Scholarly Perspective: An Interview with Robert Shaw
QN recently chatted with Robert Shaw, a scholar, curator, and lecturer who has written several noteworthy books about quilts, including Art Quilts: A Celebration (Lark Books, 2005) and The Art Quilt (Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1997). See our August/September 2009 issue for an article titled "Hawaii Ponoi: Hawaii's Own," which was based on his book Hawaiian Quilt Masterpieces (Universe, 2009).
QN: How did you first become interested in studying quilts?
RS: I worked as a curator at the Shelburne Museum from 1981-1994, which is where I was introduced to quilts and folk art in general. As you know, Shelburne has one of the great collections in the country, so I had terrific material to learn from. Mrs. Webb, who founded the museum, was one of the first to exhibit quilts hung vertically as works of art, so that has been my approach from the beginning.
QN: How did you first become interested in studying Hawaiian quilts, specifically?
RS: I wrote a book called Quilts: A Living Tradition that was published in 1995. One of the chapters was on Hawaiian quilts, and I found both the quilts and the history of the islands fascinating. That research led to the Hawaiian quilt book, which gave me the chance to take the whole thing deeper and wider.
QN: Do you make quilts?
RS: I can barely sew a button on a shirt, so I have no illusions about my own capabilities. My creative abilities are limited to writing and making music.
QN: Of all the art and craft forms that you study, which is your favorite?
RS: Hard to pick. I like being involved in a variety of things. Quilts are right up there, but I would probably say that antique bird decoys, which connect me to my childhood love of birds and nature, are my favorites. And music is my first love and greatest passion. You don't want to know how many records and cds I own!
QN: Tell us a little about your new book, American Quilts: The Democratic Art 1780-2007.
RS: The book will be published in October. It's a comprehensive study of American quilts as an art form, the first to cover the entire scope of American quilts and quiltmaking, from colonial times to the present. I think quilts are one of this country's major art forms, and the book makes that argument, both visually and textually. I hope it will open a lot of eyes to the beauty and importance of American quilts. It has more than 350 color photos and is gorgeously designed.
QN: What's next for you?
RS: I have written a book on bird decoys that is scheduled to be published in fall 2010 and am negotiating on a second, more focused book on contemporary guitars and guitarmakers. I also want to do another book on contemporary quilts and am looking for the right publisher for that project. I am continuing to curate quilt exhibitions, most recently at the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival in January and a show of Radka Donnell's work at the New England Quilt Museum. I also hope to do a show connected with the new book!
To learn more, visit roberteshaw.com.
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