Patricia Malarcher: Listening to Materials

TSGNY: How did you first start working with textiles and textile processes?

Patricia Malarcher: I was finishing an MFA in painting in the late 1950s when I saw an exhibition of contemporary banners at the National Gallery in Washington. They were full of color and texture, hanging freely in space with irregular edges, and seemed refreshingly playful compared to the introspective Abstract Expressionism I’d been exposed to. It was love at first sight — I felt I’d found a path to explore.  Since I already knew how to sew, I felt confident that I could apply what I’d learned about color and design to fabric.

“100 Prayer Flags,” 85” x 85”, each unit 8” x 8”; mixed materials, including fabric, Mylar, paint, canvas, laminated paper, stitching.

PM: At first I continued painting while experimenting with fabric and thread but gradually, with two small children and limited space, I focused on stitching and appliqué. In the late 1960s my husband and I made Christmas cards with silver Mylar, which was just coming onto the market after being developed for NASA. When I found that Mylar could be sewn by machine, I began an ongoing body of work.

“4 Prayer Flags,” each unit 8” x 8”; mixed materials, including fabric, Mylar, paint, canvas, laminated paper, stitching.

PM: Before that, I had been making “soft sculpture” with fabric but was creating geometric forms and didn’t like the way stuffing distorted them. Mylar with vinyl backing was stiff enough to retain a 3-D form without stuffing. I constructed a lot of wall hangings from 3- and 4-sided pyramids, sometimes inverting the centers so they became concave. I also did a series of rhomboids constructed of hexagons and squares. Sometimes these had exteriors of plain linen fabric with shiny Mylar inside.

TSGNY: Was this 3-D work your first prolonged venture into using textile processes in your art practice?

PM: In the ‘70s I learned how to weave, but was never at home with a process that I couldn’t take apart in the middle. I did work with basketry though, and loved the way a form could grow in my hands. I made baskets for more than 10 years, first with yarn and waxed linen, then with natural materials, some from my yard. In the early ’80s, I started writing about fiber and other craft media, and no longer had the stretches of meditative time that basketry needed. So I refocused on the incremental process of Mylar constructions. Eventually I felt the need for color and texture in combination with the metallized Mylar, so I began to add painted canvas and collage elements.

“Cloth of Honor,” 59” x 54”; Mylar, fabric (some hand-dyed), thread, machine and hand stitching.

TSGNY:  How would you describe your current process?

PM: I use many different cloth-like materials—commercial cotton fabrics, painted canvas, Mylar, laminated plastics—anything my sewing machine can handle. Generally I produce a lot of elements that become my raw materials—e.g., canvas shapes painted with acrylics; collages, Gocco prints, fabrics that have been discharged, blueprinted, screen- or transfer printed—initially not knowing how they’ll be used. Recently I’ve been experimenting with encaustic in combination with cloth. Often a piece begins with recognition of unexpected relationships between some elements.

“Alternating Currents,” 48” x 48”; Mylar; fabric; paint; screen-, digital-, and transfer-printing; found materials, leather, hand and machine stitching, collage.

TSGNY: Can you give an example of this kind of unexpected relationship?

PM: I once decided to start a quilt with no plan except to follow a prescription I’d heard in a talk by a Russian icon painter: “Always start with the gold.” The first thing I sewed to a canvas backing was a square of fabric covered with gold leaf and an appliquéd image of an eye from an old painting. As I intuitively added more elements, I picked up some black and gold “tiger-printed” fabric, because of its color.  I realized that vertical tiger stripes resembled flames, and then saw a connection between those and the eye and the William Blake poem: Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/In the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry? From then on, the piece seemed to take off on its own; the solution to every problem brought it more in line with the poem.

“Window,” 45” x 30”; Mylar, fabric, paint, thread.

TSGNY: Do you feel your choice of materials has posed any particular challenges?

PM: When I pick up a new material, I try to “listen” for what it’s capable of becoming.

