Nancy Crow: Three Decades of Art Quilting

There is no doubt that Nancy Crow is one of the most influential individuals in the history of art quilting. From her intricate geometric pieced to quilts to her well-known teaching workshops and her co-founding of Quilt National in the 1970s, Nancy has been pivotal in advocating for an defining the art quilt. Having made over 300 quilts, she is still a prolific artist and currently has an exhibit, “Nancy Crow: Crossroads, New and Recent Quilts,” at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA, which will be on display until May 9th. A couple of weeks later, her largest solo exhibition to date, “Nancy Crow: Recent and New Work,” will open at the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, NY, where it will be on display from May 29th to August 15th. Here, Nancy discusses the techniques, influences, and adventures that have shaped her 34 years of experience as an art quilter.

You began creating art quilts in 1976. How has your approach changed, or has it?

My early work was very much grounded in traditional quilt making, using templates which then fit together into huge compositions. I made very big works at the beginning of my career, and I worked that way until to the mid-to-late 80s. In 1990, I realized I had to go about this a different way. Templates were really restricting, and I felt like I couldn’t truly create art that way.

Then I realized that any kind of cutting, whether with scissors or a rotary cutter, is drawing. When that finally latched into my brain, it released me and I started working more improvisationally. That’s now what I teach in my advanced classes: you have to start thinking of cutting as drawing. It’s the closest thing quilters have to a pen or a pencil. The big difference for us, of course, is that the result is either good to go or we’ve ruined a piece of fabric. Very serious quilt makers have not been given their due for how technically difficult their work is.

Cutting and machine piecing is clearly a very important part of the process to you. What role does surface design play in the creation of your quilts?

I started dying my own fabrics a long time ago so I could achieve very saturated colors. But I didn’t start doing true surface design with patterning and printing until about five years ago—though I played around with it many times over the last 25 years. It’s an area where I’m still developing my abilities and I will continue to pursue it. I’m mainly interested in screen printing, making my own motifs improvisationally or actually having a screen burned, and in deconstructing the fabric.

Your quilts are known for their exceptional use of line and color. What inspires your designs? Do you get your ideas from concrete visuals or abstract ideas and emotions?

I live on a farm and I am a very keen observer, so I keep going back to the same patterns that I love. For instance, a critic once said my work looks like pickup sticks, which I think is a very interesting idea. I certainly have a few piles of lumber laying around that are chaotic looking and one of our fields is covered in wild flowers that deteriorate every spring and fall down into piles of lines—clearly, these images are influencing my pieces.

But there are always two things happening in my art: the visual influences and an emotional underlay. All my work has a very strong emotional underlay which I don’t necessarily write up or let people know about.

You work in a 2,400 square foot barn that is attached to your house. Is this space very important to your creativity?

I always feel like I am walking into my environment, somewhere that enables me to create. I have put the most wonderful things on my walls, things that are visually stimulating to me. I actually have three studios, but the biggest one is just chock-a-block of visual stimuli. I love it that way and I actually have a hard time letting anyone else into this space because it’s so private. I have textiles from all over the world, some really phenomenal baskets that I’ve collected, and my husband has found all sorts of odds and ends from the farm, like parts of old tractors. I love the shapes and configurations from these objects.

You have stated that quilting is a very personal, private activity for you, but also do a lot of teaching and are well-known for your retreats and workshops. How is your teaching important to your identity as an artist?

I come from a family of teachers so it’s something that’s highly regarded in my family. I think teaching done well is one of the hardest things someone can do in their life, but it’s also incredibly creative and fulfilling. As a teacher, I do things a little differently. There are very few who are teaching composition and critiquing it, and this has to be done if quilting is going to be regarded as art. Because I’m willing to do critiques, I put myself out on a line and to try to help people see their work in a more honest light so they can improve it.

Teaching  also helps me clarify my own ideas. I always learn a lot from students. I think there’s a misconception out there that I teach people to make what I make, to make work that looks like mine. I teach techniques and design exercises with the intention of having my students go home and work hard for a year or two to develop their own ideas.

Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming exhibit at the Schweinfurth Art Center this summer? How were the quilts selected?

First of all, the museum’s director, Donna Lamb, is outstanding in her absolute support of quilt making. She was brought up with it since her mother was a quilt maker. It’s a huge plus to work with someone who believes in quilting and has done it themselves; she is a very positive person.

Between 50 and 60 pieces will be in the galleries. I decided to include some very early pieces from when I still worked with commercial and printed fabrics. Some of these pieces haven’t been out of my studio in 20 years and will enable people can see where I came from. The exhibition isn’t a retrospective per se, but each gallery will have a theme. One will have the older pieces; another will have a sketch and the major piece that went with the sketch. Another gallery will have more narrow/vertical pieces, and the main gallery will have all the new and recent work.

You travel quite a bit and just returned from a trip to Vietnam. How does this influence your work?

Travel was introduced to me very young because my father and mother love to do it. When I was 19, I went to Mexico City and studied there. My mother took me around the world when I was a Junior in college. Years later, my husband and I went off to live in Ecuador and Brazil. Travel is an opportunity to observe and see what I can see.

Because I was introduced to Mexico so young, I love graphic imagery; that’s why my work is so colorful and vibrant. I go back there often and have a plan to go to Chiapas in August with some friends and search the villages for textiles.  

Are there any artistic techniques, concepts, or ideas that you still hope to explore?

I’m 66 and I have made a decision and promise to myself that my work is going to keep growing and changing. I’m not interested in plateauing and doing the same thing. As long as I’m physically able, that’s my promise to myself. Perhaps this will mean exploring certain techniques in depth, perhaps not. I’m open to anything.

To learn more about Nancy, visit her website.

Images: From Top to Bottom

All quilt photos by J. Kevin Fitzsimons

  • Nancy in her studio; photo by Nathaniel Stitzlein
  • “CONSTRUCTIONS #83: Anxiety!” • 2006-2007© Nancy Crow  81½” x 79¼” • 100% cottons hand-dyed and machine-pieced by Nancy Crow; hand-quilted by Marla Hattabaugh with pattern denoted by Nancy Crow
  • “CONSTRUCTIONS #90” • 2007© Nancy Crow  • 42″ x 29¼” • 100% cottons hand-dyed and machine-pieced by Nancy Crow; machine-quilted by Kathy Loomis with pattern denoted by Nancy Crow
  • “CONSTRUCTIONS #84: No!” • 2007© Nancy Crow • 70″ x 75″ • 100% cottons hand-dyed and machine-pieced by Nancy Crow; hand-quilted by Marla Hattabaugh with pattern denoted by Nancy Crow
  • “STRUCTURES #5” • 2006-2009© Nancy Crow • 67½” x 84¼” • Screen-printed by Nancy Crow with help from Emma Reese; machine-pieced by Nancy Crow; hand-quilted by Marla Hattabaugh with pattern denoted by Nancy Crow

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