Anna Hergert, Art & Design

Artwork and Lifespan

Geometrics I, ©Susan Wittrup

Welcome to a new feature on my blog!

Beginning now: On every 15th of the month I will feature a guest blogger who has embraced the challenge to present a topic near and dear to her heart and related to the topic of art.

Please help me welcome                             Susan Wittrup of Regina, SK

Lifespan of an Artwork

Years ago, I was chatting with renowned Haida artist, Robert Davidson, about his work. I was surprised that he did not use any preservatives on his wood pieces whether totem poles or house fronts. His reasoning was that art should be allowed to have its own lifespan, whether long or short, and it is not up to the artist to interfere with this process. At the time, he was working on a house front which, a few years later, burned to the ground. Nothing left but ash.

While I was horrified at the loss, his words came back to me and gave me comfort. This particular piece was one that was not to be granted hundreds of years. I grieved for that piece, and still do as it comes to mind from time to time. I can only imagine how Robert must have grieved. Just as a parent grieves when the unthinkable happens and a child is lost. But there was creation, there was life.

As fiber artists, we are dealing with extremely fragile materials, often combining them in ways that work against long term survival. Dyes, beads, glue, paint, stitch, all stress the fabrics in one way or another. Sunlight, dampness, rough handling, even gravity, provide further threat to our work. As in Life itself, these pieces face a daily struggle to survive.  Some pieces will defy the odds and live for many generations. Just look around you to see evidence of age old textile pieces—a great grandmother’s cross stitch work, a Kente cloth brought back from a trip, a piece of lace from a wedding veil, the Bayeux Tapestry and so on.

And then, there are the pieces that vanish in a fire, are lost in the mail, or thrown aside before even being completed.

Regardless of longevity, we are brought together as a community to wonder at the act of creation, to hope for a long and happy life, to mourn when lost. Like the artist, any artwork is meant to live, and ultimately, to die. I believe that our role as artists is to allow the work to blossom forth and then follow its own path. Show your work, enjoy your work.


Thank you, Susan! I was very intrigued by Susan’s article and would like to encourage all readers to weigh in on the subject by leaving a reply today! Susan will have an opportunity to review these comments.

This entry was published on March 15, 2012 at 6:49 am. It’s filed under Art, Guest Blogger, History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

19 thoughts on “Artwork and Lifespan

  1. Linda Heron Toronto on said:

    I am reminded of the words of California artist, Joan Shulze. On presenting a proposal for making an art textile for a church sanctuary, she was asked “But how long will it last?” Her reply,” As long as it has to.”

    Wise words that resonated with me. Quilts that I have made for grandchildren have been well used and will not last forever. Somehow that doesn’t matter. They have loved the colours and patterns and feel of them. And I loved making them for the kids. And they will last as long as they have to.


  2. After rereading most of the comments, the latter one by Susan reminded me of my earlier craft business days (Christmas craft shows every fall). I often bought ‘cutter quilts’ when I was down at Paducah. These were sometimes out of the car trunk in a parking lot by the show buildings. These quilts were so worn that they couldn’t see everyday use. But I indeed cut them up and made them into angels, thereby giving them a ‘second life’. I also used them for Santa coats for my ‘Heritage’ Santa figures/ dolls.


    • There is a lovely show up at the Textile Museum in Toronto right now that addresses the very issue of reuse. The idea of something being so special that it can’t be consigned to the trash just because it can no longer fulfill it’s original purpose makes me feel very happy.


  3. Susan’s post leads me to ponder the balancing acts we undertake in life: carefully caring for things so they will last — without making them so precious that they are never truly enjoyed; wanting to leave a legacy through our artwork, wanting to be remembered, to make our mark in the world — while enjoying the process and creating without fear or concern of the responses of others; juggling the notion of utility/craft with finesse/art…Thank you for that.


    • I love the way you have summed this up so perfectly. It is a balancing act, isn’t it? And with all balancing acts, there are no easy answers. Thanks for this.


  4. Strangely enough, I spoke to Robert Davidson last night. The Museum of Anthropology at the University of BC had an opening of Doug Cramner’s work. Doug was a mentor to Robert and many young artists.
    The natural life cycle is part of the native peoples philosophy of life. Hence, they prefer to see totem poles in their natural setting … decaying to produce new life.
    I have one of my grandmother’s quilts. It used to lay at the bottom her bed and was used when she ‘rested’ in the afternoon. It is in my studio and brings her presence and makes me smile. Strange how a piece of fabric can represent so much.


