My Thoughts on an Ill-Thought Decision from An Influential Quilt Venue

For those who may not be aware, one of SAQA’s (Studio Art Quilts Associates) traveling exhibits is entitled “People and Portraits.” Here is SAQA’s narrative and overview of the exhibit:

This exhibition celebrates the expressiveness of the human face. The diverse designs focus on a variety of both emotional states and the ways in which people interact: contemplation, joy, community, work and play.  Based on the companion book, Art Quilt Portfolio: People and Portraits, the exhibition shows two works by each of the book’s 20 Featured Artists.

Two of Kathy Nida’s quilts were juried into this exhibit, which has traveled a number of places, including previous Quilt Week ® (AQS) venues.

Kathy’s inspiration and narrative for her quilt that caused quite the commotion in Grand Rapids last week reads as such:

“This quilt is I Was Not Wearing a Life Jacket, completed in September 2010, touring with the People and Portraits exhibit since October 2013. The title comes from a radio ad I was listening to while pondering the meaning of this quilt, which came almost entirely out of a running nightmare I had for over a week, where I was losing things in the water and people were standing around not helping, and I was diving down and trying to find the things I lost, which ranged from my phone to babies, actual babies, and I’d wake up panicked and breathing fast. Here’s the official statement (which I found very difficult to write…almost as difficult to explain the piece)…”

Two sisters in a strange land. A lost life jacket.
 A nasty oil spill.
 No explanation needed.

My dream inhabited by strangers.


Circling back to the purpose and narrative of the exhibit as a whole, I can certainly appreciate why this quilt was included. It’s about human emotion–panic. It’s not comfortable to look at. It is a nightmare; it’s about fear, about sisterhood and motherhood, about our future, the future of our children. It’s not meant to be a pleasant quilt. Let’s remember the context of where this quilt was placed: in an art quilt exhibit, with the specific title “People and Portraits.”

This quilt–after being shown at other Quilt Week® venues–was pulled after the Grand Rapids show opened, allegedly because one or more attendees complained about it (and allegedly because one or more persons saw a penis in it).

From what I have read, the response from the show producers was to take it down. Kathy Nida, understandably, has been very upset. When I asked Kathy, she told me AQS did not reach out to her directly. In all my experience in this industry over the last nearly 20 years, this takes the cake.

And I know this whole issue brings up the debate of censorship. I think we have to be careful about that term: it’s a show produced by a private, for-profit company, not the government censoring per se. But in my opinion, pulling the quilt after the show opened (knowing this quilt was a part of the exhibit and had been shown in previous venues) it was an ill-thought, knee-jerk response to an attendee or group of attendees. Given my experience both as a founder and editorial director of an international publishing company and also former executive of an international events company in the quilt industry, if you, as a quilt venue hung the quilt already (or published a quilt), and the show is open (or the magazine or publication is printed), stand by it. You knew it was going to be included.

What is most problematic in my mind, is AQS has not addressed this issue yet (anywhere I can see). Many people have posted online, including me, writing them directly on Twitter, asking for clarification. No response, just more requests to sign up for their e-newsletter, etc. on Facebook and Twitter.

I am not a contentious person, I don’t normally post such grievances (this is the first), but for this…I just don’t get it, and as an advocate for quilt artists, I can’t be quiet on the sidelines.

AQS, if you are reading this, please address this issue. And if I am wrong on anything on the above, just please correct me.

UPDATE: AQS issued a statement. (And I wonder how this statement resolves anything.):

American Quilter’s Society released a statement. “After receiving numerous complaints from attendees about a quilt in the SAQA exhibit, AQS removed the quilt from the People & Portraits exhibit at the Grand Rapids QuiltWeek event.

Prior to removing the quilt, the feedback AQS received was not limited to one isolated comment. Attendees reached out to AQS staff at the show and via emails and phone calls to our office.

Despite the removal of this quilt, AQS was able to display more than 700 other quilts at the show for viewing by the general public in Grand Rapids.


40 responses

  1. This world is certainly changing. Many Americans are seemingly becoming empowered with the current election process, now underway. When a WildMan leads one party, there must be many that support such an individual. Individual freedoms of expression … look out.

    I’m a Canadian, and am prouder, everyday, that I am. Unfortunately, my brother now lives in the US, and recently was granted US citizenship … his wife is american. However, my sympathies extend to you, Pokey … I truly do not understand what is happening in your county.

    Canada is by no means perfect, but at this point, I remain a very proud, and happy Canadian.

