Joan Schulze breaks new ground with quilting and collage

Eleven years ago, when the acclaimed quilt and collage artist Joan Schulze turned 70, she wrote a poem. This was not out of character. She considers herself both a visual artist and poet. Often for her the two art forms complement each other, blending into something greater than the sum of the parts. She ended her birthday poem with the lines:

Stay afloat
Who’s the wild one?

People seemed to get a kick out of that.

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“It apparently set everybody off thinking that 70 wasn’t such a bad thing,” she tells me.

I’m sitting with Schulze on a bench in the middle of her Fresno Art Museum exhibition, which she will talk about in an “Art in the Afternoon” lecture 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2. Schulze is the museum’s Council of 100 Distinguished Woman Artist of 2017, a slightly unwieldy title, but an important one. Around us are her artworks: on one wall, the triptych “Opus,” the largest collage she’s ever done; and on another a 15-work collage series titled “Mt. Fuji.” She has worked long and hard on this show, and she’s proud of it.


The title? “Joan Schulze: Celebrating 80.”

Yes, 80.

After writing her turning-70 poem, this hard-working creator settled in for another decade of immersing herself in what art critic DeWitt Cheng calls in the show’s catalog her “creative philosophy, one based on openness to experience, improvisation and experimentation.” (Actually, to be completely accurate, she turned 81 just a few weeks ago, but who’s counting?)

When she hit the big 8-0 last year, she wrote another poem. An excerpt:

You take it step by step and see what happens. The curious 4-year old is now the curious octagenerian. The path remains the path. The adventure continues. Time to celebrate.

I get to spend about an hour with Schulze on this Saturday morning, and what a pleasure it is. She shows me a slideshow she presented at a luncheon for members of the Council of 100, who each year pick a distinguished woman artist over the age of 60 to celebrate. (Lots of big names have been honored in the program’s 25-year history.) We talk about her art and her home in Sunnyvale. She regales me with stories of her travels in Europe and China. She shames me with her work ethic (at work in her San Francisco studio at 6 a.m., on the job straight until 5 p.m., when she might finally stop for a glass of wine). She laughs at some of her adventures. We walk through her show together.

An hour isn’t a long time to get to know a person in-depth. But something about Schulze makes it easy to connect. Perhaps it’s her wry sense of humor, her soft-spoken but crisp manner, her determination to follow whatever path her creativity sends her down. For the audience member attending her Thursday lecture or viewer walking through “Joan Schulze: Celebrating 80,” here are 10 things I learned about the show and the artist.

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1. She takes chances.

That’s the first and most important thing to know about Schulze, whose expansive views on quilting and collage have continued to push boundaries in the art world. This show isn’t a retrospective, according to co-curators Michele Ellis Pracy (the museum’s director) and Kristina Hornback (its former curator), but more “an exploration of the creative process of a seasoned artist,” they say, with works represented from 2001 and on.

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A big collage: Joan Shulze’s “Opus (center)” at the Fresno Art Museum.

We stand in front of her massive “Opus (center),” a tape-strip collage, which at 134 by 94 inches dominates a wall of the gallery. Schulze ransacked hundreds of magazines for these images joined together with simple packing tape in long flimsy strips, which she then sewed together. Is this work a commentary on race? Or simply on color? To the left is a narrower section (48 inches wide) of the triptych, titled “Opus: White,” and to the right, at the same size, is “Opus: Black and Brown.” (Cheng notes that the works “subtly show how anatomy remains cultural destiny; how color is still the filter through which we perceive the world.”)

Schulze gazes at the piece, delighted to see the three parts hanging together on one large wall, with space to breathe (Her studio is a little cramped for space.)

As the work grew in scope, she knew didn’t want the viewer to fixate on just one image or another. She wanted the viewer to be assaulted by all the images, but then quickly settle down and think of things as a whole.”

And it all started as a lark.

“When I started ‘Opus, with just a few of these strips, I didn’t know where I was going,” she says. “And then I thought to myself, there’s a possibility here. And then I did a few more. My motto for myself has always been to experiment. I wanted my voice to be unique and authentic to me. You have to risk.”

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2. She likes mistakes.

Well, perhaps mistakes isn’t exactly the right word. Think of it more as the inevitable byproducts of the creative process: an extra splotch of glue here, a clump of fabric that might not be perfectly finished there. (At one point we’re looking at a tea bowl that inspired her, and she says: “You can see here how the clay is impure — it has all these bits and pieces in it, which is marvelous.”)

There’s actually a Japanese term for this: wabi sabi, the “Japanese appreciation of imperfect beauty, i.e., marked by weathering or age, the marks earned living a life,” as Schulze has said.

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3. She loves bowls.

More about the tea bowl she shows me: It was a gift to her on one of her many visits to China, where she is a popular lecturer and teacher. The bowl is about 200 years old, but the tradition of how it was made and the clay that was used goes back 1,000 years.

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Visual artist and poet: Joan Schulze, the Fresno Art Museum’s Council of 100 Distinguished Woman Artist of 2017.

Schulze has long had a passion for bowls and has collected them for decades, but something about this one in particular sparked something in her. In such works as “Not So Long Ago,” a 2017 work that is part of her “toner drawing quilt” series — and, yes, that’s photocopy machine toner ink we’re talking about — the bowl is presented from different angles. Other iterations of the theme include the bowls sometimes superimposed on top of each other, at other times appearing almost to cascade down the surface of the quilt.

