Book Review

Art and Inspirations: Ruth B. McDowell
C&T Publishing, 1996
144 Pages, $29.95
To order at a discount: Planet Patchwork Quilters' Bookstore

C & T Publishing, one of the most prolific and highest quality publishers of quilt books, has begun a new series under the general title of Art & Inspirations. These are not quilt books in the traditional sense, with how-tos and templates, but rather more like artistic biographies of quilt artists.

For their first artist they have selected Ruth B. McDowell, a career quilter whose artistic style has undergone a number of changes but whose overall work has shown consistent development over the past 25 years. She is a particularly fortuitous choice for this first in the series, as she is thoughtful and articulate in addition to being a master quilter. She has not only taken quilting seriously as an art form but has given thoughtful consideration to artistic and technical issues in quilting-making and shares her insights with us. She also shares her life -- the apprehensions and difficulties of an artistic career, the anxieties of a single parent trying to raise two girls -- as she "begin[s] at the beginning and go[es] on to where I am now."

From the beginning, McDowell has sought her own way. Even while doing traditional quilts in the early 1970s she pursued variations and new approaches. She experimented with materials and color and "reinvented the wheel," as she put it, as she had never finished the art curriculum at MIT. She rues this incompleteness in some ways, but states that it was a plus as well: "I never learned what I was not supposed to do, or what was politically correct in the established art world. This had the liberating effect of allowing me to escape the embarrassment I should apparently sometimes be feeling."

The focus throughout the book is on her quilts, which are reproduced in great profusion and in full color to illustrate the particular phase of her career she is discussing. She moved from early traditional quilts into a deeper and deeper fascination with the intricacies of geometric design. She studied crystallography and several other variants of the science of symmetry, spending at least as much time with Scientific American as she did with quilt books. Eventually she designed her own system for symmetrical design and notation which was most fully expressed in a book entitled Symmetry, A Design System for Quiltmakers (C&T, 1994). One of the primary realizations that comes out of this personal survey of McDowell's quilting career is that although the quilts are stunning in their explosions of color and seeming chaos, there is a deep discipline and intellectual underpinning to their apparent spontaneity. There is no sloppiness anywhere.

She also realizes the artistic importance of limitations and provides many examples of how the limitation of running out of a certain fabric, or not being able to duplicate a certain color, or, most tellingly, of not having a fancy and orderly quilting studio, has in the long run made for better quilts.

After a long stint with geometry, McDowell felt a need to break out and moved into a phase of landscape quilting. Landscapes are not a quilt genre of which I am very fond, but McDowell as always shows great originality and verve in her use of texture, color, and perspective. There are some truly remarkable landscapes here, including "Hockomock" (1991), and "The Potholes of Shelburne Falls" (1993). McDowell's narrative of this period goes into great detail about the special drafting methods she developed in order to make these remarkable quilts.

McDowell's final chapter discusses quilting stitches and quilt pattern design, a subject which could easily be overlooked in a preoccupation with designs as dramatic and varied as these. She discusses her evolving thoughts about quilting, about hand vs. machine quilting, and makes the surprising statement that "It is in the area of the quilting design that I think there is the most room for experimentation. Nobody is doing nearly as much as can be done." She even presents a page of highly original free-motion quilting designs.

While most quilt books are made to be opened up next to the sewing machine for step-by-step instructions, Art & Inspirations is one that serves us best in the other more contemplative times when we're not actually doing the work but are looking for the energy and will to move on to the next project or plateau. There are plenty of inspirations here, as well as hard-won insights into the vagaries of the artistic process. Most of us could benefit from the deep truth of an offhand statement McDowell makes in her conclusion to the book: "It's a lot easier to buy nice fabrics than it is to make good quilts."

If you are interested in ordering this book (at a discount!) go to the Planet Patchwork Quilters' Bookstore. We're always adding new titles!

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