An ongoing debate in the hobby community rages: Do hobbies like knitting, sewing and quilting count as "arts" or "crafts"? Take a walk around a county fair craft hall exhibit sometime, and examine the beautiful, elaborate pieces that someone, often a woman, has spent hours designing and making using mathematics and spatial skills. The county fair is the only public showing most of that art will get. Is it because things like socks and blankets seem too common and practical to be beautiful, or because our society doesn't place high value on things traditionally associated with women's work in the home?
Nancy Erickson's art has managed to transcend the issue. She's made a name over the last 30-plus years for her signature "quilted paintings." No one would mistake one of her vivid and technically masterful workssome priced as high as $6,000for a bedspread.
Erickson started "sculpting with fabric," as she calls it, as a University of Montana MFA student in the late 1960s. While she's also painted on canvas throughout the years, it's her fabric work that has garnered the most attention. Today, her pieces are in permanent collections in galleries throughout the world, including Missoula, New York City, Seattle and Japan.
Erickson's work, often populated by furry, friendly looking mammals, typically draws on serious themes. Her vibrantly colored "Backyard Bliss" quilt, created in 1984 and currently on display at Montana Art and Framing along with many of her older works, plays off a Cold War theme. It shows a woman reclining on a lawn with a sprinkler next to capybaras and a cat, in what Erickson imagines to be a husked-out world that's recovering from nuclear war.
Not all of her meaning is so purposeful, though. She admits she sometimes includes motifs because they were practical at the time. When asked about the female figure in "Backyard Bliss," she responds, "Oh, she was our model in the figure drawing class." Another quilt, showing a nighttime scene of acid rain falling on rabbits, is subdued in gray and black velvets, partly because, she explains, some of that fabric was on sale.
Many of Erickson's quilts and paintings look like teasing nods to traditional femininity, both in subject and medium. Though they could be seen as following tenets of eco-feminism, which explores the connections between women and nature, Erickson says that's not a conscious effort on her part. She says she cares more about promoting animal welfare than how her art is labeled.
"I don't know that it's feminist art, but certainly I'm a feminist," she says. "I think humans have gotten a lot of press, and so I'm working with animals, who haven't gotten as much."
And yet art with even the whiff of feminist intentions has the power to offend. Erickson says she remembers a man who approached her at an art show in Billings about 20 years ago and asked her why she "neglected the men" in her pieces. "And it just totally shocked me," she says. "I don't bear any ill will toward males at all, naturallyI'm married to one."
World events and the environment continue to inspire Erickson. Her more recent works depict endangered species. The 2012 "Leave No Lights Behind" shows a polar bear family that's moving south, away from the Northern Lights, to escape climate change. Another series of quilts, on display at the University of Montana PAR/TV building, depicts each wolf from the Toklat pack in Alaska's Denali National Park. Erickson was devastated by news stories that some Toklat wolves, including the alpha female, were trapped and killed.
Over the years, Erickson's work has clarified and narrowed in focus. Though her right hand appears to be curled with arthritis, and she says it takes her longer to get things done around the house, she has no intention of slowing down as an artist. Whether arts or crafts, the work of creating is never done.
Nancy Erickson's work will be showcased at the University of Montana Dennison Theatre on Sat., March 16, at 7:30 PM, during Odyssey of the Stars: Fabric of Life. $30, tickets available at the UM Arts box office. Some proceeds from art sales benefit the College of Visual and Performing Arts.