Karen Payton combines recycled textiles, paint, fabric scraps and stitch to create portraits inspired by hippies, love, music and joy. She shops thrift stores and transforms the fabric with bold colors inspired by Deadheads and that creative, free-flowing era.
Tell us a bit about you and what you do.
I celebrate hippies with fabric portraits made from old and new textiles that have been dyed, hand painted and stitched together.
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I work part time as an artist, part time as a mom and part time as a marketing manager. Living in beautiful southern California, I have been playing around with textiles since the 1980’s.
Have you always been creative? What is the first thing you remember making, and is it still around?
I have always loved colors and creating art. I remember finding a big ugly rock as a little girl and dragging it home and immediately seeing that it was not a rock at all but the face of an man with a beard – who just needed some color pencils and crayons to come alive.
Your work captures a particular time and outlook on life. What was it about the hippie era that had such a profound impact on you and your art?
I saw my first Grateful Dead concert when I was 16 and trying to establish my identity. I loved the music before I went to the show, so once I saw all the deadheads and how they were wearing brightly colored tie dyes and Indian prints I was drawn into the beauty immediately.
When I close my eyes and dance and listen to the music, it feels like home.
Were there other artists that combined repurposing, dyeing, drawing, applique and embroidery that you followed when you were starting out, or did you pull varied techniques together on your own?
My first influential artist was my textiles teacher, Renie Brisken Adams. Her embroidered pictures took my breath away (check her out!!!) and being in her textile studio was the absolute best part of my college classes. She was honest, funny, open minded and uniquely talented. She taught us how to turn drawings into stitched art.
After graduation, I found myself still wanting to stitch and create all the time. Because stitching is so time consuming, my work was small and hard to price to make it worth selling (and I was starting to develop hand pain). A really honest friend told me I had to think bigger.
I saw a piece in a gallery by Chris Roberts Antieau (she creates large applique folk art). I loved it so much – her work became the first original (and expensive) art I purchased. In the pre internet era, I went to the library to research her and found that she was featured in quite a few publications with notes about her techniques.
This helped me to think beyond hand stitching and to add in fabric pieces. I started by adding dyed fabric pieces to hand embroidered faces. My fingers have since decided they prefer I use colored pencils for the faces.
How have your techniques evolved over time? Hand stitch can take a physical toll. What strategies have you developed that allow you to continue to stitch?
Hand stitching for months at a time have taken a huge toll on my hands. I spent half a year recovering from my last bout of pain. This involved physical therapy and wearing hand braces at night.
Currently, I am on a break from hand stitching and I don’t know if I will return to it. I have opened myself up to the universe to help me find other ways to express myself – I went through a really insecure period wondering if anyone would find my work unique or special without it and also wondering if it would be any good again.
I had to really learn how to let go and just meditate and do yoga and be open to learning and growing.
Like many artists, you have an art degree, but I couldn’t help but notice the MBA on your CV. That’s not so typical. How does the MBA fit into your journey as an artist?
It’s been amazing to use my MBA as an artist. Most artists are also artrepreneurs so being a marketing geek has it’s perks. I actually love learning how to market art, how to use social media to reach fans. So I am constantly tweaking my website and dreaming up new ways to share my art with the world. I find this fun…and I love to help other artists as well!
If we were to look at the work you produced as an art student, would we see glimpses of your current work? Or are you now creating totally different pieces?
It’s very similar! I’ve just gotten better over the years. This is my first piece from an embroidery class. We were to take a photo and use our favorite artists for inspiration. This is me and my now husband based on the kiss from Gustav Klimpt.
Tell us about your creative space. Do you have a dedicated studio? How does it contribute to your process?
Very soon I will be moving into my first ever studio and I am so looking forward to it. My work involves many steps so there are a few “stations”. I have one for sewing, one for planning and sketching and drawing and one for fabric painting.
What is your favorite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
I currently have two favorite tools for my work. The first is the local thrift store! I can often find flat sheets for just a few dollars that are soft and pale in color and take to dye beautifully. The second is a Jacquard textile paint called dye-na-flow. It’s like watercolor for fabric. It comes in vibrant, bright colors and is so fun to play with on textiles.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, movies? What kind?
I love to listen to Abraham Hicks when I am first creating something. Then I can just scribble as I am focusing my attention on the law of attraction. When I am in the flow, foot tapping, colors splashing…I usually have on Greensky Bluegrass, The Be Good Tanyas, The Grateful Dead or Van Morrison.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
My pieces take soooo long to create. I sketch, then find the fabric, draw the face, do all the applique, paint, sew, paint more, draw more, etc. Usually it’s about 4-6 weeks per piece.
Because there are so many parts, it is a challenge to step back and see what the finished product will look like. And when it doesn’t look great, it’s a challenge to start over! A few weeks ago I took a big exhale and really let go. I took a piece I was not happy with (I had already redone parts of it multiple times) and cut it up!!! I reminded myself that its all about the creating and so who really cares how much time it takes.
As a creative individual, do you believe that you perceive the world differently from other people? Do you think that any unique thought processes are involved when you create something?
Over the summer I went back to basics and took classes at an art academy to really learn how to draw faces. I often have trouble listening to people talk because I am focusing on their bone structure and the rhythms and planes on their faces.
How do you seek out opportunities? Where do you sell your work?
I am on the path to becoming a full time artist so I am constantly seeking ways to get my work out into the world. I love to collaborate!
Often, I find friends to do shows with or use my art to promote other businesses. I am currently working with the promoter of a music festival, Skull and Roses. Last year I was able to do an installation at an art museum. I sell my originals and prints on my website, through Fine Art America, Folt Bolt and at gallery shows throughout the year.
Learn more about Karen Payton:
Interview posted January 2019
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