“Window” (detail)

PM: The kind of Mylar I liked disappeared from the market, so I had to look for alternative materials. I’ve tried a lot of new things and now want to take some beyond the experimental stage. At present I’m working on a series of small squares (8” x 8”) inspired by the illuminated pages in the new Art of the Arab Lands section at the Met. I’m also exploring ways of working with encaustic and fabric. Sometimes, even if I’ve found a satisfying approach, I challenge myself to see what else is possible so as not to get too comfortable.

“Fugue” (accordion book), 7” x variable dimensions; plastic, paper, thread, laminated and sewn.

TSGNY: Can you give an example of challenging yourself once you’d become comfortable?

PM: A few years ago I purchased a desktop laminator at a yard sale. I started laminating shredded paper that was used as packing material and torn-up pages from art magazines. The stiffness of the laminated sheets suggested the possibility of 3-D constructions, so I began a series of free-standing geometric forms with an architectural feeling. I’d like to be more adventurous with these, making them larger and more complex.

“Cathedral,” 7” x 11” x 6”; plastic, paper, thread, laminated and sewn.

TSGNY: Has your experimentation with materials enabled you to do things you had not been able to do as a painter?

“Terre Verte,” 47" x 43”; fabric, paint, Mylar, transfer prints.

PM: Since I stopped making paintings, I’ve been interested in broadening the range of materials that can be incorporated into textile art. But compared with painting on stretched canvas, one big advantage of fiber is that you can create large wall pieces that can be rolled up and moved around easily.

TSGNY: Has working with these particular materials changed your artistic intent?

“Heroes” (artist book, open), 27” x 27”; fabric, Mylar, paint, leather, found materials, screenprinting, stitching.

PM: At the time I studied art, there was an emphasis on the nature of materials rather than on articulated concepts or representation of subjects. I still seem to start out with a question of what can happen with a particular approach.

“Heroes” (artist book, closed), 9” x 9” x .75”

PM: One thing that fascinates me is how artwork accrues meaning in the process of creating it. Inevitably, it reflects something of the circumstances surrounding its making.

TSGNY: Can you expand on this phenomenon in your own work?

PM: Some time ago, the Gayle Wilson Gallery in Southampton, NY, offered a challenge in collaboration with the American Silk Company. I was among 65 artists who received 2 yards of white silk to “do something with.” I had never worked with silk, but thought of making a piece inspired by silkworm cocoons. I visited a silk museum and looked at lots of photographs in books, but couldn’t find a satisfactory approach. Putting my original intention aside, I dyed small silk squares in dozens of colors, and just started playing. I arrived at a simple form with silk outside and Mylar inside, and arranged multiples of these in Plexi boxes. They looked like mounted butterflies, and then I remembered that a silkworm allowed to complete its cycle would become a moth.

More recently, I experienced a major creative block after 9/11. Everything I started with my usual materials ended in failure. Finally, during an artist residency, I decided to discharge a large batch of black fabric. As I moved the resulting black-and-white patterns around, I found a resonance with the feelings I hadn’t been able to express.

“Cité Noir,” 27” x 33” (mounted on board); fabric, Mylar, discharge, transfer prints, screenprints, appliqué.

TSGNY: Finally, are there any living artists who inspire you whose work you feel we should know about but may not have heard of?

PM: One of my favorite places to visit is the Rubin Museum—I am always inspired by the colors and complexity of Himalayan paintings and textiles. Recently I’ve gone out of my way to see exhibitions of Kiki Smith’s work—it’s completely unlike anything I would ever do, but I love the reach of her imagination. In our own field, I have a lot of admiration for artists who started their careers in weaving or other fiber disciplines and have moved into the larger art world while keeping a connection to their textile beginnings. I’m thinking of people like Anne Wilson, Warren Seelig, Tracy Krumm, Norma Minkowitz, who are doing major work that could not have been conceived without an understanding of textile construction.  I believe these artists are expanding the language of artmaking as a whole.

TSGNY: Thank you, Patricia. You can see more of Patricia’s work  in “Refuse/re-seen” at Some Things Looming (juried by Warren Seelig), Reading, Pennsylvania, April 14-June 2.   She was an exhibitor in TSGNY’s Crossing Lines and has a piece traveling with an exhibition of artists whose work is included in Masters: Art Quilts, Vol, 2 by Martha Sielman.  Her work is also included in Fiber Art Today by Carol K. Russell and appears on the website of the Surface Design Association.

