Expert Robert Shaw on Quilt Artist Radka Donnell

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We have recently come across the wealth of information that is quilt expert Robert Shaw’s website, The Art of the Quilt. His vast knowledge on the subject has been collected in his many books on quilting and other forms of American craft art: The Art Quilt, American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007, Art Quilts: A Celebration: 400 Stunning Contemporary Designs, and more.

Here is Shaw’s biography of quilt artist Radka Donnell, who is one of the most important quiltmakers of the 20th century, followed by some of her works. By the way, Donnell is an author herself: Quilts As Women’s Art a Quilt Poetics. Enjoy!

By Robert Shaw

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Radka Donnell

A pioneer of modern quiltmaking, Radka Donnell began making quilts in 1965 and has not slowed the pace of her invention and creativity since. She was one of the first academically trained artists to adopt the quilt as her medium, and she has pioneered in exploring what quilts can mean and look like, challenging both traditional quiltmakers and the fine arts establishment with her visually powerful and emotionally expressive work. An early feminist who says she was radicalized by quiltmaking, she is the author of the eloquent book Quilts as Women’s Art: A Quilt Poetics and was featured in the classic 1975 film Quilts in Women’s Lives by Pat Ferrero.

Radka Donnell was born in Bulgaria in 1928 and came to the Untied States in 1951. She studied painting at Stanford and earned her M.F.A. at the University of Colorado. She began making quilts full-time in 1965 and says, ìLaying out and piecing quilts gave me a sense of wholeness and certainty that I had lacked as a painter.î She has created more than 700 quilts over the past forty-three years, all of which she pieced together by hand or machine. She has never quilted her own work, which has instead been machine quilted by Missouri sewers Claire Mielke, Linda Brady, Ruth Alex and Ann Carter, and the machine-quilted surfaces of her quilts were as radical and shocking to many early viewers as were her abstract, painterly designs.

Although she always intended her quilts to be functional, Donnellís designs broke with tradition in many ways, and they remain unique today. She has always worked quickly and intuitively. She uses whatever fabric she has at hand, often cutting up clothing as well as pieces of cloth she has gathered or that others have sent to her. At first glance, her quilts can seem casual or even disorganized, but they are actually carefully balanced compositions, wholes that are decidedly more than the sum of their parts. She has never organized her abstract designs around the repeating geometry and grid structures of traditional piecework. Instead, she freely juxtaposes shapes and colors she finds expressive. The pieces she cuts are often quite large, and she fearlessly combines bold prints and vivid solid colored fabrics in ways that would horrify a traditional quiltmaker. Her quilts are in one sense fabric paintings, mosaics of irregularly shaped and sized pieces intended to evoke and elicit feelings and states of mind.

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While Donnellís designs are decidedly modern, the meanings she finds in quiltmaking are deeply traditional. She has said that quilts are ìgood objectsî which symbolize and embody human touch, warmth, comfort, and the primal bond between mother and child. She says quilts ìare, and also stand symbolically for… the pleasures of closeness with a desired object. They provide a full and lasting though silent embrace.î Like all traditional bedcovers, Donnellís quilts are intended to heal and connect people. As Michael James, a longtime admirer of Donnellís work has written, ì[Her quilts] bridge the divides that have isolated high art from low, fine art from craft, womenís work from male industry, and, in their mediating capacity, they create a visual expression of affirmation, strength, and reconciliation.î

In the early 1970s, Donnell lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her decidedly non-traditional quilts strongly affected many younger artists in the region, including Sylvia Einstein, Michael James, Rhoda Cohen, Nancy Halpern, and her protÈgÈs, Molly Upton and Susan Hoffman. She was also instrumental in securing and organizing shows of her own and other contemporary quilts, and in seeking respect, recognition and reward for quilt artists on equal footing with those working in recognized media. She recalls, ì[When] I first saw quilts in a museum, [they] were in back of the exhibition rooms in the hall leading to the Ladies Room. What I had dimly perceived until then I realized clearly and resolved to change: namely, the arts or crafts made by women were [always] given the rear entrance, and it was time to get them to enter through the grand, front entrance.î Her 1975 exhibition (with Susan Hoffman and Molly Upton) at Harvard Universityís Carpenter Center for the Arts marked the first time quilts had been shown in such a prestigious art gallery setting.

Trained as an art therapist as well as a painter, Donnell became a champion of quiltmaking as a womenís healing art. She was the first quilt artist to take a feminist stance and speak of quilts as a Liberation issue. ìQuiltmaking politicized me,î she notes. In her lectures and writings, she eloquently articulated the expressive possibilities of the quilt and made a powerful case for the quilt as ìan associative field of the body,î a direct link to the most primal human needs and acts. ìBy its original closeness to a personís body, the quilt can become an icon of personal feeling and hope,î she wrote in 1977. ìThis is its nature, invoking no absolutes, but open as to a human embrace.î (C)Robert Shaw

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