    Take care out there,

    • Your comment doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the post or with the exhibit. While I don’t necessarily disagree with your sentiments, this doesn’t seem the right venue, or perhaps the right way, to express them.

    • I’m sorry but (as a Can-Am) I have to say (echoing one of my mother’s favourite expressions) what does your post have to do with the price of tea in China?

      Pokey writes about censorship and what many of us have perceived as an incredibly ignorant decision on the part of the boots-on-the-ground at AQS Quilt Week in Grand Rapids, MI and the failure of AQS to address concerns voiced by many of us and YOU see that as an opportunity to wave the Maple Leaf and sing O’ Canada? Seriously? (oh, and bash your brother at the same time)…..

  2. Art is simply art – how I feel for Kathy Nida. Pokey your comments are right on the mark. We currently have a Frida and Diego exhibition at our NSW gallery in Australia. Imagine if Frida Kahlo’s paintings had all been pulled because of their unusual content! Keep on creating Kathy and I sure hope that this quilt will be rehung again soon so that everyone can appreciate your wonderful creativity and stitching expertise. Warmest regards, Helen

  3. (1) I think it’s weird/hilarious/sad that someone would be offended by seeing an (imaginary) penis, but never mention the numerous labia on view. (2) I’ve yet to receive any acknowledgement of the strong comments I sent to AQS several days ago using the form on their website. (3) Spot-on post!

      • I, too, hope both AQS and SAQA offer a public statement about what happened and how they might avoid this situation in the future. With no official statement from either organization, it’s a becoming an even bigger mess with confusing, and sometimes conflicting, details. Hopefully both organizations will show courage and leadership and address the issue openly.

  4. once upon a time at Houston, or maybe it was Lancaster, it was a loooong time ago, a quilt was on exhibit called The Divorce Quilt. It caused quite a controversy. most people didn’t like it. It was an “angry” quilt. I would say that of all the quilt venues in the US, the fact that this Portrait quilt was pulled in Paducah, doesn’t really surprise me….but your comments are right on….they knew what this quilt looked like before accepting it to exhibit and should have stood by the artwork and never mind the naysayers…the entire quilting community is not going to boycott AQS because of one quilt.

    • I am not sure if I am reading your post right but I’m going to assume I am…this quilt was NOT pulled in Paducah. In fact, it hung all of quilt week in Paducah, Florida and Syracuse with nary a sniff (but maybe a snort or two). It wasn’t until it reached the hallowed Christian Reformed Citadel of Grand Rapids, MI (home of ArtPrize) that it was viewed as (incorrectly) having a penis on display (and so what if it did, it’s art, get over it) and, having caused an extreme case of the vapors (or panties in a wad…..or both) in some church lady or ladies (because you know, this kind of thing is contagious) it was determined that the offending penis must be removed from display elst some other poor woman be exposed to a part of the male anatomy she was never meant to see (never mind there WAS NO PENIS). Following that it was decided that this quilt and Kathy’s other quilt were NO LONGER ACCEPTABLE and were packaged up and sent back to SAQA…never to be seen in Chattanooga or Des Moines…..but the rest of the show goes on (and that fact is an entirely different rant)!

      So, don’t be pointing fingers at Paducah! THEY aren’t the provincial “knickers in a twist” women….nay….it was the folks from that hot bed of high art, Grand Rapids, that couldn’t handle a brief view of body parts…..But then, ArtPrize has also been guilty of censoring art in their show even after approving it. In fact, one artist, after having multiple pieces removed and/or destroyed by the ArtPrize KGB, has now been banned from even entering.

      And, before you jump on me for attacking the folks in Grand Rapids, just for the record, I live just south of there and have worked at every AQS show there until this year when I had to be back in Nova Scotia for my sister’s birthday.

  5. Can’t believe these show organizers are so incredibly dense! From all the pictures I have seen the quilt is fabulous! Poor people who can’t see the beauty! Gad some people just want to b#$&h I do believe. Thanks Pooky for standing up for this artist.

  6. Thanks Pokey, I wrote on fb, that if a venue does not want nudity, they should just state that. I once made a book proposal to AQS, after I had written an article for them. They told me my idea was too arty! The idea of the book was what was in the article they published!?

  7. Thanks much for providing more context here. I have seen other posts, including from Kathy Nida, but didn’t feel like I had the full picture. It is inexcusable for AQS to pull this quilt after opening the show, and with no contact with the artist. We all have different tastes and some may find the quilt unappealing or inappropriate. Art OFTEN is unappealing or inappropriate. As you say, the organization should have stood by it with integrity. Thanks again.

