By Michael Davidson
The debate over what defines art has existed for centuries. For quilt maker Ann Johnston, it’s more than just sculptures or paint on a canvas; it’s about a person’s intent and the meaning behind the piece.
Johnston’s solo exhibition, “The Contact: Quilts of the Sierra Nevada,” opened in late October and will be on display through Nov. 14 at Baylor’s Martin Museum of Art located in the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center. As the title suggests, this collection of Johnston’s hand-dyed, hand-sewn art quilts have one unifying message to them that is especially close to her heart.
“All of the pieces are related to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in some way,” Johnston said. “They’re also related to me and my experiences there and also my family history. I grew up in the mountains of California, and I’ve been visiting them ever since. After you go through that for a whole lifetime, stuff gets to you and you want to do something about it.”
Johnston began making quilts in the early 1970s, starting out using traditional patterns. After making about 40 traditional quilts, she said, she decided to start designing her own and began self-dying fabrics in the early 1980s.
However, the transition into making quilts as art is not as easy as it seems. Johnston described the concept as an uphill battle, with some calling it “fiber art” and others calling it “mixed media.” Many don’t consider it art at all.
“For a fiber artist, especially someone who is working in a quilt format, this exhibit is very significant,” said Karin Gilliam, director of the Martin Museum. “So often their pieces are looked at as craft rather than fine art, and they get pigeonholed. Ann told me she was grateful that she was able to display her quilts as art in an actual art museum.”
Johnston’s show is not only valuable to her but also to Baylor. The art department has a very hands-on approach, said Gilliam, with many of the shows in the Martin Museum being hand-picked by professors as they directly relate to certain concepts and techniques being taught in Baylor art classes.
“The exhibitions in the museum are very faculty driven,” Gilliam said. “This is important because it assures that we exhibit artists that really support what we actually teach in this department. Our faculty is always looking for artists that they feel will be the most beneficial to the students’ education.”
Baylor art professor Dr. Mary Ruth Smith is responsible for displaying Johnston’s work. She officially proposed the exhibit to the art department after seeing some of her pieces online. The show is especially important to Smith as she teaches a class in fiber arts and felt it would be profitable for her students to meet and interact with a professional in the same field.
“I knew of her work, but I had never met her,” Smith said. “I had seen her quilts online and really enjoyed them, so I decided I would submit a proposal to have them shown in an exhibition here. It’s a strong exhibition of abstract pieces that are all related to one thing.”
Johnston’s quilts have been shown in numerous solo exhibitions around the world from Germany to New Zealand and now Waco. She has also written four books and travels the globe teaching classes on her craft, even making time to speak with Baylor art students the day her show opened in the Martin Museum.
Though teaching and speaking with students and artists alike is enjoyable, Johnston said for now she wants to focus on what she does best: being inspired by the world around her and making quilts.
“It’s a little bit of a puzzle when it comes to making quilts,” Johnston said. “I always want to express something about a certain place or thing, so every separate piece is part of that puzzle.”