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Kathy Weaver: Navigating the Uncanny Valley

TSGNY: Would you describe your work as fiber art?

Kathy Weaver:  I use both traditional fiber techniques and ones not normally associated with fabric. I delight in the quilt and appliqué techniques used by my grandmother and mother.  But essentially, technique is a means to convey ideas and I want the viewer to look beyond the technique to the content.

"Robo Sapien Agent 5,"2006, 44” x 44”, Airbrushed, machine quilted, embellished.

KW: Since my subject matter is often robots and ideas generated from the field of artificial intelligence, I deliberately chose airbrushing in order to render in a mechanistic way, without evidence of the artist’s hand.

Preparations for airbrushing.

TGSNY:  What kind of work did you do before you started airbrushing?

KW:  I was a painter, and still am. I use gouache and egg tempera. I sometimes paint vignettes on canvas and attach them to my textile work. Sometimes I draw and paint directly onto the fiber. Airbrushing seemed like a natural evolution. As an art teacher in the public schools I loved exploring materials and trying new media with my students, so taking up another instrument, the airbrush, as a means to paint, was not intimidating to me. It seemed perfect for the robots’ “skin.”  So I enrolled in an airbrush class at a local college where I learned how to airbrush on motorcycle helmets, gas tanks, fish and bird decoys, and taxidermy forms.

Airbrushing

KW: I’ve always loved the advertising designs and coloring of the era I grew up in.  Many of these ads were airbrushed rather than photographed. I also like the look of medical illustrations as well as cutaways and schemas for products and product parts. When I was young we had the run of an electronics factory with which my dad was associated and I loved seeing the engineer’s drawings and how-tos, as well as the renderings of the final products, usually transformers or TV components.

“Cyborg Female 5: Stripped of Instinct,” 2004, 90” x 54”, Satins, silks, velvets, airbrushed, hand embroidered, hand quilted.

TSGNY: When you’re in your airbrushing gear, you certainly look as much scientist as artist. Can you walk us through the steps of your process?

KW:  I compose the work in one of two ways.  I may create a small color drawing which I enlarge by means of a projector onto a large piece of paper. Or I work intuitively directly on the bridal satin, the substrate for the textile paints. I use white bridal satin for my work…and sometimes black. In the first method, I use the full-scale drawing as a cartoon, tracing each section or division of color onto freezer paper. Then I tape all these pieces together like a giant puzzle and iron it onto the fabric.  I methodically remove the hundreds of taped pieces and proceed to airbrush each section one at a time, lifting off to airbrush and re-ironing, lifting off, re-ironing, until the piece is finished. With this method the work is always covered by paper so that I must imagine the colors as I airbrush. After the last tiny piece is airbrushed, I peel the paper away to reveal the finished work.

Airbrushing with stencils

KW: With the second method I use masks and stencils and can see the work as it progresses; the image develops as I paint.  Although airbrushing looks very spontaneous, it is a laborious process requiring great patience. There is little leeway for mistakes; the process is akin to the layering, additive process of watercolor painting.

“Mimetic Concerns,” 2010, 44” x 57”, satin, airbrushed, hand quilted.

TSGNY: Are there other challenges to the airbrushing process?

KW: Yes, mainly involving proper ventilation. When I built my studio I installed a ventilating system and I stand under the hood of the vent to paint. My environment is this: I wear a respirator, protective clothing, gloves, and shoe coverings, while standing under a noisy ventilating hood. The airbrush’s hose is plugged into a compressor, which, although called “Silent-aire,” hardly is. With all my gear on, I look pretty robotic myself.  All this tends to separate me from my surroundings, which in turn places me in a different mental space. In order to communicate with anyone I must remove all my gear and step away from the area. In this bubble I feel very free to create. It’s just me, my decisions, and my “canvas”; time passes in a different way.

“Strategic Alliance,” 2008, 48” x 55.5”, Satin, airbrushed, hand quilted.