  5. I really enjoyed this post, Anna and Susan. Although I’m not a textile artist, I work a lot with collage and have been thinking about the lifespan of my artwork, which also is fragile and changes with time. Paper should also avoid direct sunlight, and although I do add a protective coating to my pieces, I really have no idea what the future holds for these pieces.

    I think Susan’s following statement is wonderful, “Like the artist, any artwork is meant to live, and ultimately, to die. I believe that our role as artists is to allow the work to blossom forth and then follow its own path.”

    Thank you!


    • Thank you, Erica! When I asked Susan to prepare this guest blogger essay I knew it would speak to many of us. It certainly has sparked a bit of a discussion and I am looking forward to more feedback from readers over the weekend.


    • I really do like the idea of lifetimes. Immortality seems rather intimidating to me. I want to live a good, long, healthy and happy life, but I know that I don’t want to live forever so don’t want to expect anything more or less for my artworks.


  6. I’m so interested in what everyone has to say about my words. Thank you for taking time to think and share. Today, I was in the Textile Museum in Toronto–talk about thinking of the beginnings and ends of work! My mother in law was with me and she has a beautiful little jacket made in Denmark for her when she was a baby. Her question is what to do with it. She has it framed and in a safe spot where the sun won’t bake it, but she can enjoy it. However, she worries that she should be doing more. It reminded me of something my mother once told me–she said to always wear my pearls as it’s better to lose them while enjoying them than have them drop to the back of a drawer and disappear. I guess it all boils down to what your own comfort level is. If it feels right, it is right.


  7. Carol Boyer on said:

    Dear Susan –
    I am glad that you made me think on this topic. I tend to get caught up in the day to day and do not think on the long term stuff too much let alone the death issue. I loved checking out all the blogs you posted last time and the idea of featuring is great! Thanks too for the push to clean out the studio from a few weeks ago. I did my ribbon wall/door back. I would send you before and after images if I could figure out how. They are on my blog for today however.

    Keep Creating


  8. I have been thinking lately of my own lifespan and wondering what will happen to all my quilt art once I have passed. My daughters have already chosen many pieces and of course their houses and lives are full of their own things. My husband (or executor) will be overwhelmed as to what to do. I have a written detailed a plan for him on how to dispose of my studio and all its contents (my lucky guild members and friends) but even I don’;t know what to advise him about the finished art pieces. At one time quilts could be donated to the cancer society for auction, but that has stopped.
    I know this all sounds morbid, but when one gets older these things do matter!


    • You are not sounding morbid at all, Karen – you are very realistic and I would not be truthful if I had not thought about the dispersal of my studio and huge library myself. And then there are the art pieces that have not sold. I am currently entertaining reworking some of them into smaller, functional items… but that is how far it has gone. Meanwhile I rejoice in creating new work just because. I have thought of one way to approach the subject – I remember certain people expressing joy and a strong affinity for some of my work. These works have tags with the name(s) of these friends or art lovers – these pieces will go to their homes once I am gone. Just around Christmas last year I gifted one of my pieces to friends. It was completely unexpected on their part but very much appreciated. It caused some decision making and repositioning of furniture in their home but they were happy to do this just to welcome Aurora Boeralis over Sylvan Lake into their extensive art collection. The joy and excitement it caused was hugely rewarding for me!


    • This is a difficult subject. Often you know just the exact person for one of your pieces but are unaware as that person is too shy to speak up. I wish I knew the answer to this one. It troubles all of us. Susan


  9. Cathy Willoughby on said:

    I agree with the idea of letting our art age naturally. However, I do try to keep pieces out of strong sunlight. I have a collection of vintage quilts in various conditions. I only repair to stabilize so I can use them in my trunk show. Often I am asked to repair old quilts. I won’t do it if the damage is more than 50% or involves adding a lot of new (vintage)material. I’d rather see a quilt that has been used and loved than one kept in pristine condition “for good”. When I give quilts as baby or wedding gifts I ask that they be used and am happy when I see they are.


    • Thank you for taking the time to weigh in, Cathy! While Susan will have her own thoughts on this I completely agree with your outlook and treatment of vintage quilts. It is such a treasure to handle and share these gems in trunkshows. The audience is very fortunate to have you share your special collection with them. Keep history alive!


      • One of my vintage quilts is a crib/ baby quilt. The appraiser says that it is rare simply because baby quilts were so well used that they didn’t survive the test of time. I agree with Cathy fully that our gifted baby/ toddler/ kids quilts should be well used and loved!


    • I agree that we should take some steps to protect. I often wonder what happened to that Sunbonnet Sue quilt that my grandmother made for me when I was very young. I imagine it went to the landfill as I loved it, likely to bits. Even the scraps would be meaningful, though. (For me, maybe not for my family!)


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