In an artist talk at Artspace this past Saturday, Alice Olsen Williams shared, with a crowd of people in awe of her work, the story of how she began making blankets. After making so many dresses for her daughter that she could not possibly wear them all, Williams heard about and attended a quilt-making workshop in Peterborough. As she says, she realized what to do with all her fabric. It is compelling to listen to this story of seemingly stumbling into quilting while surrounded by so many of these beautiful and intricate works, a very small portion of Williams’ body of work. I am reminded that artwork can take any form and inspired to consider the influence on work of what is available to the artist, both in terms of material and experiences.
Just as we are shaped by where we live and grow, our learning and the material of our land and culture influence the things we make. Quilting, or as Williams identifies the work – blanket making, is an excellent example of this. The form involves composing images and patterns with fabrics that have been printed by someone, or something, other than the artist. These materials influence the final quilt, just as the tints of paint influence the painting, and the stone influences the sculpture. As Williams remarked at one print, a millennium themed champagne motif was purchased after 2000 - there was a lot of it, and it was on sale.
It is not just the material that affects these works. Through the stories told in the figurative and symbolic representations within her works, Williams reveals a rich and broad community. Stars, animals, flowers, fruits, and the four directions: behind each of these elements is a history. In their telling, Williams depicts relationships, like that to her mother and sister whose 60-year-old blocks are featured in one of these magnificent works, to her community in works such as Our Elders Speak, which reimages and passes on a story, and to her fellow quilters through the patterns she has learned with them. In Williams’ work are sewn stories and ways of thinking belonging to her and a community who share them. Their quilting circle surrounds these quilts.
Continuing and empowering a history of talented women quilters and blanket makers, Williams has created amazing work out of a form that became available to her materially and experientially through this community. I am certainly not suggesting that Alice Olsen Williams would or should have worked in a different medium, which may or may not have been available to her. We are very lucky she had the experiences she did, found the medium she did and made the astounding work that she did. I am suggesting the strength of this work in inspiring a consideration of the complex cultural context of anything and everything we create. The strength of Williams' work is also evident in the crowd that gathered for the exhibition opening and artist talk. Drawn here through a myriad of connections with Williams’ exquisite blankets, everyone in the room seemed as captivated by the stories she is telling as I am.