TSGNY: How does the range of materials you incorporate enhance the body of your work?

KW:  I love working with a variety of materials. Some of my favorite Chicago Imagist artists, H. C. Westermann and Karl Wirsum, showed their stuff and told their stories using a wide variety of materials. What my fabric pieces, drawings, paintings and sculptures have in common is the theme of robotics, nano robots or artificial intelligence.

“Habeas Corpus: The Great Writ,” 2008, 35” x 68”, Cottons, nylon line, airbrushed, hand-stitched.

KW: The various materials overlap and enhance one another. For example, the charcoal drawings I am doing at the Rehabilitation Institute are translatable to thread line via embroidery, yet the finished drawings stand alone and have been exhibited in that form. The toys that I deconstruct and transform into robots are kinetic sculptures, yet use fabric and texture to express themselves. The larger papier-mâché sculptures have sensory devices, recordings, embroidery, and airbrushing.

“LMR VII (Mother),” 2009, 59” h x 24” w x 16”d, Fiber, papier mâché, found objects, horsehair, metal, sound and light, airbrushed, embroidered.

KW: The sculpture LMR VII (Mother) is airbrushed on fabric, with embroidery. The appendages and head are papier-mâchéd and airbrushed. The head has sensors so that when a viewer approaches a recording is activated. Also, a door in the back of the head opens and a light is activated, revealing a scene in the inside of the head.

“LMR XII (Captain Le Rocher),” 2011, 12” h x 12” w x 3”d, Bronze, airbrushed, embroidered, painted.

KW: Recently I have been making some bronze sculptures in a stage-like setting. In the sculpture LMR XII (Captain Le Rocher) I cast the bronze figure using the lost-wax process. The background of the box is airbrushed satin, which is also embroidered and quilted. The outside of the box is airbrushed and also painted with egg tempera.  The sculptures reiterate the 2D robot quilts but have the added feature of the solidity of the bronze contrasted with the fragility of embroidery, the machine-made futuristic look of my bronze robots contrasting with the labor-intensive stitchery that reminds us of another era.

TSGNY: Would you say there’s an ongoing tension between the presence of the “hand” in the textile processes you employ and the deliberate absence of the hand you’re going for with the airbrush?

KW: In all the work there is an incongruity in the use of soft material for hard objects and sharp thoughts. The embroideries show a duality between the softness and familiarity of satins and threads and the complexity of forms from organic chemistry, cellular biology and engineered robots. The labor-intensive hand embroidery has a feeling of slow Penelopian rhythms, reminding us of a distant pre-technoid era.

“Fire Slinger,” 2010, 48” x 46”, Satin, airbrushed, hand embroidered, hand stitched.

KW: There is also an eerie incongruency in the fact that humans often relate very personally to technological devices, particularly those in which they have a relationship born out of necessity. I am currently drawing patients and devices at The Robotic Lab at The Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago, a hospital and research facility for traumatic injury victims.

Much of my work has been about the military-industrial complex and the amount of money, not to mention human waste, that goes into the management of war. I was appalled at the number and kinds of injuries being sustained by civilians and vets during the Iraqi and Afghan wars, so I decided to do some research, which led me to The Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago. This research facility and hospital is doing amazing work in advanced prosthetic devices. The majority of their patients are not war victims, as those patients would most likely be treated at VA hospitals. The people I am observing and drawing at this facility are victims of traumatic injury. (If they are victims of war I don’t have access to this information.) I am currently drawing in the hand lab, which is receiving funding for research from the government for the advanced development of prosthetics.

TSGNY: How do you view this particular form of human-robot interaction, compared to your earlier depiction of robotics?

KW:  I have the utmost respect for the roboticists and bio-engineers and doctors there who are working so hard trying to make life a bit more palatable for traumatic-injury victims. Mostly, in my drawing sessions of patients who are testing devices, I am humbled by the incredible energy and mindset it takes for them to adapt to their disabilities. The patients are awesome in their perserverance to get some mobility back.  As for the traumatic brain injuries, I do not have access to these patients. It would be too disorienting and interruptive of their concentration for me to be in the room drawing while they are working on devices. Words cannot express how sad it is to see young adults being totally cared for by their parents.

