QUILTER PROFILE: Pat Autenrieth
"When I finally realized that drawing was the center around which everything else I did was built," says quilter Pat Autenrieth on her website ( http://www.his.com/~pataut/A/ ) "I was, frankly, surprised. But then, I am surprised I've stuck with art at all. It's nothing I've planned or pined for. I just can't seem to live without it."
Whether she "planned or pined" for it, Autenrieth's involvement in art has been constant for nearly 30 years and has followed a line of development that has led her to a highly individual style and to quilts as her chosen medium, at least at this point in her career.
Educated at the Kansas City Art Institute with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1970, she has exhibited her art in a variety of media in a wide array of galleries and shows, in group and one-person settings. The Museum of American Folk Art, Quilt San Diego, The American Museum of Quilts and Textiles, and The Renwick Gallery (Full Deck Art Quilts) are included among her credits, culminating in 1997 with a solo exhibition entitled "Selfish" at the Gallery at the Harmony Hall Regional Center in Ft. Washington, Maryland.
"A friend has described my paintings, which I exhibited for ten years, as studies for my quilts," she says. "The confusion persists. While I at first attempted making what I considered traditional quilts, my painting past exerted an influence on how I approach the medium, to the extent that, in 1996, the Maryland State Arts Council awarded me a grant for my quilts in the painting category."
Autenrieth's quilts are, indeed, anything but traditional -- you won't find any pastel log cabins or pretty pinwheels in them. What you will find are a variety of intriguing shapes and images -- airplanes, realistic fish, dream-like human forms, polka dots, happy faces, even words and phrases, brought together in quilts which are complex not only in their ideas but in their construction. Of quilting she observes, "it is a hybrid medium, and as such invites an assemblage approach like mine. In it I can continue to paint, draw, print *and* sew, embroider, applique and quilt. I can indulge the pleasure of picking up things off the street, and combine that with the computer."
On her website Pat displays a dozen of her quilts in both thumbnail and enlarged jpeg images. Brought together as they are on a single page, they are interesting in their similarities and differences and in what they tell you of the artist's themes and concerns. They are partly abstract and partly representational, some even including forms of "found objects." They are indeed assemblages, both of technique and imagery, and they make their points (insofar as they can be said to be "making points") primarily in the juxtaposition of things.
Some, like "Consumer, Consumed," which includes a panel that is a representation of a bulk mail "carrier route sort" label, appear to be making somewhat straightforward social statements, but even in this case and another quilt named "Under Suburban Cover" the art is complex enough to frustrate our urge to assign simple meanings.
Other quilts, like "Starry Night" and "Wet Dream" contain female human forms in outline which appear to be either floating in water or hanging in the sky (or perhaps they are the chalk outlines of women on the sidewalk?) The potential sentimentality of these images is cut by the ironic inclusion of other panels of hot pink smiley faces or caution tape or pink polka dots which Autenrieth says are "artistic squatters that refuse to leave." A rather dry wit suffuses both the quilts and her writings about them.
Autenrieth's most recent quilt, "And," is based on a sketch from her notebooks and is a completely abstract red and white design of intersecting lines and shapes, overlaid with the ubiquitous polka dots. Its materials include fabric crayon and paint on a hand- and machine-pieced top, machine quilted.
Despite the strong statements some of these quilts make, Autenrieth denies that ideology is controlling in her art. "Many people think I have a political agenda, or a specific message to convey. I do not. I am merely working with the materials of my personal experience and the conviction that the more local one's statement, the more universally it applies. I use what I know, and I try to stay with basic truths, at least the one or two I've learned. I also try to stay faithful to my own wandering tastes and interests, including popular culture and kitsch, urban debris, untangling the snarl of personal relationships, a little science, literature and myth. (Have I left anything out?)"
