I've been ready to pop all week wanting to share this interview with y'all! Before we get started, let's cover an important order of business:
NOTE BENE: Kathy's quilts, particularly her quilt "I Was Not Wearing a Life Jacket," are at the center of a censorship controversy related to the American Quilt Society Quilt Week (currently in Chattanooga). Kathy's quilts are ART. They ask us to think, to stare in the face of difficult things, and in doing that, Kathy depicts the human body (female in the examples of this blog). If that will bother you, kindly skip this entry. If you read on and are disturbed or challenged, I welcome conversation, but I ask you to be kind, professional, and generally grown up. Any comments that are gross, rude, derogatory, etc (here and on social media) will be unapologetically deleted. This is a forum of conversation, but ain't nobody got time for ugliness.
If you're in the quilty world, I'm guessing you know about the AQS pulling Kathy Nida's quilts from the Studio Art Quilt Associates exhibit, Art Quilt Portfolio: People and Portraits, at Grand Rapids Quilt Week. Since everyone and everyone has asked Kathy about "I Was Not Wearing a Life Jacket" and "Fully Medicated," I want to look at that only briefly because Kathy's work is so much more, and she has amazing thoughts to share about my passion topic-- the collision of and conversation between the worlds of arts and quilts and makers of all sorts.
In preparation for posting this blog today, I drove to Chattanooga on Wednesday to visit SPOOL, home of the Bad-Ass Quilter's Society, to see Kathy's quilts as well as attend the AQS Show. I had listened to the FABULOUS CraftSanity interview with Kathy (which, if you don't know what happened, etc, the CraftSanity blog post and podcast are a great place to catch up/ learn about all of that), so I had a good understanding of the stories behind each quilt. I appreciated Kathy giving viewers permission to be uncomfortable with the content of her quilts. She's right, sometimes art asks us to be uncomfortable in order to ask us to think. When I arrived at SPOOL (which, super shout out to Maddie and her crew for being the sweetest, most welcoming, fun quilters that I met ALL DAY), I expected to be impressed by Kathy's quilts, but, full disclosure, I expected to be uncomfortable because, first, they ask tough questions, and second, I guess I might as well own up that I don't always know how to respond to nudity in art (Though having two unmedicated births and breastfeeding two kiddos sure has helped! ha!).
Y'all, I couldn't take my eyes off of them. They're beautiful, and photos don't do them justice. They still ask hard questions, but Kathy is truly a master of her craft, using comic relief (at least that was how I interpreted the teacup on a stool and a few other surprises in "I Was Not Wearing A Life Jacket") to keep the eye moving and searching even as one processes the rest of the piece. The other surprise was how "Fully Medicated" resonated with me personally in light of my own journey of Postpartum Depression and Hubster's Type 1 Diabetes. It was kind of like seeing all my insides up on a wall for everyone to ponder, but in the best of ways.
I did ask Kathy if she had any additional thoughts she'd like to share about the whole mess. She said, "Well. I’ve kinda moved on. Because those people are always there and I’m not going to stop making art because they got their panties in a twist. AQS…well, I was worried when SAQA first told me it was touring with them. It’s too bad that they have to be that narrow-minded, because for every woman who imagined a penis, there was at least one more who had never seen anything like that before and might be inspired to move toward making art quilts. I do know that Chattanooga is this week, and I was a bit sad when I saw the announcement on SAQA’s email…kind of because I wanted it to say “People and Portraits without Kathy Nida” but then I got over it and kept working on the newest quilt. So f*** ‘em. To put it bluntly."
And if you're curious what I think-- I think Kathy is a boss, and I think it was a poor decision for the AQS to pull Kathy's quilts and an even poorer decision to offer essentially no explanation or apology. However, after attending the show this week, I'm not terribly surprised by their actions. I'll explain more about what I mean by that on Monday when I reflect more fully on my time at Quilt Week (which really was amazing--I just also made a few interesting observations) because we have to get to the exciting part of this whole post: KATHY NIDA!!
