Interviews with the QuiltCon 2016 Judges

At our recent March PMQG meeting we had the fabulous opportunity to have Lisa Congdon visit us and not only share her experience with us as a judge for the QuiltCon 2016 quilt show, but also some of her experience and path to her art career. 

In preparing for our live Q&A with Lisa, I was also able to interview Cheryl Arkison, Scott Murkin and Heather Grant. I found these interviews and the information found through the linked resources below to be fascinating and really made clear how difficult the job is to jury and judge such a large show.

Cheryl Arkison, QuiltCon 2016 Judge

Please tell us a bit about your background.

I've been quilting for nearly 18 years now. In that time I have made well over 100 quilts!
I am the author of 3 quilt books - Sunday Morning QuiltsA Month of Sundays, and You Inspire Me to Quilt. In addition to writing books I am a freelance writer and have contributed both articles and quilt patterns to numerous magazines. All this on top of my full time job as a mother. Which is much preferable to my old full time job in climate change policy.

Have you had any experience judging other quilt shows?

This was my first time.

Have you entered shows yourself? For judging or exhibition?

Yes. I've entered a few. Twice I've had quilts accepted in QuiltCon, twice I've had quilts rejected by QuiltCon. (I did not enter any quilts at all this year. As a judge I could have entered for exhibition only, but I did not feel that was appropriate nor fair to potentially take a spot from someone else.) I've also entered local shows - some are judged, some are exhibit only.

How do you feel QuiltCon differs from other show experiences?

My experiences with other shows? Well, this is the big show! Competition is fierce to get in. My local shows aren't juried, so that makes a difference. But judging is judging, no matter the show!
It is quite nice to see QuiltCon and actually have more than a dozen quilts I am interested in looking at, unlike some other shows I've been to. It was more like all of them were interesting in one way or another!

What was your experience like judging the QuiltCon quilts? 

Intense. (See my blog post for the process).
Eye opening in many ways too. I went in thinking I would be all about technique and be all Quilt Police, but quickly realized that seeing the hand of the maker and less about perfection was quite important to me.

How did you feel after seeing them again in the show?

To be honest, I'd forgotten about some. Also, some were new to me because they were exhibit only. Mostly it was fantastic to see who made what! I only recognized 10-20% of the quilts while judging. I'd made an effort to stay off social media to do so, but really, there were a lot of names I didn't know. And I thought that was fantastic. It means there are more and more quilters putting themselves and their work out there. (Or that I lead a sheltered social media life).
I was totally confident in the decisions we made while judging when I saw them again.

Were there quilts in "exhibition only" that you would have like to have been in judging?

I didn't really think that, but I also wasn't looking for that. There were stunners all around.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our members?

Don't let rejection sideline you from entering shows. And always take judges comments as constructive criticism. No one is trying to make you feel bad about your quilt, only point out ways to improve your skills and overall designs. Finally, if you are entering a judged show, remember that you are being judged. Period. If you don't want anyone commenting on the quilt you made to celebrate your anniversary or the birth of your baby then either don't enter it or enter for exhibit only.
Okay, one more thing. Creativity matters. Technical skill is one thing and an important thing, but demonstrating creativity is awesome.

Scott Murkin, QuiltCon 2016 Judge

Please tell us a bit about your background.

My primary education is in science and then more specifically in medicine. I’ve always had an appreciation for the visual arts and grew up in Illinois in a family of hobbyist quilters. After my grandma passed, I started making quilts for the family and then quickly moved into quilt design and experimentation. I have made almost 500 quilts to date (since 1994) ranging in size from postcard to queen sized bed quilts. More than 150 of these have been published in various books and magazines.

Have you had any experience judging other quilt shows?

I judged my first quilt show in 2001 and received my judging certification in 2003. I have judged more than 100 quilt shows in all regions of the country, including most of the national and major regional shows.

Have you entered shows yourself? For judging or exhibition?

For almost ten years I entered quilt shows regularly as well as juried and open exhibits, both quilting specific and all-media art shows. I have received comments on judging sheets over the years that have been encouraging, helpful, educational, insightful, discouraging, frustrating, perplexing and flabbergasting.

How do you feel QuiltCon differs from other show experiences?

The judging at QuiltCon is more heavily weighted toward design, including experimentation, thoughtful exploitation of basic design principles and risk taking. The evaluation of construction was focused more on structural integrity and whether the construction supported the design. While everything can’t be “modern” and still have it mean something, it was refreshing to see what a broad range of styles can come under the modern umbrella.

What was your experience like judging the QuiltCon quilts? 

It was very intense—the level of concentration required to evaluate quilts fairly and consistently over three long days is exhausting. I was pleased that the three of us developed a rapport very quickly and found a common language from which to discuss the various merits and final placements of each entry.

