Kat Puente discovered art quilts and has never looked back. Take a close look at her work for the detailed stitching and other embellishments. Follow along with the stories her quilts have to share.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
By the age of 10 I knew I wanted my mom to teach me to sew my own clothes so I could have input into the styles and lengths I wanted. I begged her to teach me. My first piece was a peasant dress (circa 1970) and in my young eyes, it was beautiful! I made all my clothes throughout middle school, playing with different fabrics, and modifying patterns. In high school, I became interested in pottery and thought that I would be a great potter, but life comes in twists and turns.
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I soon found out that I was not made to sell my wares but instead to be a public-school teacher, which utilized a different type of creativity. I really loved working with kids and helping them find joy in learning, writing and reading. I even taught them some patterns and stitches, there is so much math, language and engineering around sewing; they loved it.
I continued to sew when I had a need and in 1993, I had a deep-boned need to make quilts. I found that the measuring, cutting, piecing and hand quilting calmed me and alleviated the stresses of the day. I enjoyed the process and thus, I made lots of quilts – for beds and to hang on walls. When I had no more walls left, I began making them for friends.
On a trip to the Houston Quilt Festival one year, I was mesmerized by the modern quilts and art quilts. So, I had to try those too! I soon was creating my own designs, playing with unusual borders, skewing some traditional designs and cutting holes in the middle.
Around 2009 my life took another turn and I found myself traveling to Liberia, West Africa to work with teachers. On my first visit, I noticed that they had no books, which of course, contributed to the low literacy rates. I held book drives and was able to get some discontinued reading and literature books from the school district I worked in to be shipped there. I shipped over 48,000 books and helped to set up 9 school libraries. During my trips I was able to meet some Liberian quilters, who do some amazing things with limited supplies. On my next trip there, I want to focus on working with those quilters.
When I retired from teaching, I met Susie Monday at a party and was fascinated with her art quilts as well as the art quilts that were showing up more and more at the Houston Quilt Festival. I could see the evolution and feel the pull to try my hand at those. I made three quilts and asked Susie to give me feedback. She said that I should enter all three in a local show. I felt smitten with the art form now and confirmed in my love for it. Two of the pieces were accepted and one of them won first place! I decided that I could do this and that I really wanted to. I’ve been making art quilts ever since and love every minute I spend entranced in the threads.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
I like to say that I’m in my experimental phase because I’m always wanting to try something new. One reoccurring theme however is trees. I love trees and forests so much that I moved from Texas to Oregon, where I could be surrounded by some of the most beautiful tall trees on earth. So, I can say I am called to make trees sometimes, especially when I need to feel the breezes and smell the outside in the calmness of my house.
I do tend to work conceptually, taking ideas from the world and saying something about them using fabric and thread. This leads me into some controversial territory, but I do believe we live in controversial times. My conceptual work tends to focus on ideas of equity and power, and sometimes on specific events that make me emotive and strong in conviction. I feel that speaking through my art is a way to channel my feelings into something tangible; to share them visually. I find the work therapeutic and a part of my authentic self. My goal is to try to get a viewer to hold gaze with the threads until the depth of an idea over-spills into their consciousness. From then, they dig deeper into the details. My quilts always have details.
I keep a journal nearby to write down ideas, words, quotes or sketches that make me feel something. Once a week I flip through the journal to see if there is anything that I want to develop visually. If I pick up an idea, I’ll brainstorm a list of words and then think on it for a few days while I come up with a visual idea.
I used to start making from there, but lately, with the help of a mentor, I have been planning out the piece so that my ideas aren’t just splashed on the fabric like a brainstorm, but instead act as a focused conversation with viewers. My background in teaching has always focused on literacy with the idea that the writing of a story is not merely done by the author, but also by the interpretation of the reader. The writer and the reader must converse around the ideas in a piece, to engage with its meaning. This is the type of conversation I want to create with my art.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I used to think I was all over the place, trying new techniques like mono prints, embroidery, using found objects, macrame, beading, and other techniques. Over time I have developed my work mostly around texture. I think that the hand embroidery and beading create texture in a bold way. I like the feel of fabric and thread, and with a focus on textures I can make movement and depth. I want the texture to be not just viewed, but felt in the soul. I want the lines to manifest feelings. I find myself touching the lines as I work, feeling them move in different ways on the fabric.
What do you do to develop your skills? How do you get better at what you do?
I’ve always been a believer that the more practice one has in an area, the better they get. So I try to be prolific now, working every day, learning about the craft and joying in a new idea.
I like taking classes to learn things that diverge directions. I like online learning as I can do it at my own pace in my own studio. I like in person and online classes, but I love the community most.
This past year, I’ve been working with a mentor, specifically on composition and finding my voice. We meet once a month and talk about what I’m working on. She’s also available during the month for feedback on a specific piece. I really do feel that I am actively working within my voice these days.
Where do you find your inspiration for your designs?
I take a lot of pictures with my phone, mostly of nature and interesting textures. This helps with my “design eye” and jumpstarts a lot of visual ideas. I really like listening to podcasts, and this is usually where my ideas about social justice come are inspired.