As I mentioned above, I heard Kathy on the CraftSanity podcast from August 21st. I think I listened to it shortly after the first of September and fell in love with Kathy's passion for art and quilting and bringing those worlds together-- after all, that is a huge part of my desire for this blog, FriYAY Friends, and what I talk about on Instagram! I emailed her the very next morning and could have died from happiness when she agreed to talk with me.
1) Tell us a little about yourself, your job, your family, and your creative background.
I was raised by parents who encouraged me to make art. I’ve taken art classes since I was little. When I went to college, I double-majored in art and comparative literature (a very useful degree, let me tell you). I kept making art after college, and that eventually turned into what I do now. I was an editor also, to make money (because art usually doesn’t make money). When my two kids were relatively young, I got my teaching credential because I thought I could sub and make some money, but still be around for the kids. I was freelance editing from home by then, and the work was drying up just because the business was changing. Unfortunately, right as the kids started school, I got divorced, so being a teacher became a full-time job (that sucks a LOT of time every day). It’s taken me a while to balance the artmaking and the teaching responsibilities (and the parenting on top of all that), but I’m pretty good at it now. It might help that both kids are in college and live miles away.
2) You have a fine art degree-- what did you specialize in? What drew you to that/ those medium(s)?
When I was in college, I focused on printmaking, ceramics, and photography. I’ve never been a great painter and I don’t really enjoy it, but printing used my drawing skills for etching and then screenprinting took over my brain. I actually made and exhibited screenprints in the years after college, shipping them to galleries around the US. If you look at how I make quilts, you can see the screenprinting sensibility: every shape has to be a closed shape so you can print it. In fabric, you need to be able to cut it out. Same deal.
Ceramics is all about the touch of the clay. I still miss handbuilding and when I’m around ceramicists, it’s very hard not to go back to it. But I don’t have the time to do more than one type of art at the moment. Photography was easy…it was just trying to take what I saw and show people a different view of it…I spend a lot of time taking in things visually and photography was a way to document it. I did Education Abroad for a year in college, in Aberystwyth, Wales, and although the university art program was very traditional in style, I also took classes from a local art center in fabric: weaving, batik, I don’t even remember what. I liked those classes better in many ways.
3) I remember you grew up around sewing and textiles. Can you share a bit more about that? How did you transition from "fine art" to "quilting"? (I'm using scare quotes because I think that line is actually very fuzzy and should probably be very nearly erased, but for the sake of distinction...) What did you find attractive about painting with fabric?
I’ve been sewing since I was 8. I made my own clothes in middle and high school (not necessarily a good thing). My mom was a weaver. So I’ve always had a fiber attraction. When I moved down to San Diego, I found this quilt class, where I did my first traditional (ha! It wasn’t traditional!) quilt. The same teacher taught me hand applique, which I loved, but it took way too long to make art. I picked up crazy quilting and all the embroidery that went with it, but I was also being exposed to art quilts…one of the first art quilt shows I saw was a traveling exhibit of Quilt National that was local…years ago. I wanted to make stuff like that. I took classes from a wide variety of teachers and honed in on how I liked to make quilts…a cross between Joan Colvin, who just cut pieces, pinned them down, and then sewed over them (ouch! All those pins!), Laura Wasilowski (oh hallelujah, fusing!), and my own take on how to make what was in my head come out in fabric. There is a direct line from what I was doing in screenprinting to what I now do in fabric, so that line between quilting and fine art does not exist at all for me. The only difference is that I’ve moved from paper fiber and ink to textile fiber dyed by ink. I like the texture and the pattern. The 3D quality you get from quilting. Plus I also switched from screenprinting to quilting because I could take it places. So once the kids were born, it was a lot harder to do screenprints. You needed concentrated blocks of time to print, and I never had those. I could pick up fabric anytime, anywhere (when I was doing handwork).
4) How is your process with quilting similar to or different from other arts you've done?
