke sensations, to prompt memories or to suggest a kind of metaphysical dimension held within the visual composition that the fabric construction supports.

We understand that your first-time travels to India have been a major source of inspiration for new work, some of which you’ll be showing at The Festival of Quilts. Can you tell us more about that?

Travel has always impacted my work, in lots of ways. My first trip to India in late 2016 was cathartic, coming as it did on the heels of a long period of grief and mourning that followed the death of my wife Judith in 2015. Spirituality conditions lots of places in the world and how we experience them – Jerusalem, for example, or Rome or Mecca – and perhaps none more than India, the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions, including Buddhism. My interest in spiritual belief systems was enriched by experiencing places like Varanasi and Sarnath, and much of what I saw and felt was translated into the compositions that comprise this ongoing body of work.

You teach at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and you chair their Department of Textiles, Merchandising & Fashion Design. To what extent do you feel that you’re a student of quilting? Is there more you want to learn?

Well, I’ve been a student of quilting for more than four decades, so coming to Nebraska gave me the opportunity to apply a lot of what I already knew to very different purpose, specifically, the education of degree-seeking students within an accredited academic program. We were the first university to offer a Masters degree in textile history with a quilt studies emphasis, a program that we have broadened to embrace a more diverse material culture perspective. The degree program and a related certificate program can be completed entirely online, and we have a roster of graduates working in museums and other cultural institutions that attest to the success of the major.

For those of us that haven’t visited the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, can you give us a flavour of its highlights?

We are fortunate to have a number of resources that are unique to this institution and that enhance students’ experiences, not to mention the broader community’s quality of life. The department itself houses the Historic Costume and Textiles Collections, over 5,000 objects available for research and study. These often find their way into faculty or studentcurated exhibitions in our Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery, where we install a diverse series of shows throughout the year. The university is home to the International Quilt Museum, the repository of the largest public collection of quilts in the world, and it too offers a continually changing exhibition program. The Sheldon Art Museum, housed in a Philip Johnsondesigned gem of a building at our downtown campus, focuses on American art of the last three centuries, and it too presents an ongoing, changing roster of shows. In addition, there are numerous museums and cultural institutions of all kinds in the greater Lincoln-Omaha metro area, that help to make this something of the Athens of the Plains. It’s a beautiful if under-appreciated part of the country that I’m a huge booster for. Nothing like broad expanses of sky and 360 degrees of horizon to inspire and uplift!

As well as bringing Constructed Textiles New and Recent to The Festival of Quilts, you’ll be taking part in the Festival’s Quilt Academy lecture programme (Making Sense of a Studio Life: 45 Years and Counting, Saturday, August 3, at 2.45pm, Festival Theatre). Can you tell us a little more about what you’ll be sharing?

Well, that title sums it up well. I began making quilts in the early 1970s, while I was studying painting and printmaking in graduate school, so the talk takes a bird’s eye view of the development of my work from that time. There have been lots of detours and divergences in style and technique, but there have been some basic consistencies in my work over all these years. We’ll look at some of these and consider what it means to have and to nurture a studio practice of this sort.

You’re also the guest speaker at The Quilters’ Guild 40th anniversary dinner on Thursday, August 1, and will be discussing the layers of meaning attached to quilts. Tell us more about that.

I’ve long been intrigued by the “pull” that textiles and quilts, in particular, exert on our senses and imaginations. They have such widespread and democratic appeal, crossing borders, cultures and histories, and in many ways they comprise the narratives of our lives, the narratives of their makers’ lives. There’s something enigmatic in this, something elusive but palpable, and I hope to explore this a bit.

The organisers of The Festival of Quilts have announced an exciting new direction for the Fine Art Quilt Masters competition this year as it becomes the Fine Art Textiles Award, recognising the talents of a broader community of textile artists. Does the art world take textile artists less seriously than those working with other media? Is this something you have experienced in your own career?

I don’t know what “the art world” is any more, and I don’t know how one can generalize in its regard. I also don’t know how it “thinks” about all the dozens – maybe hundreds – of categories of art making that we see all around us. I think that the “quilt world” is more familiar to me in many ways, though I’ve not been uncritical in its regard. I’ve long felt that there’s a tendency among quilt amateurs to be too singularly focused on this specific form, and not sufficiently open to, or conversant with, the larger discourses happening in the studio craft and the fine arts worlds. Over and over I come back to something that the sculptor Kenneth Snelson is credited with saying: “Hardening of the categories leads to art disease.” Amen.

Which quilt artists do you think are making exciting work right now?

I have enormous interest in, and admiration, of the work of the Ontario-based artist Dorothy Caldwell. Her work is rich in mark making and its physicality, combined with the ethereal nature of her visual compositions, says as much about artistic integrity as any work can. Pauline Burbidge continues to explore and to innovate in ways that are outside the box, and that independence of spirit is something that I value. It’s the key. Eszter Bornemisza’s work is intriguing, though I haven’t seen enough of it in life to feel fully confident in my assessment. Basically, I look widely and eclectically at lots of stuff, lots of type of work, far beyond the confines of the quilt or textile worlds. What matters for me is that the work has integrity. Embodying that is what’s most appealing to me in an artist’s work.

What projects are you working on currently and what’s next for you after The Festival of Quilts?

My current work continues to follow on the India experience, and I expect that to continue into the summer and possibly beyond. I’m just gearing up to start printing new fabrics after a bit of a hiatus, and anticipate continuing that production at full tilt into the Fall of this year, as I prepare to retire from the university. Once academia is behind me I’m looking forward to renewing an art-making practice that I hope will be somewhat free-form and against expectations. There’s certainly more traveling ahead of me, and with increased time to read across a wide range of interests, I’m sure there’ll be new inspirations and new directions. I like to think that artists get better with age. I guess I’ll find out.

Michael James’ exhibition, Constructed Textiles New and Recent, is at The Festival of Quilts, NEC Birmingham, from August 1-4, 2019.

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August

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