I recently went to “Quilt Odyssey,” a major annual quilt show held in Hershey, Pennsylvania, famous for chocolate bars, and near the epicenter of American quilting. As I walked around and saw one exciting quilt after another, with intriguing designs and dazzling colors, I got more and more excited, and I realized that there was a quotation buzzing around in my mind so fast that I couldn’t get it. Finally, I took a deep breath, and succeeded in recalling it. I should have known. It’s one of my favorite quotations about creativity, from Emily Dickinson. She once said, “When I read great poetry, it feels like the top of my head is coming off.”
So I walked around some more, and got still more excited by what I saw. I was thinking, “I haven’t had a visual experience that excited me this much in a long time.” I wondered why this was, and again had a nagging sensation that a thought in the back of my mind was trying to break through into my consciousness. When I turned a corner and saw a quilt called “Matisse Revisited,” something went WHAM in my consciousness, and I realized what it was. This quilt, a group effort inspired by Matisse’s “Red Interior,” from 1947, was so mesmerizing that it made me realize that “Quilt Odyssey” showed more creativity, more imagination, more ingenuity, than all the recent art exhibits I’ve seen in the last decade combined. There’s something important to be understood here, something to be said about both modern painting and modern quilting.
Critics generally agree that Pablo Picasso was the dominant painter of the twentieth century, and that his “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and subsequent cubist works called into question the painting styles established in the Renaissance. Picasso’s competition with his long-time friend and rival, Henri Matisse, resulted in great paintings by both Picasso and Matisse. While they remained committed to figurative painting, an understanding of twentieth-century painting is incomplete without the greatest abstract artist, Vasily Kandinsky, any one of whose canvases from the thirties makes the work of the Abstract Expressionists look pallid.