  8. As a life long Michigan resident I am not surprised this happened in Grand Rapids. Ultra conservative side of the state.

    • Uh, don’t lump us all in with the Citadel of CRC….I live in Kalamazoo and we are WAY more open minded than Grand Rapids, thank you very much.

      • No offense intended. Just making a comment on what happens to be a more conservative part of our great state.

  9. Thanks, Pokey. Great article and you are so right on in everything you said. I can’t say this is my most favorite quilt, but as you said, one person or group of people should not be given that power. They can choose nor to attend the show. As a retired teacher we often had parents complain about books or movies. Most of the time the principal went along with the parents and banned the books or movies. Should not happen.

  10. I’ll throw my 2 cents as well.

    I just sent Kathy an email with my opinion. The first lesson I learned when I took up quilting was, “It’s your quilt. You can make it any way you want.” That AQS would accept this quilt, circulate it for years, and then pull it because one, or one small group, objects to what they “think” is displayed is wrong, and certainly shows a lack of spine on their part. Personally, I think AQS should have refunded the price of their tickets, and escorted them to the door as they were so “offended”.

    Thank you Pokey for standing up for this artist and for shining a spotlight on the problem.

    • “That AQS would accept this quilt, circulate it for years”

      For the record, first, AQS accepted the exhibit. They had the option to ask that certain quilts not be included if they found them offensive. Apparently they were fine with the imaginary penis (not to mention actual breasts and vulvas) until some CR church lady became apoplectic upon spotting what she believed to be a penis in the work (that there is no penis tells you just how often this woman has seen one). The exhibit has not been circulating for years with AQS. It started the year out with the first AQS Quilt Week and has survived all of the shows until Grand Rapids. The fact is AQS had accepted the exhibit, intact, meaning they were supposed to be obligated to hang the exhibit as shipped to them. There was NO provision for them to decide after the fact, to pull a work or works either before or after, hanging. That they did is unacceptable and it is now up to the powers-that-be at SAQA to make a decision. Do THEY stand behind their artists and decide we will not allow this and bring home the rest of the exhibit and refuse to support AQS (in ANY way including advertising) until Kathy gets an apology and SAQA gets a guarantee that, should we ever (and I think this needs to be debated) display a SAQA exhibit with them again, there is no allowance for censorship? That, while it’s acceptable to hang signage stating that, since it’s art it may be offensive to some people so, if you are easily offended, go away it is NOT acceptable to let one (or 5 or 10) people dictate what the rest of the attendees see?

      As for anyone entering an exhibit clearly marked as art, I am with you 100%. The woman should have been told that, while we are sorry you are (so small minded as to be) offended it would be wrong to let you decide for everyone else in attendance what should and should not be on display so, here is your entry ticket fee back and have a nice day.

  11. Hi Pokey, I am one of your followers! I wanted to leave a reply to this article but didn’t know how. I believe AQS did this maybe 28-30 years ago to Jonathan Shannon and his famous skeleton Dancing on the graves in Mexico on All Saints Day when loved ones picnic on their relatives grave sites. It actually made the news and he was interviewed by the local news and newspapers. I believe it was then published in Quilters Newsletter Mag. And allowed to go into the show another year. I am sure it was him. Teresa Fusco 516-455-1302

    Sent from my iPad


    • LOL, well, it wasn’t quite that long ago (more like 22 years ago) and it was because the quilt was a salute to all his friends who had died of AIDS that it was deemed to be too “controversial.” In fact, the decision benefited Jonathan and the Quilt Museum as they had purchased his previous work “Air Show” and it garnered Jonathan a lot of (in my nsho very well deserved) attention….In fact, Amigos Muertos and Air Show (which was Best in Show in 1993- the first time a male quilter ever won) were voted into the 100 Best American Quilts of the 20th Century by a panel of experts in 1999. In fact, after the snubbing of Amigos, I stopped attending the show in Paducah and canceled my membership in AQS. It was only when they started “allowing” the special exhibits of art quilts in their shows that I started attending them and rejoined AQS.

      I have since notified them I want my membership canceled immediately unless and until they formally apologize to Kathy and SAQA and art quilters world-wide….

  12. Thank You Pokey for bringing awareness to this issue. I too agree that AQS should have stood by this quilt after excepting it into their show. Pictorial quilts are very personal such as this one, some will relate to the imagery and some will not. The same goes for patterned quilts for that matter, choices of colors combined etc… some like purple and orange together and some recoil from it. If quilt shows were to respond to every persons dislikes, they would be yanking a lot of quilts. AQS used some pretty poor judgment here. I am so sorry for Kathy Nida and what they have put her through.