How did you feel after seeing them again in the show?

The judging occurred over three weeks before the show opened. I was unable to return for the show.

Were there quilts in "exhibition only" that you would have like to have been in judging?

While I didn’t get to see any of the “exhibition only” quilts in person, many of them were shared on social media, and there were many that seemed like they might have done well in competition. It would have been a treat to get to experience them close up.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our members?

This is an interview with Mandy Leins about many of the same issues—

Heather Grant, MQG Director of Marketing & Programming

Please tell us a bit about your background and role at MQG.

I'm the Director of Marketing & Programming and have more than 15 years experience in developing and executing global strategic projects and programs

Have you entered shows yourself? For judging or exhibition?

Yes, I've entered quilts for judging at many local shows and "for exhibit only" at QuiltCon 2013 and 2015. I'm not eligible to win prizes or be judged at QuiltCon since I'm an MQG employee. I've been accepted to QuiltCon, but I've also sent decline letters to myself three times! I've also scribed for my traditional Austin Area Quilt Guild show several times. It's a process I highly recommend as you learn a TON about judging and get lots of great information on quilt making that you can apply to your own work. I've scribed the art quilt categories twice and while I feel my quilt making style isn't "art quilt" at all, I have learned a tremendous amount of information from scribing that category.

How do you feel QuiltCon differs from other show experiences?

The underlying process for a worldwide show is the nearly the same for jurying. Judging is a bit different as we are very careful to select a balanced group of judges that have quilt making and design ability. Our judges are usually an NQA certified judge, a modern quilter and judge with an exceptional sense of design. The criteria for selection is different from other shows since the focus is on modern quilts.

How do you feel the QuiltCon quilt show experience has changed in the past few years?

From my perspective it has changed tremendously and not very much. It has changed from a process and communication perspective. The modern design concepts of how quilts are evaluated remains the same. QuiltCon 2013 was a lot of time spent figuring out how to do it for the first time as it was first time a modern show of that size was ever exhibited and judged. We did lots of things right, we did lots of things we thought were right but looking back were wrong. When you are doing it for the first time, it's one big experiment. We looked at the internal and external feedback from that show and completely overhauled the judging process for 2015. From the feedback there, we tweaked judging for 2016. After 2016, we'll tweak again for 2017. We have a similar consistency year to year, but we are always working to improve our process. We may change the judging sheet, we may change how to prepare the quilt for show, we may change how we communicate, but we've always been consistent over the concept of modern quilt design and showcasing modern quilts.

How many quilts were entered into 2016? How does this differ from the first show?

Please keep in mind these numbers may be off a tiny bit from our original announcements, as quilt makers sometimes enter their quilts multiple times. One year we had a quilt maker enter the same quilt 6 times!
2013: 689 entered
2015: 1361 entered
2016: 1804 entered

How many quilts were accepted into 2016? How does this differ from the first show?

Please keep in mind these numbers may be off a tiny bit from our original announcements, as quilt makers always pull quilts from the show. One year a quilt was pulled because a cat ate it!
2013: 228 accepted
2015: 359 accepted
2016: 359 accepted (fun fact: this was not intentioned to be the same number as 2015 at all, it was completely by accident! The jury made their selections aiming for about 350 quilts and had the same number as the year before)

How does the jury selection process work?

We use a software program called ArtCall. I would consider it an industry standard as it is also used by Quilts, Inc., SAQA, Surface Design Association and others. There are 4 jurors. Most shows don't announce the identity of their jurors, some do. We don't, not to hide, but because there is such emotion around declines, that it doesn't feel like it would be a good thing. As a staff member who sends the declines, I have gotten some amazingly nasty emails with personal attacks. Those emails are 100% an emotional reaction. Who enters thinking they wouldn't get in? No one. It never feels good when someone says no. It hurts. We get it. 
When quilts are entered into the system and then the jury can select 1 to 5 on the quilt. They don't see the quilt makers name, so it is blind. They can read the description, view images and other important info. TAKE GOOD PICTURES. Really, I'm not kidding. TAKE GOOD PICTURES. 
At the end of jurying, a threshold is determined depending on the overall scores. Every quilt above a certain score, usually 4.5 or higher is automatically accepted. Every quilt below a certain score, usually 3.5 or lower is declined. The jury then meets and in an epic 4-6 hour meeting reviews the quilts in the middle to determine what quilts are entered. 
We often get the question, can I get comments from the jurying process? The short answer is no. From a time perspective it's impossible. The majority of our jurors are volunteers. It takes a long time to look at all the quilts. The first and most important criteria is visual impact. Period. I did the math once, and if the jurors had to write comments it would likely take 6-8 weeks to jury the quilts, perhaps longer. The jury review 1800+ quilts in about 2 weeks. It's about 40-50 hours per juror to do so.
Our webinar covers this in depth:
There's also a great blog post from Latifah Saafir here:
On judging:

At what point in the process do the judges first see the entered quilts?

