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When I learned to quilt years and years ago, there was no Instagram or Facebook and for the most part, quilters had not yet fully emerged onto the internet. (To their credit, it was still kinda new-ish. It was 2002.) It wasn't until I discovered social media that I discovered the wonderful world of modern quilting. Before that, I was mostly using reproduction fabrics and whatever quilt pattern book my local library had in stock.
If you are newer to modern quilting, or maybe have a similar background as me, you might be unaware of some of our "Founding Modern Quilt Mothers." Like all great movements, modern quilting has its pioneers who pushed boundaries, experimented with new techniques, and paved a way for people like me to come around 40 years later and say hilariously uninformed things like, "Did I just discover improv quilting all on my own??"
As silly as that question is, the answer can be both no and yes. Nancy Crow is one of our Founding Modern Quilt Mothers and even though she is one of the leading figures in developing the Art Quilt movement of the 1970s and 80s, she also is a teacher who encourages others to express themselves spontaneously and uniquely.
So even though I have not asked Crow directly, I think she would graciously say, "Yes, in that moment, you discovered improv quilting and created something wholly original and unique."
I have a lot of pretend conversations with my Quilt Moms.
The above photo is from craftcouncil.org.
Nancy Crow: Brave from the Beginning
Nancy Crow was born in the early 1940s in a small town in Ohio. As the youngest of eight kids, she learned independence and ingenuity from a very early age.
In 1969 at Ohio State University where Crow went to school, it was standard that student artists were only allowed to use the front hallways of the art department to display their final work. For her MFA exhibition, however, Crow knew that her work was gallery-worthy and needed more space than a simple hallway would allow. She petitioned to display all of her work throughout the whole gallery. And only the gallery. And she won!
Instead of just a few pieces sitting in the entrance of a building, Nancy Crow filled an entire room with her ceramics and weavings. (Let me tell you, roles reversed, I would have been in that hallway.)
Below, Crow is standing in front of her 12' x 9' hand woven rug in 1974.
The Process Behind the Quilts
Nancy Crow got a lot of her ideas from mundane, everyday things that she saw, like farm equipment, nature, and household furniture. When she looked at a chair, she didn’t see a chair… her imagination would toss around the pattern, identify the negative space, and reveal a whole new way of seeing the object in front of her. Nancy’s method was something she called, “Observation, imagination, revelation.”
Like many great artists, Nancy did not achieve overnight success (even though she should have… c’mon people, wake up and smell the awesome quilting!) One story she tells, that I found personally hilarious and relatable, was that she tried selling some of her goods at craft fairs, "until one day I realized I hated hearing all of the comments. So I quit."
haha! I loved Nancy before she said that, but gosh, she just GETS IT. It took me only one craft fair to come to that exact same conclusion. People can keep their comments to themselves.
OK, back on track...
The Improv Quilting Movement
Crow began experimenting with bold colors and asymmetrical design in the 1980s, but it wasn't until 1995 when she developed new and exciting freeform cutting techniques that she felt inspired to launch into her first large body of work, the Constructions series.
With the Constructions series, Crow started to realized that there were certain sizes she gravitated towards, such as tall, vertical compositions. One thing I love about the way Crow approaches her quilting is that she doesn't make herself do things she doesn't like. She very candidly talks about getting bored with some ideas and compositions and also how she tried to incorporate some printed fabric and then hated it so she immediately stopped.
What I get most from reading Crow's words and hearing her speak is that she trusts her gut and lets her instincts dictate her design choices. She doesn't let the fear of "Will this sell?" or "Will others like this?" creep into her creative process.
If you have some time, I highly recommend listening to this lecture given by Crow in 2008. To hear her talk about her work in her own voice makes it truly come alive!
The quilt below is #15 in this series and uses all hand-dyed fabric. It was machine-pieced by Crow and hand-quilted by fellow quilter, Marla Hattabaugh.
The quilt below is #17 in the Constructions series and was made the same way as the previous quilt.
And if you were wondering how long the Constructions series was going to continue...below is #62! This quilt was finished in 2002. The same year I was learning the joys of quilt construction myself...
What is Nancy Crow Doing Now?
Well let me tell you that at 74 Nancy Crow is just as active and creative as ever. She has started a new quilt series, continues to teach workshops in her beautifully refurbished 1840s barn, and continues to help curate Quilt National, a biennial juried exhibition of contemporary quilts she co-founded in 1979.
Crow’s work is represented in the collections of:
- The Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.
- The Museum of Art and Design, New York City
- The Museum of American Folk Art, New York City
- The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis
- The International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln
One achievement I would be sorely remiss to leave out is that TWO of Maya Angelou's book covers feature Crow's quilts!
Stay tuned for profiles on more amazing quilters in the future. Has Nancy Crow inspired you like she has me? Is there a fiber artist you would like to learn more about? Leave a comment below!