It All Came Together

It All Came Together

Nancy Crow Teaching

In her workshops, Crow coaches artists from all over the country on technique and artistry. Classes are intensive – and fun.

Melissa Farlow

The roads in Fairfield County run like straight seams through a patchwork of farmland in central Ohio, and few are straighter than the long driveway that leads to the verdant gardens, house, barns, and studio of quiltmaker Nancy Crow. It’s a lush and quiet compound, created through decades of loving labor by Crow, her husband, John, and their two sons, Matthew and Nathaniel. It’s where she makes her art and does most of her teaching. A huge timber-frame barn, one of three that the family moved to the property in the 1980s and ’90s, has become a mecca for serious art-quiltmakers.

In warmer months, quiltmakers come here from all over the world to take classes, share ideas, and draw energy from Crow’s forceful commitment to artful living. “Nancy’s aesthetic is distinctive – visually intense, commanding, and colorful,” says veteran quiltmaker Michael James. “And the influence of that aesthetic radiates outward from Baltimore, Ohio. It’s hard to think of anyone else who’s had this degree of influence in the world of art quilts.”

A curator as well as a teacher and artist, Crow, 72, has traveled a winding path to arrive at this moment of stature and influence. “My personality,” she explains, “is energetic and impatient.” It took years of hard work and experimentation to find a way of working that made the most of that temperament.

Crow earned her BFA in ceramics from the Ohio State University in 1965, then was accepted into the school’s respected three-year MFA program and majored in ceramics. But by the second year, she found herself also drawn to textiles. A new professor, Ruth Papenthien, an outspoken weaver from Cranbrook Academy of Art, had arrived. “I craved color and fiber,” Crow recalls; weaving beckoned to her.

After finishing her MFA, Crow continued to weave tapestries for six years, but she also began making quilts on the side. Her first quilts were based on traditional patterns using her own modest color variations. But by the mid-’70s, she began to employ bolder colors and to alter patterns to suit her own ideas. At the same time, making tapestries began to feel systematic and inflexible. “I felt stymied because the process of tapestry weaving was so constraining,” she says. Weaving was unforgiving; it wouldn’t accommodate mistakes. Corrections meant working backward, sometimes for hours – during which “nothing was learned,” she laments. Hard-driving, Crow realized it was quiltmaking, rather than weaving, that was her sweet spot, serving her restless tendencies.

A critical leap in her development came when, at John’s suggestion, she transferred her compositional process from the table to the wall. “My quiltmaking took off,” she recalls, “because finally I could see both what I was doing close-up and also from far away, across the room.” And there was no laborious reworking of mistakes. “My eye could constantly make new visual connections with the rapid pinning and unpinning of lines and shapes.” The new approach, viewing the quilt vertically and making quick adjustments, was like sketching with pins and fabric. Given the opportunity to improvise and fine-tune, she was struck by the potential of the quilt as art object.

Crow soon became an active proponent of quilts as art. In 1979, she and a group of volunteers took on the huge task of converting a large dairy barn in Athens, Ohio, into a gallery and launched the biennial exhibition known as Quilt National. Today it continues as a prestigious showcase for the work of nation- al and international artists.

From the mid-’70s through the ’80s, Crow exhibited widely, drawing acclaim for quilts that announced their connection to tradition while projecting a bold and original sensibility. Her deep study of historical examples, awareness of contemporary art, and formidable skill enabled her to forge a visual language distinctly her own, linking the past with the current zeitgeist.

Crow enjoyed years of productivity, energized by her exploration of color and design. Then, in 1990, she experienced a crisis in her work. She made only one quilt that year.

“Frustrated and unhappy, I was ready to quit and change my medium,” she says. She’d spent years using templates to create grid-based designs that, for all their impact, were constrained by linear symmetry. She yearned for a process that allowed for more spontaneity and freedom.

“Slowly, it dawned on me that, rather than change direction, I needed to find a way to work more freely as a quiltmaker,” she says.

She looked at the work of some African American quilters who had a history of working informally, cutting and sewing spontaneously without using templates. Captivated by their example, Crow began to see a way out of her creative quagmire. She was particularly drawn to the example of Anna Williams, whom she invited to participate as guest artist at the Quilt Surface Design Symposium in 1990. Exhilarated by the assurance with which Williams improvised her designs, Crow undertook a project of reinvention, not only altering her process but also examining her most fundamental assumptions as an artist.

It took Crow almost two years to master freehand cutting and piecing, without benefit of template or ruler; eventually the hard work paid off. She emerged from that period of self-examination a more flexible, more original, and ultimately more influential artist. Much of what is considered Crow’s signature work today traces its gestation to the early ’90s.

Crow’s work is one piece of her legacy; another is the enormous impact she has had on other quiltmakers. She began teaching in earnest in 1981, traveling to various quilt workshops. “I loved the freedom of it,” she says, “the freedom to travel with the opportunity to visit so many parts of the US and Canada.”

After a while, though, Crow became frustrated with venues that were hastily thrown together and lacked the kind of workstations and well-lit walls she believed serious classes required. She began to feel an “ever-stronger conviction that contemporary quiltmaking must be taught in an art environment.” She dreamed of building her own classroom.

In 1997, a neighbor offered Crow a huge 19th-century barn that her husband and two sons were able to move, renovate, and transform into a first-rate teaching facility. Since 2001, she has offered a series of classes in composition with machine piecing, as well as design, construction, and color. Auxiliary courses in dyeing, surface design, and other topics, taught by others, round out Crow’s workshops.

Crow is as dedicated to her students as she is to her art. Florida quilt artist Eleanor McCain, who has taken several workshops with Crow, describes her as a powerful, generous influence. “I have had great teachers, but no one who has expected so much and given so much. She hides nothing.” Crow’s candor and integrity are legendary. As a teacher, she doesn’t mince words.

“I believe in being tough when toughness is needed to push a student through a wall or over a hump,” Crow says, adding that she can be very frank with students who value that. “I never sugarcoat teaching.”

In 2010, Crow curated an exhibition of quilts in Stuttgart, Germany. “Color Improvisations” featured 50 large works, including those of her most accomplished students. With her characteristic zeal, she is curating another four shows this year: “Material Pulses: 8 Viewpoints” at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus, Ohio; “Mastery: Sustaining Momentum” at the Dairy Barn in Athens, Ohio; “Circular Abstraction: Bull’s Eye Quilts” at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Michigan; and “Color Improvisations 2” at the Tuch + Technik Textilmuseum in Neumünster, Germany.

Nancy Crow’s fascination with quilts began in the 1970s; 45 years and roughly 300 quilts later, she is, if anything, more engaged than ever in making, teaching, and thinking about color and design.

“I am full of energy,” Crow says; “I have no intention of slowing down. My time going forward will be given to creating the best work I have ever produced.”

Crow “moved this medium to an entirely different plane,” McCain says. She did it by following her own exhortations: “Be expressive, be brave, be free, be wild, be something!”

David Hornung is an artist, author, and professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.