Catherine Kirsch has been sewing and creating with cloth for as long as she can remember. But it wasn’t until she discovered that she could create whole cloth as art – and she found her voice.
What inspires you to create?
I create as a means of self-expression and play with cloth and color. The Ukiyo-e woodcut prints of 18th an 19th century Japan inspire me. The term ukiyo-e translates to ‘pictures of the floating world which chronicled the lives of geisha, courtesans, sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors residing in the pleasure district of Edo (modern Tokyo.) I am especially drawn to the portraits of beautiful women made by Utamaro, Harunobu, Kiyonaga, and Shigemasa.
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What is so appealing is the careful layering of pattern and color on the figure. The color choices are often counterintuitive until I look more closely. The patterning on the cloth is also surprising and wonderful. I am also inspired by way Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Mark Rothko approach shape, mark-making and color. I have recently discovered the graphic sensibility of Hilma af Klint and the sexy, saturated color of paintings by Gerda Wegener.
Why textiles? Why surface design? How did you start?
I have been sewing all my life. As with many people who work with cloth and textiles, my mother and maternal grandmother introduced me to needlework. My mother was at ease sewing without a pattern and made living room drapery from designer sheets. In Paris, France, my grandmother opened a small shop making custom trousers for women, a garment coming into fashion after the Second World War. As a young girl, I made aprons by hand learning to gather the top edge with small stitches, even gathers and a finely stitched waistband.
Beautiful, luscious cloth and buttons and threads and ribbons have always seduced me. But I didn’t view sewing as an art form. It was utilitarian: a way to make things I wanted that were unique.
As an older adolescent, I made my own clothes often spending the weekend creating an outfit from a Vogue pattern to be worn to school on Monday. I liked unusual fabrics and once made a shift dress from a blue-green Indian bedspread that I paired with turquoise tights, a long strand of blue beads and orange shoes.
Sewing was, and still is, a source of comfort and focus when my life has been (or is) in upheaval. My mind is stilled and my attention focused on the whirring of the sewing machine, the hissing of the steam iron, and the satisfying sound of thread pulling through cloth. Concentrating on a project serves as a repose from everyday conflicts.
As a young mother, I discovered quilting suited my need for portable projects but I lost interest in cutting cloth in small pieces to create something new. When I discovered crazy quilting, I delighted in creating cloth that focused on texture, color and self-expression. I learned to embroider and started to consider the idea that sewing might have potential as an art form. When the art quilt came into my life, I could see that principles applied to abstract painting were also applicable to the pieces I was making. Line, shape, texture and color all had a place in the art quilt.
At about this time, Jane Dunnewold published Complex Cloth, a book presenting the notion that cloth can be a work of art in much the same way a canvas can be painted into a discrete whole. Cutting cloth was no longer necessary! Dunnewold pursued the idea that an artist could manipulate cloth layering dye, paint and imagery the same way as a painter. She called this art cloth.
Who has been the greatest influence on your work?
In 2007, Dunnewold became my teacher when I participated in an introductory course, later took an invitational independent study, and finally joined the Art Cloth Mastery Program from 2009 to 2011.
The rigor, attention to detail and nuance was very interesting to me and opened my mind to thinking as an artist. I discovered that I was a creative, original and innovative artist.
What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have as compared to people who are not creative?
Most creative makers are curious people who can tolerate ambiguity, embrace not knowing, enjoy the process of discovery, accept anxiety as part of the experience, are flexible thinkers and limit their expectations of the outcome.
How do you get unstuck creatively?
I have come to view creative blocks as opportunities to reflect without judgment or criticism. Sometimes a piece can become so precious the next step is almost impossible to take. When this happens I return to the experimental approach that brought it to life in the first place. When it is not clear what to do next, it is often ideal to do nothing without panicking. Stillness lets the next move arise from the unconscious mind. Fretting because I am not making, insures nothing will happen because creative solutions emerge from a relaxed state. So I go back to the beginning.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
My studio is a dedicated space on the third floor of my house. The largest room contains the worktable while the smaller room houses the dye table and sewing machine. The color profusion created by the pink walls, the deeply saturated Art Cloth panels and the colorful art postcards creates a warm and energized atmosphere where something interesting is happening.
What is your process for developing a series of work?
I am primarily interested in the process and development of a piece. When creating a series, I work in two ways. In the first way, I allow the process on the cloth to direct the next steps revealing its meaning at the end. In the second way, I start with an idea and, through writing, develop the tools to express that idea and then allow the process to unfold as it is meant to do.
I created a grid series in the first manner. I developed a tool from the orange fencing seen at construction sites and played with it until a direction emerged. This became a series as I explored ways to bring that grid to life in new and visually interesting ways.
The second, and current, series started with the intention to explore an idea. How could I express my thoughts and feelings about society’s unrealistic over-valuing and concomitant denigration of the female body? To begin, I wrote and used this as a tool to identify content and imagery. I excavated ideas in words I later translated into imagery. I focused on visual words and explored techniques and tools I could use to bring those images to life. As I worked, I kept copious notes about my process and used them to stay on track and to refresh my memory when I lost my way.
Color, texture, line and shape attract me. Exploring color and color theory in paint, ink and dye is very compelling and thrilling. Watching color change incrementally in a meticulously painted or dyed color wheel is fascinating and magical. Considering the infinite color permutations is staggering and marvelous.
Opening a Shibori cloth package after dyeing it can be a humbling and delightful experience. It is humbling when the dye and the cloth create an unexpected pattern or result. It is delightful when the dye, the cloth and I are working together! Mastering how cloth and dye work together is very interesting and keeps me engaged in the process.
I create texture with both dye and thread. Well-placed dye creates the illusion of depth and thread added makes a textile surface richer. I use Procion MX Dyes, Setacolor Fabric Paints and threads collected from many sources over my lifetime.
I make lines by folding the cloth and dyeing it using a Japanese technique called shibori. This resist dyeing practice involves binding, stitching, folding, twisting and compressing cloth. Folding and binding cloth is a way I create the lines for a grid, often as the first layer. Using thread, I draw with hand-sewn lines or highlight a shape to make another layer and add dimension.
What are you working on now?
As indicated above, I started a new series exploring my relationship with my body addressing the destructive aspects of the male gaze and my wish to reclaim ownership. The substrate is a two-dimensional kimono created in four panels stretched across a traditional kimono hanger.
Using plant imagery, I created silk screens and thermofax screens depicting a garden (exuberance) and a swamp (shame.) I intend to give expression to this idea creating 12 pieces representing all twelve hues on the color wheel. I am working on a red now.
Where can people see your work?
My work can be seen on my website, www.catherinekirsch.com.
The websites belonging to the Surface Design Association and the Art Cloth Network also show my work. Go to www.surfacedesign.org and www.artclothnetwork.com.
Interview posted October 2018
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