Does your work have stories to tell?
I feel that, quite often, the stories my art tells are a comment on our current world and its problems. Sometimes there’s a solution, and sometimes it is just commentary. I would really like to improve my storytelling so that the viewer sees the whole story in the way I intended.
How do you make time for creating? Do you try to create daily?
I live to create and love to be in my studio. I generally spend about 30 or more hours a week there. When I can’t work on my art, I tend to get a little grumpy because my studio is where I am most myself, there I am most able to be whatever I want to be.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I usually have a visual idea to start and then let the work evolve; however, I’ve found too often that when I finish a piece there are too many things I think to do later, one more detail that I want to add. Through my work with my mentor, I’ve been trying to plan a piece out enough so that I have a better composition with good balance. The details still come serendipitously as I create though. I find those are magical for me.
Are you a “finisher”? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I am a finisher; however, when I’m struggling with a piece, I set it aside and think about it from time to time figure out a solution to whatever the problem is at that moment. I only have about six UFO’s at any time, some for a couple of years and some for just a couple of months and I pull them out occasionally to renew my thinking, often with the intention of getting back into the project. I also have some finished pieces that I’m just not happy with, and might be found reassessing those as well.
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
I just know…like you know, like a good melon.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a large basement space which consists of two rooms. The large room has a large table made of closet doors on saw horses and is at a good level for standing and working. I also have a design wall with lots of drawers for storage. The other room has a large table with my machine. I wish I could say it is organized, but I can say that it is organized sometimes! In the midst of a project though, all bets are off.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
I love tools! I have scissors, wire cutters, jewelry pliers (for pulling needles through tough layers), cutting mats, irons, brushes, gelli plates, stencils, needles, and my Bernina. I have tons of found objects, beads and threads. I have been told that I have a thread addiction, but I just want the right thread at the right time whether for the machine or for hand embroidery.
I only use white or black cotton fabric, which I paint, stencil and print for color. I usually want a specific color or textural surface design, so designing my own fabric works best. Painting and printing on fabric is different than sewing and gives me the freedom to be expressionistic and carefree in the process.
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 like cool-looking things that I can put onto quilts. I’ve sewn bits of copper, wire, small jars, rocks, and cords onto quilts. When I find something that is intriguing, I pick it up and save it because I never know when that interesting piece will be needed.
Every now and then I will survey my found objects just to refresh my memory. Sometime it feels like finding it all over again, and I often come up with ideas for new pieces. See, my studio is a bit of a manifestation of ideas and things!
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
A few years ago, I became intrigued with using tulle. I used it to provide a translucent shading in a couple of quilts, but then I started weaving embroidery thread in and out of the holes and creating lines. String Theory was my first piece.
I played with abstract ideas on small pieces of fabric using paint in various values. Then I attached them to a large piece of tulle with hand-woven threads fixed throughout. I ended up making several of these pieces. The process evolved, and I would paint, bead and embroider the small abstract pieces to give them structure without a lot of weight and affix them to the tulle.
Do you enter juried shows? Do you approach your work differently for these venues?
During the pandemic, I decided to use the time to build a body of work. I made a goal to enter as many SAQA calls for entry as I could. I had a piece in the Connecting Our Natural Worlds exhibit and wanted to see if I could create another piece that would be accepted into a show. I found the prompts gave me a focus and direction and the deadlines gave me a timeline for the project. Within the two years, I entered about 8 shows and got accepted to SustainAbility. So again, I am encouraged to keep working at it.
I do look at all the Calls for Entry and try to come up with ideas. If I get an idea that looks fun to make, I make it. I try to think of a way to approach the call in a unique way, something all my own. I sketch out a basic composition and pick a color palette. From there I create the background, usually a whole cloth that has been painted and/or printed. Then I applique all the pieces and embellish with embroidery, beads and other found objects.
When was the first time that you remember realizing that you are a creative person?
I began to realize that I was creative in middle school when I began changing patterns and making small design tweaks to my own clothes. I also began taking art as an elective and was constantly bursting with ideas. I didn’t realize it then, but that idea generation was the heart of my creativity and thus, myself.
What traits, if any, do you think that creative people have as compared to people who are not creative?
I think everyone can be creative; however, many people do not use their creative muscles often enough. The main obstacle to creativity is perfection, which can squash creative thinking. Creative people tend to be people who see the possibilities. Creativity is problem solving. I believe that creatives are those that exercise their idea muscles often and then move forward in making those ideas real.
Tell us about your blog and/or website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I have a website because I was told I should and I do not keep up with it as I should; however, I found Instagram to be a great venue to get my work seen. Once a piece is finished, I take a picture of the full piece and several pictures of details. Then I post the detail pictures about once a day and on the last day, I post the full picture.
I began doing this with my social commentary pieces. I want to people to see the detail image and become curious. I want them to ask, “What is this? What does it say?” This goes along with the goal I have for people who are viewing my work. I want hold their glance long enough for them to be intrigued with what they are seeing and come closer to check out all the details. I want them to read the piece and think about the message and its connection to them in their world.
Learn more about Kat on her website
Follow Kat on Instagram
Interview posted March 2023