“Biomechatronics Development Lab 2,” 2010, 27.5” x 33.5”, charcoal pencil on paper.

KW: As for how I view this form of human-robot interaction — I would have to say with mixed feelings. I am inspired by the technological advances and the people making that happen, and appalled that we need this effort. Both come out in my work, by trying to do beautiful drawings (which will become embroideries/mixed media on fiber) of the patients and devices I am observing, and, concurrently, by doing a series of airbrushed quilts of “disaster” robots about the ravages of war on people and the environment inspired by Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.”

It’s the juxtaposition, the contrast of where we’ve been and where we are going, that I highlight by using both a needle and thread and the airbrush. As in science, in my art and in life, things are never what they first appear to be. Upon closer inspection, more is always revealed.

TSGNY: Finally, are there artists who inspire you whose work you’d like us to know about?

KW: Most of my inspirations come from the ideas of other artists rather than their medium or techniques. I love the work of William Kentridge and Sue Coe. After seeing a recent show of Lia Cook’s work at Duane Reed  in St. Louis and talking with her about the differentiation between her dolls and humans, I felt an affinity or parallel to the border crossings between my robots and the human condition I am expressing. This is the “uncanny valley” that I am continuously exploring — so oftentimes, what scientists write interests me much as what I see.

TSGNY: Thank you, Kathy. You can find more of Kathy’s work at her gallery and on her website, where you will also find her extensive current exhibition schedule.

“Simian Interface,”2003, 42” x 59”, Satins, cottons, egg tempera.

 

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Katherine Knauer: Tampering with Tradition

TSGNY: How do you describe your art process?

Katherine Knauer: I’ve been a craftsperson my entire life and a quiltmaker since 1976.  In 1984 I discovered that I could print my own fabric designs with stencils and achieve a much more specific, personal result than with commercial fabrics.  I could design and print a group of fabrics depicting various aspects of one theme and piece those together for a quilt with a specific viewpoint.  I’ve been handprinting fabric since then. In 2009 I taught myself to use Photoshop in order to use an online fabric printing service called Spoonflower. Each quilt I make reflects a specific topic, usually taken from news headlines.  I’m currently working on a series of pieces about environmental concerns.

"Second Wind," from the Elements/Environment Series, 2010, 88” x 88”

KK: In “Second Wind,” all the surface fabrics that I digitally designed were printed using Spoonflower.  The theme of wind energy is illustrated in each print by images of wind turbines or dandelion seeds blowing in the wind or electrical devices such as lightbulbs, electric fans or power cords.  Wind is further represented by the color blue, and electricity by the color yellow.   And then extensive surface embroidery enlivens the rather flat surface.

Before the Elements/Environment series, I made quite a few quilts on the subject of war. I believe the unexpected juxtaposition of a traditional craft associated with comfort and warmth and disquieting imagery brings an extra layer of energy to my work.

"Conventional Forces," 1986, 84” x 84”

KK: In Conventional Forces, a “conventional”  (traditional) quilt pattern – a Log Cabin variation – has been adapted to accommodate textiles I designed and printed with images of “conventional” (non-nuclear) war.  I handprinted all the fabrics with stencils. I selected the piecing pattern to accommodate relatively large sections of printed fabrics.

"Conventional Forces" (detail), 1986, 84" x 84"

KK: The centerpiece of this quilt is a large image of a tank type used in Vietnam.  Other printed images used as repeat-pattern textile design include paratroopers, a concentration camp, soldiers in formation, falling bombs, rows of M-16 guns arranged in a herringbone pattern, jungle fighters, hand grenades, tanks, aircraft and wounded soldiers.  In two of the patterns, commercially printed fabrics are overprinted – a pattern of barbed wire over camouflage fabric, and burning buildings on another print.  The reverse side of this quilt is a stenciled hand-grenade design that took three days to print.

"Conventional Forces" (detail of reverse), 1986, 84” x 84”

TSGNY: With Photoshop in your design toolkit, and subjects like war and the environment, do traditional quilt patterns still have a role to play in your work?