Judges first see the quilts in the judging room. There are several people in the judging room, judges, handlers, scribes and facilitator. All of the quilts for the category are laid out on the table in numerical order (the judges don't see them get laid out) by the handlers. Handlers use plastic party table cloths between furry quilts. Be sure to remove all pet hair before sending your quilt in (fun fact: one time a quilt was so covered in cat hair, it caused an allergic reaction from one of our scribes sitting several feet away. Judging had to be stopped and the scribe replaced until the room was aired out.). Then the handlers fan all the quilts for the category in front of the judges so they get an overview of all the quilts in the category. Then each quilt is held up by a handler from across the room, the number of the quilt is read by the facilitator and confirmed by the handler if it is the correct quilt. Once the judges are ready, it gets put onto the judging table for closer inspection. Judges may ask the facilitator to read the description, if the quilt maker quilted it themselves or had someone else do, design credit, etc. The most common question by judges is if a quilt maker quilted it themselves. Surprisingly, they rarely ask for descriptions. They are judging purely on aesthetic. The facilitator also clarifies rule questions. Scribes write down the comments, they are not permitted to speak unless they are asking for a comment to be repeated or how to spell a word and they never suggest words to the judges. Handlers nearly never speak. It's very quiet. Judges do the talking.

How do you expect the show to change in upcoming years?

This is hard to say. I do feel we've got our process down pretty strongly. We've only had two minor tweaks from 2016 judging and they were both internal criticisms that have little impact on quilt makers. I don't see much changes, but you never know what will happen or how you need to adapt. We are always open to improving our organization and judging.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our members?

We showcase modern quilts. Just because the jury doesn't think your quilt fits for QuiltCon does not mean it is not modern (although sometimes it is the case), nor does it mean that it sucks. Some amazing quilts have not been accepted to QuiltCon. I have personally sent decline letters to myself three times (and while I thought they would get in, they were right to decline me every time when looking at all the other quilts in the show). Not getting into QuiltCon just means it wasn't a fit for QuiltCon. That's it. Jurying and judging is always subjective. Don't take it personally if you don't agree with it and keep going with being whoever YOU are as a quilt maker. The only one you need to answer to is yourself. Also, we will never ever ever ever ever be able to make everyone happy. We would love to, but we have 10,000 members and 10,000 opinions and that is an amazing, wonderful, exciting but also exceptionally challenging thing! 

A note from Violet:

From my viewpoint a few things I have noticed from watching the online recaps, celebrations and criticisms: we are a very new, vocal and talented community. I think it is still unclear where we will go and how we will yield the power of social media to morph the ways in which we grow and change. 

One aspect of QuiltCon I wanted to address this year at our meeting is the #quiltconreject hashtag being used on Instagram to associate quilts with having not been accepted into QuiltCon. At our meeting we celebrated all our QuiltCon entries, whether they made it into the show or not. Only a small percentage of quilts are able to be accepted into any show and a jury will always be subjective. None of that changes how you felt about your quilt and your reasons for entering it into a show. Every entry is an accomplishment worth celebrating. 

As part of the modern quilting movement we are a part of an era that has technological resources available that have never been associated with a quilt show or quilting movement before. Because of that there are particular issues that face the MQG. The #quiltconreject hashtag is one of those issues. No other show has as much social media presence nor a place for those quilters whose quilts did not get into a show to vent and commiserate together. The social presence of our members is one of the most empowering aspects of our movement.

However, when used in certain ways it can also be very discouraging. I know not everyone sees the hashtag as a positive thing. I feel the use of the word "reject" itself is what has given this hashtag any negative power it may have. None of these quilts or quilters is a "reject". They simply didn't get into the show.

The hashtag exists. It is established and looking through it is a great way to enjoy all of the beautiful quilts that weren't accepted. Fortunately, no one can label you with a hashtag, so it is up to each individual quilter if they wish to join their quilt into the category by using it. Personally, I feel like the hashtag itself doesn't have any negative meaning to me and I will gladly use it and enjoy the entries through Instagram that I didn't get to see in person at the show. 

Now, go make a quilt! 

And if you want to enter it into a show, I found this nifty resource that lists hundreds of shows in every state. The link I tagged is for ORegon shows, but use the map and links at the top of the page to look in other states. 

~ Violet Craft, PMQG President 2016