For the viewer, this is a chance to appreciate Schulze’s minimalist, black and white color palette.

She feels strongly about the idea that color can be a crutch for an artist.

“Color is emotional, because you can seduce people into liking something by using beautiful colors,” she says. “But if you gray it out and see what’s there, maybe it’s nothing — maybe it’s just color. So whenever I get saturated in my work I go to black and white. It clears your palette, your eye. Then you can let the color creep back in — but it’s not the master. The master is the design and the content.”

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4. She likes to focus on detail.

This is not an exhibition you can breeze through. If you do, you’ll miss the subtlety of Schulze’s work.

We stand in front of her “The Long View,” a 2003 work of embroidery that she calls the “Mother” of much of the rest of the show in that it inspired many of her black-and-white works that followed.

“Details are very important,” she says, pointing around the room. “I want people to see new things each time. You can see here, for example, that there are different fabrics. They’re quietly laid on top of each other. it is like a tone poem in that you have light, medium, dark — and the lines all lead to something else.”

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5. She’s a city gal.

Remember that fact when you’re looking at the two-sided print collages “Paris to Chicago” and “Closeups.” (They hang from the ceiling, so you can walk around them.) She describes them as joyful days running around urban centers.

“I’m from Chicago,” she says. “I’m definitely a city woman. I can’t not live near a city.”

In “Hall of Mirrors,” a 2016 collage quilt, hanging on the adjacent wall think of a walk down a busy commercial street.

“It’s about walking in the city, seeing your reflections in the windows, and then if you get them lined up, you see people reflected and coming at you but they’re not there. So it’s a little surreal.”

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6. She’s musical.

Time and again during our walk-through, Schulze alludes to music and rhythm in her work. As we walk through the gallery, she points to a quilt. ‘Da-da-da-BOOM,” she says, accenting the last beat.

In her “Tango,” a 2008 toner drawing quilt, a repeated image of a shoe takes center stage. She explains:

When I got married, I had red shoes with a strap. When I wore them out 10 years later, my husband said, ‘I’ve always hated those shoes.’ I found an image of the shoe that looked very similar, and I thought, ‘I’ll just work with it and see what happens.’ That was the beginning of this sort of dance.

“Tango” is dominated by repeated images of the toe of the shoe connected to thick, wavy lines. This is the part of the tango when the dancer drags her foot. I can almost hear the slap of the show against the floor.

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7. She’s tenacious.

Here’s a story Schulze likes to tell: She was invited to show her work at a prominent gallery in Lisbon, Portugal. She shipped over her works in advance. When she arrived at the gallery the day before the show opened, she learned that while her smaller works had were already hung, some of her larger works were held up at customs. The government wanted the gallery to pay duty on them, even though they weren’t going to be for sale.

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Joan Schulze’s quilt “Privileged Space,” now part of the Fresno Art Museum’s permanent collection.

So Schulze and her daughter marched down to the customs office. After an hour and a half, things were at an impasse.

“I just get quieter. But people can see my jaw getting more determined. They knew I was not going to leave without those quilts. We looked through the window where a lot of impounded packages were. After a while a guy comes out, and he came out to the front and slipped me my work. We went right back to the gallery and said, ‘Here it is.’ “

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8. She’s playful.

One of the things she does for fun when she’s overseas is go to museums. (She doesn’t do that often at home because she’s always working.) She takes photos of people looking at art, and then in PhotoShop replaces those works with her own, usually out of scale.

Everybody’s got to have a hobby, right?

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“Black Tea 2” by Joan Schulze.

9. She likes to challenge people.

Schulze has been to China many times, and she’s in demand there as an instructor. She’s fond of telling her Chinese students to take risks and buck convention, which can be hard to do in a country where ideology can overpower individualism.

Sometimes her students would ask if they could try a new technique or go off in a different direction.

“And I would tell them: ‘That’s not a question you should ask. Just do it.’ I was really messing with their brains. That’s not the way they were taught.”

Schulze has challenged artistic conventions for decades herself, and she enjoys cultivating that quality in others.

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10. She uses technology in her work, but she thinks artists can go too far.

This can be a controversial position. Fresno Art Museum-goers will recall the museum’s outstanding fiber arts show in 2016 featuring a number of prominent artists (including Schulze). Many of the other artists used digital tools to make their works, doing their designs on computers and using electronic Jacquard looms to automatically churn out each tiny stitch.

She doesn’t want to do that.

Don’t get this 81-year-old wrong: She loves using technology. (Remember the photocopy machine toner ink?) She’s a wiz on PhotoShop, after all.

But she has her way of doing things.

“There’s very little interaction after you set it up,” she says of the Jacquard process. “I’m not interested in that. I will not rely on the computer to do the design and just print it out. That to me is like coloring books. You color in the lines, and then you’re done. I didn’t even like that when I was a child. The machine is the servant, not the art.”

Exhibit info

“Joan Schulze: Celebrating 80,” through Jan. 7, Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. 1st St., Fresno.

Art in the Afternoon: 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, at the museum. Free with paid museum admission.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • MDG

    Lovely piece, Donald. Thanks for giving tribute to this art form. My sister does quilt art and I was quite surprised a few years back when I went to a quilt show with her in Hershey PA; I expected a bunch of Amish wedding ring quilts (the kind of stuff I saw growing up in PA). But stead was confronted by truly beautiful and intriguing quilts in Modernist and somewhat Postmodernist styles. I was really blown away. Thanks for bringing this to our local audience.


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