  13. Good job, but have you thought of simply emailing them? Twitter is not as popular as other forms of social media.

    • Guess you’ve not read all the comments. To repeat: I sent a message using the AQS site’s contact form several days with no reply, as have many people without reply. In fact, I’ve yet to hear of any reply to ANYONE who’s contacted them about this issue by multiple methods. Besides, if they haven’t contacted/replied to the ARTIST except to tell her they’ve also pulled her second quilt…

  14. Agreed, Pokey, agreed. Artists need to be able to use any imagery that suits their expressive ideas. Controversial or not. Bad situation. Thanks for writing this. — Amy Ropple

  15. Quilting is done by stodgy old ladies. Ha! So not true. Except some people are still stuck in that mindset. AQS needs more spine–more backbone–more stiff batting–more stabilizer. Pokey did the right thing by bringing this to the greater public’s awareness. I hope protesters march in front of the entrance.

  16. Thank you for commenting on an issue we all need to be aware of. AQS is guilty of sensorship because if I had been able to go to Grand Rapids to attend quilt week their action would have prevented me seeing the quilt. And thank you Kathy for making your art. Art is supposed to challenge us and not always be pretty.

  17. I agree with you, Pokey. That is an unbelievable quilt!! Obviously the creator of it was expressing and processing some very intense feelings. I’ve done some dream work myself, and the nightmare described is indeed a nightmare. Wow. Let’s remember that the quilt community in Grand Rapids probably was not ready for this! …a big understatement, no doubt! But why can’t a quilt be Real art? Life is not easy, and can be terrifying at the most raw level. We all know this. Kudos for the woman who had the courage to create such a work, and to the people who originally chose to include it in the exhibit, before they got cold feet. You are correct in your criticism of them fearfully pulling the piece without a clear statement to both the artist and the public. She (the artist) was breaking some real new ground in the quilting world, that’s for sure!

  18. Thank you Pokey! I was not aware of this fabulous artist until reading your blog. I have since started following Kathys blog as well. Funny thing happened Aug. 24,2016, National Geographic TV showed a penis! It was exposed for all to see. I thing they need to remove the offensive video of the frisky male sheep. It was alive and moving!

  19. I saw the “offending quilt” and while it didn’t appeal to me, it in no way should have been taken down. Whomever made the “gutless wonder” decision should apologize to Ms. Nida in a public forum. Attendees were free to just walk on by. Thank you Pokey for your comments. Sad the”quilt police” are alive and well in Grand Rapids, MI. As a Michigander, I am embarrassed and offended!

  20. Pokey thank you for addressing this appalling action by AQS! I will never attend a show in or visit as a tourist Grand Rapids after seeing this quilt and hearing the story. Shame on AQS for believing a small group of quilters has the right to make you censor the display of quilts. You should also address this decision in the AQS Magazine and allow members to voice their opinion of your censorship after using this work of art at other venues. You need to apologize to Ms Nida and give her quilt positive publicity in your publication rather than bow to a few visitors who have limited appreciation for art & quilting. Shame on you AQS. I would encourage SAQA to not participate in your future shows.

  21. I agree with all the comments above. I have a small quilt that I created called FRIENDSHIP. There have been various conclusions as to what it is (sexual being one of the views). In no way was this drawn to be anything close to that. It is actually hands shaking.

    With that being said, any art is open to interpretation by the viewer. Art (no matter the medium) can be uncomfortable to view. Art is not always beautiful and may not make sense to one individual and tells a story to another.

    If those same people who complained about the quilts went into an art museum and saw a sculpture of a fat naked women totally exposed or a sculpture of a skinny naked man totally exposed, would they also complain to the museum? Probably not, it is called “fine – art”. Art Quilting is no different.

    Dictionary Definition of Fine Art: “Creative, especially visual art, whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative, aesthetic, or intellectual content.”

    My heart breaks for the creator of these two quilts we have been talking about. I don’t want to just sit and complain about the problem, I would like to be part of the solution. I don’t know how to. Pokey, if you have any way I can help be part of the solution, please contact me.

  22. At the same time my quilt is in the “International Painters” challenge, showing at all AQS venues this year. It has prints of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vetruvian Man” and “David” both clearly have a penis. Did no one notice, or is the quilt too small to see it, or the classical images are ok “art”?

  23. Pingback: How AQS Mishandled the Online Fallout After Pulling Kathy Nida’s Quilts - Craft Industry Alliance

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