Radka Donnell , who died on February 13, 2013, was one of the most important and influential quiltmakers of the past fifty years. A pioneer of modern quiltmaking, She began making quilts in 1965 and continued to produce remarkable work until shortly before her death. She was one of the first academically trained artists to adopt the quilt as her medium, and she pioneered in exploring what quilts can mean and look like, challenging both traditional quiltmakers and the fine arts establishment with her visually powerful and emotionally expressive work. She also was the author of the eloquent book Quilts as Women's Art: A Quilt Poetics and was featured in the classic 1975 film Quilts in Women's Lives by Pat Ferrero. Her work is represented in the collections of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, the Museum of Arts & Design, the New England Quilt Museum, and the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles.
Radka Donnell was born in Bulgaria in 1928 and came to the Untied States in 1951. She studied painting at Stanford and earned her M.F.A. at the University of Colorado. She began making quilts full-time in 1965 and said, “Laying out and piecing quilts gave me a sense of wholeness and certainty that I had lacked as a painter.” She created more than 700 quilts over her lifetime, all of which she pieced together by hand or machine. She has never quilted her own work, which was instead machine quilted by Missouri sewers Claire Mielke, Linda Brady, Ruth Alex, and Ann Carter, and the no-nonsense, machine-quilted surfaces of her quilts were as radical and shocking to many early viewers as were her abstract, painterly designs.
Although she always intended her quilts to be functional, Donnell’s designs broke with tradition in many ways, and they remain unique today. She always worked quickly and intuitively. She used whatever fabric she had at hand, often cutting up clothing as well as pieces of cloth she gathered or that others have sent to her. At first glance, her quilts can seem casual or even disorganized, but they are actually carefully balanced compositions, wholes that are decidedly more than the sum of their parts. She never organized her abstract designs around the repeating geometry and grid structures of traditional piecework. Instead, she freely juxtaposed shapes, patterns, and colors she found expressive. The pieces she cut were often quite large, and she fearlessly combined bold prints and vivid solid-colored fabrics in ways that horrified many traditional quiltmakers. Her quilts are in one sense fabric paintings, mosaics of irregularly shaped and sized pieces intended to evoke and elicit feelings and states of mind.
While Donnell’s designs are decidedly modern, the meanings she found in quiltmaking were deeply traditional. She wrote that quilts are “good objects” which symbolize and embody human touch, warmth, comfort, and the primal bond between mother and child. She said quilts “are, and also stand symbolically for... the pleasures of closeness with a desired object. They provide a full and lasting though silent embrace.” Like all traditional bedcovers, Donnell’s quilts were intended to heal and connect people. As Michael James, a longtime admirer of Donnell’s work has written, “[Her quilts] bridge the divides that have isolated high art from low, fine art from craft, women’s work from male industry, and, in their mediating capacity, they create a visual expression of affirmation, strength, and reconciliation.”
In the early 1970s, Donnell lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her decidedly non-traditional quilts strongly affected many younger artists in the region, including Sylvia Einstein, Michael James, Rhoda Cohen, Nancy Halpern, and her protégés, Molly Upton and Susan Hoffman. She was also instrumental in securing and organizing shows of her own and other contemporary quilts, and in seeking respect, recognition, and reward for quilt artists on equal footing with those working in recognized media. She recalled, “[When] I first saw quilts in a museum, [they] were in back of the exhibition rooms in the hall leading to the Ladies Room. What I had dimly perceived until then I realized clearly and resolved to change: namely, the arts or crafts made by women were [always] given the rear entrance, and it was time to get them to enter through the grand, front entrance.” Her 1975 exhibition (with Susan Hoffman and Molly Upton) at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Arts marked the first time contemporary quilts had been shown in such a prestigious art gallery setting.
Trained as an art therapist as well as a painter, Donnell became a champion of quiltmaking as a women’s healing art. She was the first quilt artist to take a feminist stance and speak of quilts as a Liberation issue. “Quiltmaking politicized me,” she noted. In her lectures and writings, she eloquently articulated the expressive possibilities of the quilt and made a powerful case for the quilt as “an associative field of the body,” a direct link to the most primal human needs and acts. “By its original closeness to a person’s body, the quilt can become an icon of personal feeling and hope,” she wrote in 1977. “This is its nature, invoking no absolutes, but open as to a human embrace.”