See above. I think the way I see things is the same, and the way I observe the world when I photograph is the same, except now most of it isn’t a product…it’s just stored as ideas in my head for future quilts. Many of them started largely in a dream world as well, and that hasn’t changed over the years…a lot of my work comes from what I see in the middle of the night and wake up with. I still draw with pen on paper…I’ve done that all along. And that’s all my etchings really were, drawings on paper.
5) I would like to see more conversation between quilters and other artists. What do you think would be the benefit of community like that? Any ideas on how we can encourage it?
I am a quilt artist who often sits right between those two worlds, not quite fitting into either. Many quilters think my stuff is weird or too arty, and tell me I belong in a gallery or a museum. But the art world thinks I am too mired in the craft world because I use fabric and I make quilts. I really need the two worlds to get along better. I personally talk to artists (and quilters) all the time. I think exposing traditional quilters to all that is possible with fabric gives them so many more opportunities and ways to be creative. Some of them might not even think about making an art quilt if they didn’t see them. And the art world sometimes needs to get the elitist stick out of their butt and admit that canvas is a fabric and there are many ways to make art, not just the standard ones we’ve used for years. Techniques from the craft world should be more accepted. Then again, many quilt artists need a bit more of the art world to inform their practice as well. I think the more that art quilters venture out into the art world and show in non-quilt venues, the more the art world might accept it as “real art.” We need to encourage the art quilt groups to continue down that road, getting exhibits into galleries and museums, as well as into the quilt circuits. Certainly I wonder after all this why some people are so hellbent on keeping us in our places: the traditional quilters not wanting to allow art quilts into their space and vice versa, the art world so certain there are only a few right ways to make art. I’m looking for a more inclusive world where people can express themselves via whatever medium speaks to them the most. And if you don’t like it, walk away.
I am lucky to be in a few art groups that aren’t fazed by my medium, so I get to have that experience. And then I meet people at those exhibits who didn’t ever think of a quilt as something like what I make, and they’re just amazed. Yes, many of them have to tell me that their grandmother quilted, but there’s a connection there with the tactile quality and the fabric that I think helps the public make meaning with the art, something they might not do as easily if it weren’t made of fabric.
After reading Kathy's responses, I had a couple more questions:
Why do you think some artists have trouble accepting what you do as art even though what you're essentially doing is amazing collage with fabric?
Because I’m using a woman’s craft to make art…and women aren’t even supposed to make art and quilts are supposed to go on the bed. There are lots of people who call my work art, but many of the bigger institutions have issues with it. The canon is still there: art is sculpture and paintings on canvas with oil and maybe acrylic.
Why do you think many quilters resist owning their work as art/ thinking of themselves as artists?
See that thing about women’s work. Women aren’t supposed to make art and be successful about it. It’s easier to just call it a hobby or a craft and then you don’t have to get into the Is It Art controversy. And many quilters don’t have an inherent ability to make good art. That doesn’t help. Even when I was in college, very few women artists were being taught. My art history class only had female artists because my teacher went out of her way to find them and show them to us. They weren’t in our textbook (and no, I’m not THAT old).
Kathy, I just really can't thank you enough! You have shared amazing skill, a great attitude, and many words of wisdom with us. I know I have a lot more thinking to do about creative communities and how to "cross-pollinate" between the arts and crafts with more excitement, grace, enthusiasm, respect, education, etc. Thank you!
Y'all, you can find Kathy at her website and on Instagram (all images in this blog are hers from Instagram unless specifically noted otherwise). Speaking of Insta, you can find me over there, too, @stringandstory. Please join in the community (that means follow me!) and conversation (leave comments!) and spread the word (Tag your friends!) about String and Story. I am both a maker and a storyteller, and I want to hear your stories, tell your stories, talk about the creative stories we all want to tell, and in a BIG way, invite makers of all mediums to sit at the same table and learn from and listen to one another.
I'll be back on Monday with some Quilt Week thoughts-- until then, I'll see you on Instagram! Go make something and tell a story!
All the hugs,