KK: I love textiles and find traditional geometric quilt patterns irresistible.  The history of the patterns is fascinating – the titles reflect not only their appearance but what was on the maker’s mind or events of that era:  Whig’s Defeat, Drunkard’s Path,  LeMoyne Star,  Jacob’s Ladder, New York Beauty, etc.   When I use a traditional pattern in my work I am referring both to the historic pattern title and the possible meanings behind it. For example, “Streak O’ Lightning,” a zig-zag pattern, to me means something that happens in an instant and changes your life forever.  I’ve used it to represent sudden death, the destruction of war, and recently to represent electricity in a quilt about wind energy for the environmental series.

TSGNY: In spite of your serious subject matter, your patterns and images could be characterized as cartoony.  Is that intentional?

KK: It’s the way my style emerged from the get-go. I may have been influenced by the coloring books of my childhood.  I like areas of color to have distinct, crisp edges; I like heavy outlines.  I also love the look of woodblock prints and the silkscreened travel and propaganda posters from the 1920s and 1930s.  And stencil printing is particularly good for limited detail and large areas of a single color.

Stencil Printing

TSGNY: Do you get a different result from the hand-stencil process and from Spoonflower?

KK: Yes.  With hand stenciling I’m able to overprint commercial fabric and print over seams.  The color is deeper and more permanent.  I can have the resulting fabric the same day. And by using an airbrush or spray gun I can get an ombre effect or translucent effect and cover large areas. (My first air compressor sounded like a jet plane taking off and was very distracting.  I sold it and bought a “Super Silent” compressor when I was awarded a cash grant from the Empire State Crafts Alliance in 1988.)  In “Trouble in the Tropics,” for example, I achieved the translucent paint effects by lightly overspraying stencil prints in sections of a quilt that was made following our vacation to South America.  Each “postcard” monoprint depicts an unfortunate event that might befall a vacationer in the tropics.

"Trouble in the Tropics" (detail), 1990

KK: The benefits of using Spoonflower are unlimited yardage and the ease with which I can change size, proportion, color and other design elements.  I can preview my fabric in various repeat formats.  It’s easy to correct mistakes and to reorder.  I can have lots of little details and an unlimited color palette.  It’s also just fun to play around on the computer using Photoshop.

TSGNY: If you’ve tried other media, and are clearly not averse to modern technology, why do you stick with quilts?

KK: Quiltmaking allows me to create large, colorful pieces while working in a limited space. (I have a great studio now, but for years, the exigencies of family life in an apartment squeezed my quiltmaking into whatever compact space was available.)  I love being part of a craft tradition, and feel a great kinship with the lacemakers, seamstresses, weavers, knitters and quiltmakers of previous generations.  I also have a terrific support group among my quilting pals.

TSGNY: After the design excitement of the processes that go into the surface layer, how do you think about the part of the work that ties you most closely to that craft tradition: the quilting itself, the stitching that joins the three layers of the quilt together?

KK: Semper Tedium!  (An invented pseudo-Latin phrase meaning:  Long live the labor-intensive artistic process!)  The quilting is the payoff after making the top of the quilt.  The process is hypnotic, meditative and trance-inducing, especially when combined with a good audiobook.

TSGNY: A motto to live by! Finally, are there artists who influence you whose work you’d like us to know about?

KK: I love Mark Bradford‘s huge exuberant collages with permanent wave endpapers and paint. Philip Taaffe’s multi-layered, over-printed paintings are mysterious, hallucinatory and beautiful.  Nick Cave’s “soundsuits” are simultaneously playful and imbued with deep personal meaning.  Ditto for the stitched constructions of Charles LeDray, whose ethic of “work, work, work, work, work” strikes a chord with me. I visit museums several times a week and find living in NYC an endless banquet of visual inspiration.

TSGNY: Thank you, Katherine.

You can see more of Katherine’s work here; at the TSGNY exhibit “Crossing Lines”; and in  “Material Witnesses,” at The Art Quilt Gallery, 133 West 25th Street, NYC, November 15, 2011 – January 7, 2012.

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