Uniquely qualified by her background, she does have some clear ideas about the relationship of quilting to the other arts. Although the quilt is in one sense only another artistic medium, it also comes with a great deal of cultural baggage. "It's partly a matter of media and all the sentiment, lore and actual history that comes with it," Autenrieth says. "Although these are positive qualities, the pioneer fantasy, in general, can be an impediment, especially if a dealer/curator/art consultant has some warm and fuzzy memories of a family quiltmaker and can't see my work in its own right.
"But it's also the insularity of the quilt community, especially regarding training. While more and more art quilters are taking actual art courses in their local community colleges, particularly in design and color theory, they still seem to herd themselves into the numerous workshops held all over the country, in woodland settings, assorted retreats, or giganzo festivals, with the tag-along cottage industry of hand-dyed fabrics and the like, by quilters for quilters. While I admire the enterprise and marvellous organization and administration of these events and their participants, and understand the networking value they offer, I am also dismayed by them. Like Stacey Hollander in her catalog essay for the exhibition of work by SAQA artists for the Museum of American Folk Art, I agree that this '. . . busy, fairlike atmosphere . . . diminishes the perceived seriousness of the art in the outside world.'
"I also feel acutely the absence of drawing in quilt art. And I don't mean the hand-eye coordination of faithful representation (still standard for entry to professional art schools), nor its more technical use in image enlargement or pattern drafting. I'm referring, instead, to drawing as an allied activity, a companion, like the drawings, prints and watercolors that a painter exhibits without loss of his painting identity. I'm also referring to drawing as an activity integrated into fabric cutting, hand- and machine-stitching as well.
"Art quilters also seem innocent of contemporary art history and the debates raging in the art world. For example, the uproar caused by the 1993 Whitney Biennial that raised questions of how multi-culturalism redefines what art is, or how artists are letting theories of criticism shape what they produce as art, etc., are nearly non-existent in the quilt world. While I am fairly clear about why I work in the quilt medium, and accept quilting's legitimate heritage, I do miss the intellectual engagement of these debates."
Drawing, or sketching, as she defines it above, plays a key role in Autenrieth's quilting, though its influence is not necessarily directly apparent in the final product. It is more a way of keeping her artistic capabilities alive and flexible. "When I talk about sketching, I'm referring to working out in my sketchbook and as an end in itself, not as a preliminary to a specific work. This is an activity that bridges how I worked as a painter and how I work now as a quilter. I sometimes call it R & D (research and development), but it probably parallels aerobics better. I like it because it's very direct and immediate, because once I get going, more ideas occur to me, and because it helps keep my ideas from getting cramped and formulaic.
"I often start when I haven't worked in a while, or when I've finished work for an exhibition. There's always a big push to complete particular pieces, and this demands a tight focus. Once that's done and I can relax a little, I have to start over. I usually don't want to jump into another major piece without spending time in my sketchbook.
"My method was influenced by another artist who kept sketchbooks of what he called 'nothing' drawings, i.e., drawings not meant for any specific purpose, including representation. It's a refinement, I think, of Abstract Expressionism. I start with anything--a slow, dragging line; or short, quick strokes; or I'll trace objects at hand; or glue down some collage element. Then I continue, adding and/or erasing, until I'm satisfied or I can't think of anything more to do.
"Quilting is such a slow medium that requires so much preparation that when I begin to zig-zag my quilt lines, I want a ready practice of improvising, that drawing this way provides, to keep some quality of spontaneity in it."
In addition to her original and striking work in quilts, Autenrieth has created one of the best artist's websites I've seen anywhere on the net. Using the web's peculiar combination of linear and simultaneous presentation, she playfully applies her design sense and personal drawings to present her work and artistic sense of the world. The site is both illuminating and fun, and part of the fun is figuring out the quirky and sometimes oblique way in which the pages relate to one another. In addition to displaying her quilts, the site features other artistic experiments and sketches from her notebooks.
Quietly, and locally, Autenrieth has over the last decade created a body of work which has gained recognition far beyond her local Washington, D.C. area milieu. It reveals a bold and original imagination taking "quilting" in new directions and demonstrating conclusively that quilts need be neither prisoners of the tradition nor step-sisters in the world of contemporary art.
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