Last year I was invited to judge a fiber arts exhibit in San Antonio and then, afterward, give a speech about what kinds of things I looked for in picking the winners. I told the organizer that I wasn’t a professional judge and that I probably didn’t have anything to say that would be helpful in the long run, and I suggested talking about creativity, instead. She said that was fine, and I thought about what I wanted to say about my favorite subject and set off for San Antonio.
I spent a whole day studying the fabulous submissions, everything from wearable art to woven fibers–just amazing stuff–and, at the end of the day, I sidled up to my host and said, “Umm, do you think it would be OK if I changed the topic of the talk? I’d kind of like to talk about what kinds of things I looked at in picking the winners.” It’s a credit to her maturity that she didn’t say, “Nyah, nyah, nyah.”
Sure, I’ve been looking at art forever. I find websites to send to my various editors, and I go to galleries and shops and museums. But I’d never really thought about judging art. Evaluating art. I’d always just looked at it and gone, “Wow. Cool!” or “Huh. I wonder what that means?” or whatever. What I realized in that day of really studying works of art is that there are some basic things that separate the winners from everything else.
One, of course, is vision. Did the artist have an idea behind what he or she made? And do you, as a viewer, get a sense of this, even if you don’t understand it completely? This doesn’t have to be some huge, overreaching universal theme, although it can be. But the viewer does need to get a sense that there’s something more there than a bunch of stuff held together with glue or stitches. Perhaps we’ll talk more about this another time, because today I want to talk about the other thing I really noticed: technique, quality, care.
Imagine this: two pieces of fiber art created for hanging, each with an image, some text, and some surface embellishment. Same size, same shape, same colors. One of them has an image created from a photograph the artist altered and silkscreened onto hand-dyed fabric. In fact, all the fabric in the piece is hand-dyed–you can tell by the variations and imperfections. The text is a hand stamped journal entry, the artist’s musing on the image. The letters are painstakingly outlined with hand stitching, and an astounding number of beads has been sewn on as embellishment.
The other piece has a vintage photograph of a cowgirl, one you’ve seen before, printed onto fabric, and this has been fused to commercially printed fabric with cactus and boots. There’s a familiar quote–computer-generated text printed on paper–that’s been attached below the image by a mother-of-pearl button sewn at each corner (and, no, this isn’t a piece of artwork I have actually seen, although it’s close to something I myself made many years ago, sadly). The beads used as embellishment have been glued in place–here and there you can see the glue.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t use glue, or commercial fabric, or printed text, or any of those things. But when you’re trying to move your work forward and improve your skills and push yourself and grow, these are things you need to think about. And if you’re maybe wondering why you’re not having a lot of success getting published or selling your work, this may be something you need to think about even more.
OK–I’ve got a lot more to say about this, so I’ll continue on Friday in Part II. Sorry about that–but I do make an effort to keep things, if not short, at least not-too-long.
MORE RESOURCES FOR MIXED MEDIA ARTISTS